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Piling on is an age-old tradition. People get a whiff of negative air and, like a pack of wolves, turn against it.
That has happened to a lot of cities, many of which were struggling to reinvent themselves from industrial towns. The recession didn’t help and now that the recovery has gained momentum in the broader economy, many towns are having to work twice as hard to jumpstart growth.
City-data.com came up with a list of 20 cities that, by the numbers, are some of the most beaten-up, undesirable cities in America. But instead of focusing on the numbers, we asked Bert Sperling, whose specialty is “Best Places” to tell us what’s good about each of these cities — what’s improving and what each has to offer.
Several of the cities are older cities, where you’ll find “a tremendous amount of infrastructure … public theaters and concert halls ... that you won’t find in newer cities,” Sperling said.
And true to the cyclical nature of life, opportunists are already starting to move in to some of these places; new seeds of life are being planted.
“A lot of these places are attracting young people, who have a dream but not a lot of money,” Sperling said. In these cities, “they can buy a foreclosed home for not a lot of money — It’s like homesteading in the Old West!”
Here are 20 cities you probably don’t want to live in — yet — and what each has to offer.
By Cindy Perman
Posted 18 March 2011
The Bad: Detroit has been ravaged by the auto-industry crisis, with unemployment still above 10 percent and home prices continuing to fall.
The Good: The silver lining of it all is that depressed real estate prices and an eager work force has made Detroit attractive to businesses – even compared to emerging markets. Not only is the mayor out hustling to attract business but one CEO is looking to make the city a high-tech corridor like Silicon Valley with the tagline, “Outsource jobs to Detroit.”
The Recovery: “Urban pioneers are taking advantage of its low costs to launch their dream,” Bert Sperling of BestPlaces.net said of Detroit. “Like many older cities, Detroit has great 'bones' that will be a springboard for its recovery.”
The Bad: Flint, the birthplace of General Motors, has suffered high unemployment (the current rate is nearly 12 percent), economic devastation and one of the highest crime rates in the U.S. as a result of the auto industry moving a lot of production out of the city in the past few decades.
The Good: What makes Flint attractive to business is that it has a highly skilled, hard-working labor force and real estate prices are still falling, which means they can buy office and factory space on the cheap.
The Recovery: “This city is ‘right-sizing’ itself to find its way in today’s new economic world,” Sperling said. “There are amazing real-estate bargains available to those willing to take a risk.” In fact, GM is making engines for its electric Volt vehicles at a plant in Flint.
The Bad: St. Louis made the list for a variety of reasons: Unemployment remains near 10 percent, it has one of the highest crime rates in the nation and it is prone to natural disasters.
The Good: St. Louis was named one of America’s “Most Livable” communities by Partners for Livable Communities. It’s highly walkable, with a lot of cultural institutions and is one of the best sports cities in the U.S. with the St. Louis Cardinals (baseball), St. Louis Rams (football) and St. Louis Blues (hockey). “It’s a civilized Midwest oasis,” Sperling said.
The Recovery: The city has taken revitalization seriously, offering businesses and developers tax credits for moving in downtown. And in 2006, it received the World Leadership Award for urban renewal.
The Bad: Cleveland has an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent and home prices have fallen nearly 20 percent from their peak a few years ago. It also has one of the highest crime rates in the U.S. and low amounts of sunshine.
The Good: Cleveland has a lot to offer: Great colleges, medical schools and health resources, superb arts and cultural institutions and a full slate of sports teams, Sperling said.
The Recovery: Cleveland is experiencing one of the strongest recoveries in the U.S., according to a report late last year from the Brookings Institution and the London School of Economics. The basis of the report was annual growth in employment and per-capita income. In fact, Ohio overall has one of the fastest-growing economies of all the states, according to the Federal Reserve.
The Bad: Birmingham is a classic case of a city fighting to reinvent itself amid deindustrialization after once being a powerhouse in iron and steel. Its unemployment rate is at 8.4 percent, it has one of the highest crime rates in the U.S. and it’s prone to tornadoes.
