Lessons from Detroit — and Springfield

The numbers are exponentially greater — well, more than exponentially: $19 billion as opposed to several hundred million — but there are a great many similarities between what happened in Detroit earlier this month and what occurred in Springfield nearly a decade ago.

Putting it simply, both cities just bottomed out. Like the elderly woman in that famous TV commercial, they had fallen, and they couldn’t get up, at least not without extraordinary measures — a union-crunching control board in Springfield and a record-setting bankruptcy in the Motor City. And neither development came about overnight; they were both a long time in coming.

Indeed, there are many reasons why these great cities wound up in those somewhat similar situations. Start with mismanagement — Detroit built what amounted to a monorail to nowhere and made promises to unions it knew it couldn’t keep, and Springfield simply spent far more money than it had for way too long. But there was also white flight and the demise of the middle class in both communities, rampant crime, and serious declines in tax revenue as both residents and businesses moved elsewhere.

But maybe the biggest reason why both communities hit bottom with such loud thuds was that what had been entrepreneurial cities — perhaps two of the most entrepreneurial cities in the nation’s history — more or less stopped being entrepreneurial. And this is a lesson that must be learned by communities across the country.

Detroit started with carriages and engines for boats, and eventually, people like Henry Ford started putting engines in carriages, and the fortunes of that city dramatically changed. By the 1950s, nearly 2 million people were calling Detroit home (the population is now down to 700,000) and the city was among the most prosperous in the country.

Springfield started with the Armory, and the spirit of innovation soon spread throughout the city. Entrepreneurs started businesses that made everything from revolvers to toys; ice skates to trolley cars; monkey wrenches to parking meters.

Only a few of those items are still made here, because much of the manufacturing in the Northeast went to southern states or overseas. And the jobs that went with those companies simply haven’t been replaced.

Why? There are many reasons, but a big one is that this region, and Springfield in particular, has put too much emphasis on trying to bring businesses here rather than build businesses here.

It all comes back to being entrepreneurial, a character trait that Springfield, Detroit, and many other struggling cities have lost. And that’s the lesson other former manufacturing centers, including some of the Gateway cities in this region, must learn.

One source of inspiration could be Holyoke, a city that suffered from many of the same problems as Springfield and Detroit, although it has avoided full economic collapse.

There, the city is using the new Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center and an emerging cultural community to begin the process of filling millions of square feet of old mill space with small, often technology-related businesses, related service businesses, apartments, and condos. It will be a slow process, but the outlook is quite promising.

Springfield will have to do something similar, even if an $800 million casino emerges in the tornado-ravaged South End, as MGM hopes it will. That’s because a casino won’t change the city’s fortunes — it will only help change its fortunes.

As for Detroit … well, bankruptcy will offer the opportunity to start over. What the city does with that opportunity remains to be seen, but whatever happens will certainly take decades to emerge.

That’s OK, because it took decades for Detroit, Springfield, and other old industrial cities to complete their fall and hit bottom.

That’s what happens when entrepreneurial cities stop being entrepreneurial.

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