It is a common story these days in states through America: the old industry has left, nothing has really come into replace it and the jobs are being created elsewhere. For a variety of cities like Winston-Salem, Tacoma, WA and others, it is a common but true story. With Super Cities like New York, LA, and San Francisco getting the bulk of the new jobs being created, how are middle-sized cities supposed to compete?

Bringing In New Jobs

The best way for cities to grow is to bring in new job creators and support the ones that they have in their growth. This is a challenge for cities around the country but for Super Star Cities, this is an easy thing to accomplish. All the elements are already there. For the middling cities, they need new employers the most but struggle the most in attracting them. A new major employer will bring in new workers, revitalize housing stock, and cause other new businesses to start. However, these cities are stuck in an interesting catch-22 because in order to get the things they need to attract new companies they need amenities and culture but those things aren’t likely to spring up without new economic circumstances.

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Amenities and Culture

One of the biggest problems medium-sized cities face is that with a few exceptions, they tend to be in places that aren’t culturally friendly to the new American culture springing up. These places are not places where diversity is celebrated or where people of color and gay people are welcome. Asking marginalized groups to move to these places to “make the change” is a difficult proposition.

Middle cities also struggle with attracting the amenities that people from more metropolitan areas are familiar with. It is hard to get companies to move to an area with hardly a yoga studio or fitness club nearby. Younger workers are not going to be as excited by the aging diners or lack of diverse dining options. When companies look to place a facility or move, this local culture is important because it will affect their recruitment.

Middle cities tend not to have mass transportation or be terribly walkable/bikeable and that limitation can force workers back into their vehicles and can cause extended commutes. This can be frustrating for workers who would like to spend less time commuting and more time living.

For many workers, there are a variety of factors that make for a good place to move. Moving to a middling city for just one employer often doesn’t make any sense. In a world where both spouses work, having plentiful jobs for both workers is important. Pile on top of that the need for good schools and the ability to switch jobs and most of these cities just can’t keep up.

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In this New York Times article, which inspired us to look into this trend among America’s cities points out, in two paragraphs that are far apart, that many of the middle cities saw their industry leave to China. This was true in Winston-Salem and in Bangor, Maine (both mentioned in the article). It is important to note that these middle cities all have one thing in common: they used to be homes for American industry. Now that the industry has left for Asia and elsewhere these cities are trying to figure out what to do next.

Globalization has hollowed out America in a variety of ways. From the arrival of Japanese cars in the early 1970s, American industry was bloated and inefficient and was easily cannibalized by cheaper labor overseas. Between globalization and automation, the American city is struggling to find a way forward, especially when the bulk of the tremendous economic growth in this country is happening elsewhere.

Advantages of Being a Middling City

There are some advantages to being a middling city in this country. One is the cost of living. In these discussions that is usually the primary focus: it’s simply cheaper to live there. For the cost-conscious who can find a job, this can be a great perk but there are big sacrifices to be made for that lower cost of living. For many workers, the poor schools, lack of culture, adverse political culture, and lack of plentiful jobs makes moving to these places a difficult proposition, even for the most budget-conscious person.

Middle cities can have some interesting things to offer. They are often great places to start businesses and startups. They are great for artists looking for low-cost places to create and get an early foothold. For many of these cities, they will most likely shrink over time, especially if they are near to a much better place to live. Some of them may even go on to be bedroom communities for bigger cities with the things workers crave. Modern work and economic growth are centering in just a few places. Cities that can’t attract that growth will likely continue to struggle in the future.