Assessing Baltimore: Lessons From the Rat Race

By Dennis Boone

Quality of life and growth aren’t the same thing.

The American’s media’s descent into pettiness and irrelevancy seemed to have reached terminal velocity in January 2017. Remarkably, though, it picked up a little extra speed in July, after the president ignited a tweetstorm during his feud with Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland—specifically, Trump’s comments about living conditions in Baltimore.

Predictably, the sorry coverage quickly devolved into the same He Said/She Said nonsense that has defined national journalism since the first hour of the Trump presidency. Reporters scurrying from one side of the political spectrum to the other, asking how they feel about something the other side said, is not exactly the kind of high-minded insight the founding fathers probably envisioned when they crafted 1st amendment protections that newspapers and broadcasters hold so dear.

But for someone with a little enterprising spirit, there was both local relevance and insight into the issues Trump raised.

For this, we turn to Minnesota-based Center of the American Experiment, where economist John Phelan put the real issue at hand—economic conditions in Baltimore—into a local perspective. He compared Federal Reserve Bank metrics on real GDP growth in the Baltimore area with a dozen peer cities, Minneapolis being one.

They showed that between 2001 and 2017, growth in Baltimore was actually greater than that of the Minneapolis-St. Paul region. Not by a lot—32.3 percent to 27.9 percent. Still, that should have opened a few eyes in the Twin Cities area.

Phelan also pointed out that San Jose (surprise, surprise) had seen the greatest growth, with its real gross domestic product up more than 73 percent. On the other end, St. Louis stood at 10.3 percent; last-place Detroit, 8.5 percent. Pretty sad, given the number of years involved. Tech hub Seattle saw 56.8 percent growth, energy capital Houston was up 51.3 percent, and Denver, a city we like to compare ourselves to, came in at 41 percent.

But what about Kansas City? It wasn’t listed as one of the peer cities in Phelan’s report. The Fed statistics are available with anyone who has, say, five minutes to spare exploring on-line.  Turns out that if we’d been included in the center’s peer-cities list, the Kansas City region would have been well under the average, at 23.9 percent growth.

And that, friends, is more than 8 percentage points behind the growth in Baltimore. Ouch.

As a business magazine focused on economic growth, development and prosperity we’ve always been up front with our readers to acknowledge our own bias: We’re in favor of growth. But we’ve always sought to ask questions that get us beyond our own leanings, pursuing what we think are broader truths.

The broader truth here being: Things may be OK here, but relative to other cities around the nation, we have work to do. But if we’re doing OK, does it matter that other cities are doing better?

“That’s a great question,” says Frank Lenk. The director of research services for the Mid-America Regional Council, can answer it, though, since he’s eyebrows-deep in economic-development data for a living.

“In general, most companies want to grow; similarly, most regions want to grow,” he says. “Growth allows flexibility in how you do things, it gives you additional re-sources to allocate to what’s important.”

The real question, he says, is what do you want to grow? “We want to grow quality jobs, not just total numbers of them, but those that pay above median wage or have career path in a post-secondary degree,” Lenk says. “It’s about job quality, not growth for it’s own sake.”

Communities that are considered high value in terms of their output, he says, can export goods and services to the rest of the world and bring in dollars. But there’s something else going on.

“Those areas that are growing, are growing not just in what they produce, but also their ability to attract top talent,” he says. “And talent is really the source of a region’s competitive advantage. If we want to continue to be prosperous, we need to attract that top talent and let  people know this is a place where they can make a career.”

Lenk points to the work of KC Rising, a business-led collaborative effort of the Civic Council, the KC Area Development Council, the Greater KC Chamber of Commerce and MARC. KC Rising compares this region to 30 peers—the 15 immediately larger and 15 immediately smaller than us by population. KC Rising’s goal over the next 10-20 years, Lenk says, is to drive this region into the top 10 in GDP, median household income and quality jobs.

It’s a noble goal. And if we can get there? Well that would indeed be something to tweet about, wouldn’t it? 

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