Skip to content

Places and People in Trouble

By Brenda Barrett February 7, 2018
Main Street of  Kane Pennsylvania

Main Street of Kane Pennsylvania

Can America’s small cities be saved? I spent quarter of a century managing programs to address this question.  And I am probably just one of thousands of practioners in the fields of historic preservation, parks and recreation, and community development across the country who have tried to tackle this problem.  In Pennsylvania, my home state, small cities are poster children for economic distress.  Over 30 municipalities, almost all of which could be characterized as small cities, have been designated   financially distressed under Act 47 a state law passed in 1987 that was  designed to provide failing municipalities with some relief. All across the commonwealth those small cities not yet designated under Act 47 were and are teetering on the edge. All of them had a similar litany of problems declining population and tax revenue, high pension and health care costs, a large inventory of blighted or tax-exempt properties, and heavy burden of municipal debt.

Once upon a time I administered programs that provided advice and assistance to preserve historic buildings, to revitalize main streets, to revamp park systems, and reimagine former canals and railroad beds as recreational assets. While there were some successes, even an enthusiastic supporter as myself could see that these initiatives and all the good intentions in the world were not going to turn these places around.

Now I have been out of this line of work for quite a few years.  However,  I felt my past frustration and despair rush back when within the space of three days, I was confronted by two opinion pieces concluding that many small cities are probably doomed. Paul Krugman writing in the New York Times (December 30, 2017), posits that while once these places had a clear rationale for being as service centers for the surrounding countryside and later adding on whatever industrial enterprises came along, this is no longer a winning strategy. The modern economic supply chain, one that is cut lose from the landscape as well as the pressures of globalization will inexorable erode the viability of small urban centers. See The Gamblers Ruin of Small Towns .

The other piece was a more in depth article in the Washington Post by Harrisburg native Heather Long titled “America’s Forgotten Towns: Can they be saved or should people just leave? . The article starts out by saying that …. ‘One of the great debates in American politics and economics in 2018 is likely to be how to help the country’s forgotten towns, the former coal-mining and manufacturing hubs with quaint Main Streets that haven’t changed much since the 1950s and ’60s.’ 

Well I thought – I do not hear a great debate going on in Pennsylvania although it would be great, if it were happening. As of now I have not seen the issue receive increased political attention. But if it was to receive attention, there is still no consensus about what strategies might revive small towns and cities or even if it is possible at all. Some economists have concluded that the best solution is for populations to move to where the jobs are located. But according to the census data that is not happening.  The American people are moving at about half the rate that they did in the 1970s and ’80s.

Why are people opting to stay put? Heather Long’s article suggests that one reason may be risk aversion to moving to another place that might also have an uncertain future and face the same problems. Even more importantly, people may have have the rational desire to stick with the trusted and familiar.  A local support system of friends and family has real value that will be lost upon relocation.   So if residents want to stay put and it is unlikely that many of these places are going to completely close down, then what?

Again there are no good answers. A recent report by the Pittsburgh Foundation found that Pennsylvania communities in the state’s Act 47 distressed municipalities program generally performed worse than average despite state assistance that in some cases has stretched for decades. Other programs like Main Street designations and other targeted grant assistance are just not game changers. And if indeed the problems are caused by global shifts in the national economy, local economies are not likely to respond to such small interventions. Heather Long is hopeful that the social capital of people and place will serve as the “Magic Fairy Dust”  to help build a better future. I hope so too, but experience has lead me to believe it will just extend the long goodbye.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Share

#NHA30: Tales from the Towpaths

By Guest Observer June 1, 2014

By Allen Sachse

National parks are popular. Despite our nation’s fiscal limitations, the American public has shown no sign of tiring of their national parks or desiring reductions in park opportunities. To the contrary, there is a demand for more services and accessibility to our public lands, especially near centers of population. So as we approach the second century of the National Park Service (NPS), how do we address these seemingly incongruent realities? A major part of the answer is that the NPS will be required to expand its current level and use of public/private partnerships. The national heritage area model is a public/private partnership model which has over-­‐time been proven to work.