The Good: Birmingham has been named as one of America’s best places to work as salaries are competitive and living expenses are low. In fact, the city sales tax is just 4 percent. Plus, it has good schools, several universities and a lot of cultural institutions. And Sperling notes there are a lot of “nice older suburban neighborhoods surrounding the city.”
The Recovery: “The city is experiencing a major economic turnaround, transitioning from steel to 21st century manufacturing, research, medicine, finance and technology,” Sperling said. More than $1 billion has been spent revitalizing downtown.
The Bad: Jackson has poor public-transit options, low education-adjusted wages, a high crime rate and an above-average chance of tornadoes, according to city-data.com.
The Good: Jackson ranks high on affordability, real estate prices remain low and unemployment isn’t too bad, with a rate of 7.6 percent. Sperling also notes that it’s got good health-care options and a great arts scene. Famous for its Gospel, Blues and R&B, the city’s tagline is “City with Soul.”
The Recovery: The city has struggled through the recession but signs of improvement are budding: Job growth and consumer spending are on the rise.
The Bad: Little Rock ranks low on arts, dining and entertainment options, high on crime, low on public transit options and high on risk for tornadoes, according to city-data.com.
The Good: Little Rock has a diverse, stable economy, Sperling notes, with finance, shipping and manufacturing companies. The unemployment rate isn’t too bad at 6.9 percent. It also has a large state university with a medical school and teaching hospital, he noted. Plus, it’s one of those older cities with great bones – a downtown core of well-preserved historic buildings, Sperling said.
The Recovery: Both government and business dollars have been pumped into the city in recent years. The city has been recognized as one of the fastest-growing cities and one of the best cities for business.
The Bad: Stockton is one of those hard-hit California cities that has yet to show signs of stabilizing or recovery. Unemployment remains high at 18 percent, and it’s one of the worst cities for foreclosures, according to RealtyTrac, with 1 in 14 homeowners facing foreclosure. Its struggles have resulted in high crime and obesity rates.
The Good: “Declining housing prices mean new affordability, which is difficult to find on the West coast and California especially,” Sperling said. Plus, it’s got a mild Mediterranean climate and “the surrounding area is becoming know for its wineries and vineyards,” he said.
The Recovery: With low real-estate prices, nice climate and its proximity to San Francisco and Sacramento, Stockton is an attractive option for business. It’s becoming a hub for the renewable-energy industry – a good position to be in, given rising oil prices and increased demand for alternative energy.
The Bad: Dayton has suffered severe job losses since the auto industry crisis and the unemployment rate here remains near 10 percent. It also has a high crime rate and high obesity rate.
The Good: Dayton has a diverse economy, two big universities, a military base and classic older neighborhoods, according to Sperling, which make it attractive for business. Many big corporations have headquarters here. Plus, the state never participated in the real-estate bubble, which will help accelerate the economic recovery here when job growth, consumer confidence – and spending – resume.
The Recovery: Job growth is expected to remain stagnant for at least the first half of 2011 but there is hope that the city will bounce back. “Dayton’s industrial heritage is transitioning to today’s new technologies,” Sperling said. Plus, health care is a huge part of its economy and health care is expected to be one of the fastest-growing industries of the next decade, given the aging Boomer population.
The Bad: Memphis made it to the list for its high crime rate and high obesity and diabetes rates, according to city-data.com. Plus, its unemployment rate is 9.4 percent.
The Good: Memphis is rich with culture, famous for blues, gospel and country music -- Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Isaac Hayes and B.B. King all got their starts here. “Memphis has a great sense of place – it’s interesting and colorful with unique cultural assets,” Sperling said. It’s also home to more than a dozen universities, two of the largest private hospitals in the country, and its central location for the south and Midwest makes it attractive for business. It’s home to three Fortune 500 companies, including FedEx.
The Recovery: Memphis is an interesting example of a targeted recovery: There is a push here to focus on growth in existing parts of the economy -- medical and biosciences. And, in an encouraging sign for the U.S. economy as well as the economy of Memphis, FedEx reported its average daily volume of box shipments rose 2.4 percent in the quarter ended Feb. 28.
The Bad: New Haven makes the list for its high crime, high cost of living, high taxes and poor schools, according to city-data.com. It also has a high unemployment rate at 9 percent.
