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The bad business of Northeast Ohio sprawl

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/21/15 @ 11:00am  |  Posted in Land, Transportation

The Fund for Our Economic Future is working on a report titled, “The Geography of Jobs” which looks at sprawl in Northeast Ohio along two lines: How it affects the economy and the economically disadvantaged. A central finding is the average job hub for a Clevelander is a 20-minute drive or 75-minute transit trip away.

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“(Job access) may be the most important issue no one is talking about,” The Fund writes. “The vitality of a region’s economy depends on its ability to connect people to good jobs.”

The report, which is a synthesis of existing data, notes that 22% of jobs have “disappeared” for the average Northeast Ohioan. The impact has been felt most keenly by 200,000 residents in economically distressed communities, the report notes.

“Let’s take a closer look,” The Fund writes. “For a resident living in Kinsman, the number of jobs in his or her vicinity declined by 35% from 1998 to 2013.”

Although 88,000 jobs have been added in Northeast Ohio since the Recession, job gains in the suburbs have outpaced those in cities as a share of overall employment where a “lack of access to employers makes it harder for workers to hold steady, full-time positions, especially those workers who are already disadvantaged economically.”

Job sprawl is linked to inequities resulting from concentrating poverty. The Fund points to a Harvard study that found cities with less sprawl—as measured by commutes of 15 minutes or less—had “significantly higher rates of upward mobility.”

The Fund hopes to spark a regional effort here to emphasize the importance job location has relative to population densities.

“Northeast Ohio civic leaders must focus efforts on bringing people to jobs (transit) in the short-to-medium term, but also be strategic about where and how the public, private and nonprofit sectors incentivize business development over the long term,” the report concludes.

To broaden its reach on this issue, The Fund hosted a series of focus groups with community leaders (GCBL participated, so, we will report on it anonymously).

Business representatives at the focus group expressed a need to protect the investments being made downtown.

Representatives suggested that the private sector is needed to provide input and to implement an emerging transit-oriented development (TOD) plan. TOD will focus investments around high frequency transit. Also, a higher priority for infrastructure investments that encourages the use of those amenities.

Another business leader emphasized the need to prioritize cleaning contaminated, vacant land near the city center to add to the urban revitalization efforts underway in Cleveland.

Some weighed in on why they feel jobs sprawl is an issue, and what can be done to address it. For example, a comment directed to transportation and land-use priorities to create incentives for the private sector to move closer to population centers.

At some point, the location decision made by Northeast Ohio companies will have an impact on their ability to attract talent.

The private sector could be engaged in a stronger effort to support growth nearer to existing population centers, a participant said.

Sprawl is also contributing to the region’s air and water quality problems. It is likely the five-county region will be challenged to meet federal air quality standards which are under review. The impact to the regional economy could restrict new business start ups from forming, particularly in the industrial sector.

A greater investment in transit, and a regional development plan which prioritizes higher density/ more efficient use of land would help, participants noted.

The Portland, OR urban growth boundary was mentioned as a successful way of concentrating development in the urbanized area.

The Fund plans to follow up on the conversation.

“We wanted to do more than just write a report, so we’re partnering with PolicyBridge to engage the community around these issues and raise them to the level of concern we feel is warranted,” said Brad Whitehead, president of the Fund. “The drag of the job access issue on our regional economy cannot be overstated.”

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