Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Reporter's Notebook

Paul Leonard can be reached at

The decline of cities

I come from a town full of history, a place dotted with crumbling landmarks, old graveyards and mansions that pre-date widespread English settlement on the North American continent.

When my grandparents were teenagers, it was a teeming burg of about 160,000, the center of region buoyed by industrial powerhouses like General Electric, still part of a vital trade route between the Atlantic and the Great Lakes via the Hudson River and the Erie Canal. Today, it’s a city of around 95,000, surrounded by a Rust Belt region in persistent economic decline.

The place I’m speaking of is Albany, New York – my hometown and the city where my parents, grandparents, and in some cases, great-grandparents grew up and spent most of their lives.

I live here.

If there’s a true barometer of the economic health of a community, it’s in the percentage of high-school and college graduates it manages to keep close by. Back home, rubbing shoulders with the ghosts of departed local institutions like GE and Key Bank (once called the Bank of Albany, now a conglomerate based in Cleveland) most new grads faced two options: work for the State of New York, or try your luck elsewhere.

As for the path I took, well, that should be pretty apparent.

But what does the future hold for the thousands of young men and women poised to graduate from local high schools like Hudson’s Bay and Union or Clark College and Washington State University Vancouver?

When publications like the VBJ cover issues of job creation, infrastructure improvements and the tax climate for businesses in the region, it’s partly to gauge the prospects of these graduates, to cover the emerging industries which might provide them with a living wage so that they can continue to be part of this community.

On the jobs front, there was some encouraging news yesterday with an announcement by Intel Corp. of an effort to double the hiring of college grads, creating more than 10,500 positions, according to this Reuters report.

That’s an excellent start; however, our problem is much, much bigger than any single job-creating initiative. With an estimated 334,000 Washington state residents out of work as of last December, we need jobs for both older and younger workers – a tall order for an economy still looking to stop the bleeding-out of available positions.

Despite this monster challenge, there is a heavy cost in not at least trying to keep a greater share of young people in Clark County – one not measured solely in added telephone charges and airfare for the occasional trip home to see the folks.

Instead it’s the steady loss of talent, energy and ingenuity that presents the biggest danger. It’s a lesson learned elsewhere… and one Southwest Washington would do best to avoid.


Anonymous said...

Hi Paul:

I think your article has a typo - "With an estimated 334,000 Clark County residents out of work as of last December...." The population estimate last year was 428,000 or so in Clark County, and a December unemployment number of about 30,000 was widely reported. Looks like you inadvertently hit an extra zero (let's hope).