The Good: The city has made the transition from an industrial center to a more diversified economy, with education and health care the biggest industries. It’s home to Yale and other colleges, Sperling notes, plus it’s got great museums and other cultural assets such as a vibrant theater community. Plus, it’s only 90 minutes to New York City by train.
Recovery: The unemployment rate, though still high, has fallen to 9 percent from its peak at 9.7 percent last July. The city has offered tax breaks to companies to attract more business, including an initiative last year to attract more videogame makers and other new media companies. Downtown New Haven has undergone a significant revitalization in the past decade, with restaurants, nightlife and shops, making it an attractive place to live.
The Bad: Another victim of deindustrialization, Baltimore has struggled to reinvent itself. It made the list because it rated high on traffic congestion, and low on health and school quality, according to city-data.com. The unemployment rate is at 7.5 percent, not too bad, but the recovery isn’t as strong as many had hoped.
The Good: Baltimore is the largest seaport in the Mid-Atlantic, offering access to major midwestern markets. It’s home to several large corporations, including Constellation Energy and T.Rowe Price, as well as Johns Hopkins Hospital. Sperling adds that it has diverse, historical neighborhoods (so much so that it has been dubbed the “city of neighborhoods”) and its surrounding suburbs often win awards as best places to live. Sperling says it has great higher-ed institutions, arts and culture and medical resources, as well as plentiful mass-transit options.
The Recovery: Even though the jobs recovery hasn’t panned out yet, home buying is on the rise as depressed prices have made real estate more attractive. The city has been trying to set up a biotech park to generate health-care jobs but after some bumps in the road they’re now more focused on revitalization of the area with restaurants, shops and services like a health club and a gym. The city is experimenting with a local currency to help keep money in the local economy.
The Bad: Milwaukee made the list because of its poor school performance and above-average crime rates, according to city-data.com. The city has struggled to boost job creation despite tax incentives across the state.
The Good: The city has transformed itself from an industrial center to a diversified city with financial services and healthcare among its biggest industries. It’s home to several companies including Northwestern Mutual, Kohl’s and Harley-Davidson, and more than a dozen universities. Plus, it’s undergone a revitalization and has many cultural and outdoor activities. It’s a nice place to live, with “diverse, colorful neighborhoods with strong civic pride,” Sperling said, adding that it’s also very affordable.
The Recovery: Unemployment is at 7.3 percent, down from 8.4 percent last August, though hiring hasn’t picked up significantly and the real estate market remains sluggish. The manufacturing sector is showing signs of recovery and a solar-production facility recently opened up here, which along with the other industries, should help the economy.
The Bad: Springfield has an unemployment rate of 9.3 percent. Among the other factors that put it on the list were a high crime rate, poor climate, poor health and few arts, dining and entertainment options, according to city-data.com.
The Good: It’s surrounded by five highly-rated colleges and for a Massachusetts city and the cost of living is reasonable, Sperling says. Plus, there are several large medical centers which have attracted biotech firms. Springfield also has a cool claim to fame – it’s the official birthplace of basketball.
The Recovery: Springfield has also struggled to shed its industrial roots, but is now a more diversified economy including retail, healthcare and technology. The number of foreclosures has dropped significantly but the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high, which has kept many from taking advantage of depressed real-estate prices.
The Bad: Buffalo has also struggled with de-industrialization and the recession didn’t help: The city’s umemployment rate has actually gone up recently, to 8.2 percent from 7.6 percent last August. Other reasons the city made the list were bad weather and low amount of sunshine, high taxes and high crime rate, according to city-data.com.
The Good: Home prices are on the rise here and foreclosure activity is among the lowest in the country. The city has historic and iconic architecture, great museums and other cultural institutions, Sperling notes. Last year, Forbes named it one of the best places to raise a family. The largest sectors here are now health care and education.
The Recovery: The finance and insurance sectors are growing here, as are education and health services. One part of the city’s revitalization plan centers around the University of Buffalo. Legislation working through the state senate would cap tuition hikes and allow the university to forge partnerships with private companies, which would help bring jobs – and money – to the city’s economy. And, here’s one area where the weak dollar has helped: It has lured more Canadian shoppers across the border, where their Canadian dollars now go further.
