By Bruce Katz

katzb_portraitIf there's a silver lining to be found in the Great Recession, it's that it has forced the nation to step back, take stock of where we've been, and begin to shift our priorities toward more productive, sustainable economic activities.  In the process, it has also brought long overdue attention to the older cities and metros of the country's industrial heartland, particularly those most impacted by the near-collapse of the auto sector.

On May 18, over 300 government, civic, educational, business, and philanthropic leaders from these communities traveled to D.C. to talk with members of Congress and the administration about how they can partner together to transform their long-struggling economies.  The Summit, entitled "Auto Communities and the Next Economy: Partnerships in Innovation" featured a stellar cast of speakers and panelists, and an audience eager to hear what they had to say.  The optimism in the room at the onset of the day was tentative (decades of economic decline tend to quell expectations).  By 5:00, however, the mood had radically changed.

Ed Montgomery, the executive director of the White House Council on Automotive Communities and Workers, helped set the tone early on as an announcement was made about the administration's crucial decision to dedicate $836 million of federal dollars to help clean up environmental problems at closed automotive sites, and put these blighted facilities back into productive use.  The announcement was critical both substantively-such an investment is vital to auto communities' efforts to renew their economies-and symbolically, as it demonstrates, in very real ways, the commitment of the federal government to these places.

As the event progressed, however, hope continued to swell for reasons perhaps less tangible, but equally significant.  Throughout the day, program participants broke away from more traditional talk on revitalizing distressed urban communities and began to engage instead in a very different discourse, one focused on how the big economic decisions made in Washington-on trade, on capital, on tax, on manufacturing-impact the ability of state and metropolitan leaders to develop and commercialize new technologies, export their goods and services to countries abroad, and ultimately create and preserve jobs and businesses.  It was the 'macro' meeting the 'metro' right there on the dais, conveying, maybe not even with full intent, a powerful message that everyone in that room knew departed from traditional orthodoxy.

Our collective charge forward is to strengthen this connection and build the public and private partnerships needed to help propel America's older industrial communities into the Post-Recession economy.  As we at Brookings have argued, this "next" economy will be one that is at once export-oriented, low-carbon, innovation-fueled, and opportunity-rich.  It will be an economy where we export more and waste less, innovate in what matters, deploy and produce more of what we invent and make education a competitive priority for the nation. And, importantly, it will be an economy that could play quite well to the global market experience, the research and educational prowess, the advanced manufacturing expertise, and the other distinctive strengths of auto-impacted and older industrial communities.

As the Summit revealed, countless state and regional innovations aimed at re-tooling these metros are already underway, driven by growing alliances among business, nonprofit, government, and philanthropic leaders like the Surdna Foundation, whose longstanding investments in older industrial cities and metros have made such efforts possible. But they can't do it alone:  They need a responsive federal government to help them overcome their challenges, leverage their assets, and take creative ideas, policies, and programs to scale.

The imperatives of the next economy are well understood, demonstrated by President Obama's call to double U.S. exports, expand federal investment in science, technology and education and modernize the nation's infrastructure to help our communities compete globally.  Central elements of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), as well as dozens of programs and investments enacted in the president's FY 2010 budget, and proposed in the president's FY2011 budget, will help move the ball forward.

But this is just a start.  Ensuring a competitive position in the next economy demands that the United States thinks and acts more boldly and strategically about what it will take to spur the kind of economic growth that will not only bring about a healthy recovery, but make the nation strong and prosperous in the years to come.  In practice, this means establishing a common national platform for private-sector led economic growth, particularly in emerging markets like clean energy.  It means getting smarter about how, where, and on what precious federal dollars are spent to stimulate innovation in both new and existing industries.  And it means designing programs and policies that are attentive to the attributes and market realities of the nation's auto-impacted and older industrial metropolitan areas so that they can be full participants-indeed, leaders-in the country's economic transition.

The level of dialogue and participation that was achieved at the Summit provided good reasons to be optimistic, however cautiously, about the future of these communities.  It's now up to local, state, and federal leaders and stakeholders to use it as a launching pad from which to grow and nurture their assets, and build a stronger nation in the process.


Bruce Katz is the Vice President and Founding Director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.

Fostering sustainable communities in the United States — communities guided by principles of social justice and distinguished by healthy environments, strong local economies, and thriving cultures.