Newsweek just caused a flap by declaring Grand Rapids (viewed by many as a shining beacon of economic recovery in a depressed state) to be one of America’s top ten “dying cities” (“Americas Dying Cities: Cities With Bleak Futures Ahead”). The basis for this assessment of the top ten dying cities is based on a scant two pieces of data:
- a population decline from 2000-2009
- a population decline for people under the age of 18
There are a lot of ways to rebut Newsweek’s deliberately inflammatory article, but here are just a few:
Limited Data: Basing a declaration of a “dying” city based purely on population statistics is … stupid. It ignores the variety of other measures that can be used to assess vitality. How about median income, for starters? Economic development? Access to higher education? Unemployment rate? Using Newsweek’s very short-sighted measures, many flourishing European cities would be considered to be “dying” simply because people aren’t procreating enough. Just look at the fastest-growing metro areas in the US. More people doesn’t always = better. More people create more congestion, they tend to lower the median income, contribute to traffic, and in many cases in the Southwest – they’re going to cause catastrophic shortages of fresh water.
Population Trends: Grand Rapids is in the latter stages of weathering a once-in-a-generation structural economic shift. After the state of Michigan ignored the signs that banking heavily on an auto manufacturing economy was untenable, the dam finally burst and the state has been scrambling to diversify its economy (something it should have been doing since the 1970s). The good news is that West Michigan has turned things around. The population losses happened in the early 2000s, and the city’s population is up from 1990.
Comparison: Just as Newsweek would like its declining circulation to be considered in the context of a radically changing mass media environment that has seen content and readers move online faster than most print news enterprises can adjust business models to respond, Grand Rapids decline has been tiny compared to the declines in the rest of the state. By comparison to the rest of the state, Grand Rapids is doing fantastically.
West Michigan has been tremendously successful at attracting investment from the healthcare, biological sciences, and alternative energy industries. Cranes have dotted the skyline of the city for the past few years as gleaming new buildings have gone up. Higher Education institutions have clamored to open up campuses downtown. Internationally-ranked breweries are scrambling to expand to meet demand.
Let’s put the shoe on the other foot: how would Newsweek feel if I called it a “dying magazine?” After all – its circulation numbers have been falling far more precipitously than the City of Grand Rapids’ population.
Unlike Newsweek, nobody’s putting Grand Rapids up for sale.
I’ve got a wager for Newsweek: let’s wait five years and see which institution better fits the adjective “dying.”