The NPS has the daunting mission of preserving the resources and interpreting the most significant American stories. No doubt, Jon Jarvis, Director of the NPS, recognized the contribution National Heritage Areas (NHA) could make to this effort when he stated, “National Heritage Areas are places where small investments pay huge dividends, providing demonstrable benefits in communities across the country and in partnership with our national Parks.”

Credit: Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor

Josiah White Canal Boat Ride in the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor. Credit: Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor

Through my work as the former Executive Director of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Area, I developed a keen interest in this country’s early industrial transportation system of canals. So when visiting the District of Columbia, I often will stay in the Georgetown neighborhood. This affords me the opportunity in the evening to enjoy the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park (C&O). The NPS does an exceptional job of preserving this tremendous asset with a modest operation and maintenance budget of approximately $9.3 million. However, as impressed as I am by the care and interpretation of the C&O, it is still difficult for people to truly understand how important canals were in the 19th century to the growth and development of this nation.

Early canals connected many of the inland towns to the major maritime cities. They were financed by both private capital and public funds. Often the engineers were presented with unprecedented challenges of geography in the design and construction. Construction required a massive labor force, which was not readily available. Canals provided waterpower for mills; canals moved massive amounts coal and other raw materials to manufacturers of industrial products; canals transported the manufactured products to the consumers, improving commerce and trade; canals became the means to grow and expand our young nation. Canals linked the eastern markets to the Great Lakes and then on to the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys. There are seven NHAs whose stories emanate from canals – Augusta Canal, Blackstone River Valley, Delaware & Lehigh, Erie Canalway, Illinois & Michigan, Ohio and Erie Canalway, and Schuylkill River.

Credit: Schuylkill River Heritage Area

Lock 60 Schuylkill River Heritage Area. Credit: Schuylkill River Heritage Area

Each of these NHAs is working in partnership with the NPS, state, and local agencies to preserve and tell this nationally significant story. Collectively, the seven NHAs received approximately $3.7 million in NPS Heritage Partnership funding in fiscal year 2014. Granted, one cannot accurately compare the cost of managing any given mile of a historic canal to another, for the resources truly differ. However, one can easily see that local ownership and multiple partners sharing the management responsibility can pay real dividends to the NPS as they face the challenge of preserving and sharing the stories of transportation, industrial growth, capital, immigration, labor, settlement, and more. However, it is equally important to note that because of the entrepreneurial nature of most NHAs the local partners also reap the benefits of this partnership by creating and supporting local jobs through investments in their community and heritage tourism. Regrettably many of this nation’s historic canals have been lost to time and neglect. These seven systems were also vulnerable, but because of the partnership work of these NHAs much has been saved for future generations to learn from and enjoy.

Credit: Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor

Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor. Credit: Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor

These seven NHA partnerships are conserving approximately 1,000 miles of historic canal corridors and in the process saving miles of watered canal. Today these historic canals and towpaths are becoming tomorrow’s network of trails and blue ways connecting population centers to parks and historical sites of national, state, and local importance. The waterfront towns along the way are experiencing re-­‐purposed buildings and preserved neighborhoods. This is all accomplished by leveraging the collective resources and the partners’ commitment to preserving their shared heritage and sense of place.

There are many lessons to be learned about partnership management by studying the successes of the NHA program as it has evolved over the past three decades. At the request of Congress, the NPS commissioned a series of evaluations of nine of the longstanding NHAs. Westat, an external evaluation firm, undertook the work. The evaluations have been completed and the findings verify the accomplishments of the nine NHA partnerships to address the purpose defined in the legislative language and the original designation; the NHAs ability to leverage additional funds to meet program and infrastructure needs 4–1 (local to federal) in most cases; the NHAs showed sound management and fiscal responsibility; the NHAs relied on public participation and created partnerships to carry out the work; the partners preserved nationally significant resources; and the NPS gained an invaluable partner.

Allen Saches serves as the President of the Alliance of National Heritage Areas and was formerly the Executive Director of the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor. Prior to that position he had almost 30 years of service with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Department of Community Affairs.

Share