Economic Assessment of a city with these great attributes. Is All Well?

Here is a US city with the following favorable economic attributes.

It has ample water access. It has an international airport. It is served by three competing railroads. It has direct local access to three of the highest traffic density US Interstate Highway routes. Sounds like the basis of a solid urban economic development, correct?

You would be wrong.

This is Gary Indiana. A sort of mini Detroit says The Economist.

Gary’s unemployment rate is unofficially close to 30%

28% of the population lives below the poverty line.

50 some years ago, this city was home to 180,000 people and most were employed and earning good wages. 30,000 were employed at the U.S. steel mega steel mill after WW-2. Today, only about 5,000 work there. And the population is down to < 79,000.

With about one quarter of its building boarded up.

In 1970, about 50% of the residence aged 16 and over worked in manufacturing jobs. Today, only about 14%.

As a Conrail strategic planner with Chicago roots, I watched the change of the southern Lake Michigan heavy industrial regional landscape between the South Chicago steel complex and the Gary Works.  The entire region was caught up in the global steel making changes with cheaper competition from abroad. Gary was not alone.

Investors were losing faith in the old steel business model.  Political elected leaders missed the economic signs.  After all, many like Gary’s past leaders could say they had all the infrastructure qualities — some even an international airport!!


Gary is trying to reinvent itself. Maybe as a logistics semi processing and distribution center.

It is clear that despite its apparent advantageous characteristics in the introduction above, fancy economic indicators like “access” don’t by themselves make the future. Hard work and excellent choices are needed in order to reinvent a healthy city economy.

A manufacturing giant through and after WW-2, approximately 30% of the US workforce was in manufacturing. Today, maybe ten percent.

Lots of cities from Detroit to Gary failed to catch the changing economic trends after the late 1970’s an adapt. Some did, like South Bend and Galena.

The critical success factor is to know how to make change and execute.  To walk away from a historical core local employer like US Steel was in Gary is hard.  Too often the easy road of hanging on is the political choice.  City planning skills to make such strategic changes are often lacking.  It is a tough call,

Check The Economist 11 July issue for details of the stories as cities try to remake themselves rather than manage their decline.

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