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For COVID recovery, the nation should take lessons from the heartland

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The nation’s cities and communities are feeling the effects of the COVID-19 delta variant, just as we were beginning to emerge from the long shadow of the pandemic. The most recent Labor Department jobs report shows the economy pumped the brakes on the employment gains we’d been seeing in the past few months and yet overall demand for jobs remains high.  

Harnessing this demand is at the heart of the economic revival being forged across the nation’s heartland — the midwest. Driven from the bottom up by local initiatives and propelled by public-private partnerships between jurisdictions and local universities, medical centers, industries, economic development organizations, neighborhoods and more, strategies are focusing on the creation of clusters of talent and innovation districts that can drive sustainable growth. Anchored by a major research institution, an innovation district connects talent with industry within a livable, transit-accessible, and technically-wired location.   

The new model for state-level economic strategy is to enable workable solutions tailored to and by its cities, suburbs and rural communities. These generally focus on innovation, and the diffusion of new technology into traditional manufacturing industries.   

But talent attraction is key. If we want the post-pandemic period to tilt the economic playing fields in ways that work to midwestern communities favor, we must look to combine our greatest resource with our most valuable asset: People and the cost of living. 

In a knowledge economy, an economic unit is a person. Unlike land or buildings, it is also highly mobile. The cost of labor is an important reality and businesses are diversifying their human capital to stay competitive. In Silicon Valley, the average wage is high. But so is the cost of living. As companies look beyond the superstar cities, they must recognize the areas where these talent bases exist in a more competitive market. Talent isn’t isolated to the coasts and opportunity isn’t reserved for these legacy tech hubs. Attracting talent will naturally attract companies and if the pandemic has shown us anything, this trend will only increase.    

There are numerous examples of this across the country.

Ohio’s Cincinnati Innovation District, for example, has leveraged the colleges and universities in and around the city, as well as local companies, from Fortune 500 corporations to startups, to grow and retain its talent base through ‘skilling’ initiatives and a “live, work, learn and play” environment. The Ohio IP Promise unites the state’s public universities to help student and faculty innovators commercialize their research. 

Tulsa, Okla., has sought to improve its quality of life by significant investments in amenities and quality of life, while launching its seminal Tulsa Remote initiative, which has attracted more than 1,000 remote workers to relocate to the city.

Indianapolis, Ind., recently brought two dozen potential new citizens to the city for a free immersive weekend designed to get a first-hand look at the neighborhoods and amenities, meet potential employers and capture a glimpse of life in the heartland. 

Bentonville, Ark., has leveraged its natural amenities to become a hotbed for talent. The local think tank Heartland Forward and regional stakeholders are developing an intentional strategy for a more inclusive recovery throughout Northwest Arkansas.    

Bottom-up approaches have long been the core of midwestern economic development. Back in the 1980s, Pennsylvania and Ohio developed pioneering tech-based economic development initiatives like Ben Franklin Technology Partners and the Thomas Edison Program, which partnered with universities. Ohio upgraded and modernized traditional industries with its manufacturing extension initiatives, notably the Cleveland Advanced Manufacturing Program, which inspired a broader federal effort.

States and communities that have developed such strategies will be better-equipped to compete for the federal government’s Investing in America’s Communities program, which is funded through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.    

COVID-19 has not so much disrupted the economy as it has accelerated key trends that were already underway. Even before the pandemic, businesses and people were starting to shift away from increasingly unaffordable coastal centers like the San Francisco Bay Area, the New York-Boston-Washington, D.C. Acela Corridor, and Los Angeles, towards other well-developed but more-affordable talent clusters like Austin, Seattle, and Miami. But now, even those communities have become unaffordable.  

A post-COVID recovery strategy for the country, its states and communities has much to learn from how the heartland has revived.     

David Adams is the lead architect of the Cincinnati Innovation District and Chief Innovation Officer at the University of Cincinnati.

Tags ben franklin technology partners Cincinnati Innovation Innovation economics Regions of the United States Rust Belt Thomas Edison Program Tulsa, Oklahoma

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