The Bad: Unemployment here is a whopping 17.2 percent. And Fresno is among the worst cities for foreclosures, according to RealtyTrac, with 1 in 22 homeowners facing foreclosure.
The Good: “It’s fairly affordable – for a California city – with some nice older neighborhoods,” Sperling said. Plus, there’s a large state university here and a lot of outdoor recreation. It has a Mediterranean climate, which makes for mild winters and dry summers. Health care companies, the city and California State University are among the largest employers.
The Recovery: Business conditions are showing some signs of improvement. Sales were up at 41 percent of small businesses in 2010 but most are still in cost-cutting mode and just over one in 10 plan to hire more workers this year, according to a recent survey. Unemployment has actually gone up in the past six months to 17.2 percent from 15.1 percent in September.
The Bad: New Orleans had the triple-whammy of Hurricane Katrina (2005), the recession and the BP oil spill. Bad weather, low education-adjusted wages and the risk for hurricanes all contributed to New Orleans making the list, according to city-data.com.
The Good: The unemployment rate has dropped to 7 percent from 8.1 percent in October. Plus, it’s got a lot to offer culturally, including music, food and nightlife. Plus, Sperling points out that it’s home to several large colleges, including Loyola and Tulane, and there’s a lot of outdoor recreation nearby.
The Recovery: Home prices are still falling, though there are some encouraging signs, such as the 9 percent jump in Orleans Parish. Plus, the number of homes sold is on the rise and there’s optimism for 2011. Hiring remains sluggish. New Orleans has had several wins on the recovery front: Globalstar and Blade Dynamics moved workers here and a venture-capital fund was recently set up to encourage start-up businesses. The mayor so believes in the city’s recovery that he recently put out a call for a company to produce a short video documenting the city’s recovery.
The Bad: Indianapolis made the list because of its high crime rate and high air pollution, according to city-data.com. The weather doesn’t help: summers are hot and the winters are freezing.
The Good: Indianapolis is one of America’s most affordable cities. The unemployment rate has dropped to 8.4 percent from 9.1 percent last August. The housing market is stable, Sperling notes. Plus, there is a lot of art and culture, several sports teams and it’s home to several major universities including Ball State, Butler and Purdue.
The Recovery: Indianapolis has moved from a manufacturing-based economy to a more diverse one that also includes health care, social services and retail. The city currently has momentum: Growth is expected in the life sciences and logistics sectors, as well as the trucking sector as the U.S. economy recovers. Plus, the city is attracting more conventions.
The Bad: The recession hit Chattanooga pretty hard, with the city’s GDP down 7 percent from 2008 to the end of 2009. Plus, the city has a high crime rate.
The Good: The unemployment rate has dropped to 8.3 percent from 8.8 percent. Plus, the real-estate market is showing some signs of improvement: Home prices and sales are both on the rise. Chattanooga is known as one of the most affordable cities in the U.S. and it’s surrounded by mountains, earning it the nickname “Scenic City.” Sperling adds that it also has a revitalized downtown, with parks, museums and a highly-rated aquarium.
The Recovery: Chattanooga has scored several wins. Volkswagen just built a $1 billion plant in Chattanooga and has already hired 1,500 workers, which has helped the economy. Plus, the city got a new chemical plant and Amazon has announced plans to build a distribution center here.
The Bad: The Oakland-Fremont-Hayward area has an unemployment rate of 10.9 percent and the city has one of the highest crime rates in the U.S.
The Good: Oakland is just minutes to downtown San Francisco and has one of the best mass transit systems in the U.S., Sperling says. Plus, several world-class universities are nearby. It has a Mediterranean climate and offers beautiful views of San Francisco Bay. Several major corporations call it home, including Kaiser Permanente and Clorox. It’s also a major West Coast port, with an estimated 200,000 jobs in marine shipping.
The Recovery: The unemployment rate, while high, is down from 11.5 percent in September, and container traffic to this port city is up 14 percent. The city recently struck a deal with China Merchants Holdings to boost cross-Pacific trading. And new mayor Jean Quan is a tireless champion of the city, traveling to New York and Washington, DC, recently to speak about jobs and trade with China.