The ReSET - Baltimore: Avoiding an Urban Archipelago

7/5/17

Newt Fowler

Poverty not Displacement. I shared in my last column recent insight from the Brookings Institution that the economic reinvention of a community driven by New Economy companies does not have to come at the cost of displacing its poorest residents. Studying the University City district in Philadelphia, Jennifer Vey, the Brookings study’s author, highlights that the challenge isn’t about whether well-paying jobs are being created that can be filled by those with limited education or experience. The challenge is getting residents into those jobs. When the local community isn’t employed, the challenge is increased poverty not neighborhood gentrification.

Urbane Paradise. Richard Florida, a leading thinker in New Economy issues,recently tackled the same issue – the migration of tech companies from “soul crushing” suburban settings to diverse, creative, and vibrant urban centers – focusing on first tier cities. By reinventing such places as San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington and New York as tech centers, they’ve become the “unaffordable urban paradise”. The result, Florida warns, is perverse – “For many years, economists and mayors believed that high-tech development would ‘lift all boats.’ The reality is a new phase of winner take-all urbanism.” Florida notes that the loss of the middle class is the greatest in such tech driven metro areas. He argues for the same focus as Vey – on employing those being displaced in the decent well-paying jobs created by these companies.

Avoiding Spratly. Baltimore will not face gentrifying displacement of the scale going on in Oakland and Brooklyn. But the pull of diverse, creative, and vibrant urban communities to New Economy companies and their workforce is real. For Baltimore, it circles the harbor from Canton to Locust Point; working its way up the Charles Street corridor to places like Remington and Hampden; and gaining ground on the West Side with the University of Maryland and on the East with Hopkins. In Baltimore, like in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, an urban archipelago is forming – vibrant, dynamic communities are forming beside others increasingly struggling to gain access to the very jobs that can change their lives. As Vey suggests, the question isn’t whether gentrification displaces our poor; but whether we are willing to focus on how to ensure the communities most in need gain access to the jobs being created.

The Promise of Second Tier. Cities like ours won’t face the tsunami enveloping first tier cities and that actually saves us.That is if we are willing to ensure the communities most in need gain access to the jobs being created. Florida notes that “the middle-class share of the population shrank in a whopping 203 out of 229 U.S. metro areas between 2000 and 2014.” The first tier cities have already lost the battle to keep their middle class – we haven’t yet. As Vey notes about New Economy companies, a majority of jobs being created do not require a college degree. They are sufficiently well paying to enable meaningful improvement in the lives of families.The question isn’t whether Baltimore will remain attractive to New Economy companies. It’s whether Baltimore becomes an urban archipelago of promise for a few or a leader in reinventing our middle class.

With more than 30 years’ experience in law and business, Newt Fowler, a partner in Womble Carlyle’s business practice advises many investors, entrepreneurs and technology companies, guiding them through all aspects of business planning, financing transactions, technology commercialization and M&A. He chairs the Board of TEDCO and serves on the Board of the Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore. Newt can be reached at nfowler@wcsr.com.

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