America’s smaller cities are winning people back with an explosion of new residential and entertainment options. Now they need to get serious about private sector job growth—and tech isn’t the silver bullet.
For downtowns in major American cities, these are boom times. The urban centers of New York and Chicago boast record high employment. In San Francisco and Seattle, there’s an explosion of residential construction, dining, and entertainment options, as well as a commercial rebirth in high-end, white-collar employment.
But in many smaller cities, the downtown renaissance doesn’t rest on such solid ground. Look to downtown Cincinnati or St. Louis and you’ll see large growth in residential and entertainment offerings, and major investment in civic spaces and buildings. What you won’t see is the same level of success in becoming growing centers of commerce.
For decades, jobs have been leaving downtowns and heading to the suburbs. In 2015, a City Observatory report suggested this might be turning around based on 2007-2011 data, but many downtowns were still losing jobs in that time, including Kansas City, Minneapolis, and San Antonio. A 2015 analysis by Wendell Cox found that just six cities were responsible for about three-fourths of all major-city downtown employment growth from 2010 to 2013: New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, and Houston. This shows the disparity between the major business and tech hubs and all the rest.