September 25, 2017; New York Times
The New York Times’ article “Nothing Is Too Strange for Cities Wooing Amazon to Build There” is a funny/sad tale about the lengths to which American cities will go to grab the attention of Amazon in its search for a new headquarters location. The article portrays the competition among cities in terms that Click and Clack would understand: “Tape a $20 bill to your answer to the puzzler and send it to….”
It’s in its 28th paragraph that the Times article starts to take a serious look at the game being played—how much do mayors, civic leaders, and city councils need to abase themselves to win a prize from the oligarch? Amazon is intent upon using its economic power to extract political concessions without the messiness of actually showing up at city council meetings or engaging with citizens. Why negotiate a deal when you can make the HQ a prize in a contest among municipalities eager to win the lottery?
An article in CityLab outlines an alternative approach to community development based on a Brookings study of Pittsburgh. The article describes a base-building, not a headquarters-building, strategy. Sadly, “Why the Future Looks Like Pittsburgh” misses the secret of Pittsburgh’s success when it calls for “a new civic intermediary” to guide development. In fact, Pittsburgh stands out for its deliberative democratic process, which balances the needs of nonprofit institutions (the so-called “eds and meds”) and activist citizen movements. Pittsburgh’s 21st-century renaissance is based on the turbulent interplay of these interests.
Skillfully balancing the expectations of both kinds of civic forces is an art form. Citizen groups need short-term tangible victories in their efforts to create social well-being.
Civic institutions like universities, utility companies, healthcare, and place-based philanthropy need long-term stability to justify investment in productive capacity. One example is Pittsburgh’s relentless effort to create an affordable housing trust fund, a balancing act of matching immediate needs and long-term propertied interests. Three years into the process, both neighbors and institutions are weighing and balancing the options.
Contrast Pittsburgh’s slow and steady public processes with those in Cleveland, just 150 miles up the turnpikes in Ohio. A story at Next City recounts the efforts of Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC), a faith-based nonprofit, to leverage community benefits in exchange for public financing of the renovation of the Quicken Loans arena. GCC was quick to point out that Dan Gilbert, mortgage magnate and owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, needed to strike a deal with elected officials that delivered short-term value back to residents of Cleveland in exchange for a public investment in his entertainment complex. Dan McGraw’s article, “Why a Cleveland Church Group Challenged Big Stadium Money,” recounts the saga from negotiation to referendum to litigation, and eventual capitulation by the GCC. The collapse—some say surrender—of the grassroots effort was clearly viewed as a betrayal by the 22,000 petition signers who persevered in efforts to put the issue on the ballot. Corporate arrogance and governmental ineptitude were evident at every step along the way in Cleveland’s “winner-take-all” political environment.
Why is the political process so different between Pittsburgh and Cleveland? One critical difference between the two is the robust nonprofit media presence in Pittsburgh. Last year, NPQ published a story that featured Pittsburgh’s multiple nonprofit news outlets. There are no similar challengers to the “establishment voices” at Cleveland Plain Dealer and the nonprofit media conglomerate Ideastream. The decline of the African American weekly Call and Post and the collapse of civic-focused weeklies mean that only one perspective is offered to most Cleveland households. Cleveland is currently in the midst of a heated mayoral campaign, and the establishment media has endorsed the establishment candidate.
Another difference between Cleveland and Pittsburgh may be their respective states of economic distress. A recently released survey by the Economic Innovations Group (EIG) ranked Cleveland number one among economically distressed urban areas in the U.S. The EIG notes that one feature of economically distressed communities is that residents are disconnected from policymaking and not engaged in civic affairs. It hardly seems a coincidence that Clevelanders have not read about this year’s EIG study, despite the fact that last year’s EIG study, which showed that Cleveland was the most distressed city in the U.S., was front-page news. The only local media mention of this year’s EIG study was a booster blog in Crain’s Cleveland Business.
Both Pittsburgh and Cleveland are buying tickets in the Amazon lottery, but only one has done the social justice base-building that might lead to success. Winning a high profile sweepstakes like Amazon HQ, an NBA All-Star Game, or the Republican National Convention while losing another generation to alienation and apathy is too high a price to pay.—Spencer Wells