Fast Company

A Bailout We Can Build On

With a grim jobs report, a hinky stock market and a deal for auto executives still on the table, America's mayors may be offering the best bailout plan around.

The Department of Labor released its grim jobs report today, cueing teeth-gnashing from market watchers and other pundits.

It’s hard not to gnash right along with them. Nearly two million people lost jobs this year. November was a particularly bad month, with another 533,000 jobs vanishing, the largest monthly loss since the early 70s. Unemployment now stands at 6.7%, the highest level since 1993.

(For those of us in vulnerable sectors like the media, the gnashing has been going on for awhile. I read the freakishly prescient tweets from @themediaisdying through my fingers.  Oy.)

Given the news, a bailout for the automakers seems all but assured. 

But another bailout of sorts has been on my mind lately, along with another vulnerable sector - America's cities.

I’m all about cities thse days, partly because I just finished a long reporting process for the story on Community Enterprise Partners, in our Dec/Jan issue. The original inspiration behind the story was the data - this extraordinary organization has collected a treasure trove of usable data on which design techniques, construction materials and appliance choices can make the biggest impact on energy consumption and health within a home environment. Because they are experts on affordable housing, the story had an even more appealing social enterprise angle. But as my reporting chugged on and the credit crisis began to heat up, the story pivoted to become a dramatic tale of cities in crisis, forced to the edge of their resources due to the housing mess.

From the story:

"Back in January, newly minted [Community Enterprise Partners] CEO Doris Koo warned the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs that looming foreclosures were going to hit cities hard. "The Center for Responsible Lending has estimated that 44.5 million homes adjacent to subprime foreclosed properties will lose value," she testified, "and $223 billion in neighborhood wealth will be lost."

Check out all Koo's testimony here.

Cities have gotten a bit of relief, largely as a result of Enterprise's lobbying efforts. But now the American mayors, working in remarkable lockstep, are preparing to make the case for their own survival.

Last month The Conference of Mayors published a great infrastructure manifesto, the “Ready to Go” Jobs and Infrastructure Report, attempting to dispel a persistent belief that infrastructure projects, though good for the economy and job creation, take a long long time to get up and running. Their first pass (attached) makes a pretty heady claim: Some 154 cities in every part of the country, have identified a total of 4,649 infrastructure projects that would create more than a quarter of a million jobs - all of which can be started or completed in 2009. The price tag? Just $25 billion, much of which already appears to be part of the normal appropriations process, ie - not a bailout.

No fancy suits, no contrite auto execs, just real projects offering real jobs in ways that make all our lives better. Oh, and directed to a sector that accounts for 86% of jobs and 90% of GDP. After the $700 bailout directed to Wall Street, $25 billion seems like a very big potential (and easy to track) bang for a pretty small buck.

These are high profile, good works projects that matter to communities - public safety jobs, energy projects, wastewater management, highway and bridge repair, school upgrades and rail projects.  Next monday, the mayors will be announcing the second “Ready to Go” Jobs and Infrastructure Report, which will identify even more projects.

Jerry E. Abramson, the popular mayor of Louisville, KY  headed to Capitol Hill in support of what the mayors are calling their Main Street Stimulus Plan. He makes a good case on what it would mean on a local level.

Now I'm a city girl through and through, which is probably why I'm eager to get started on one of my next projects, our annual Fast Cities package.  But I'm also a believer that a good city manager is one of the best problem solvers around. If they need help to solve problems, we should give it to them.  If we're going to get our acts together economically, figuring out how to keep cities humming smoothly seems like an awfully important priority - and not a bridge to nowhere.

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2 Comments

  • david wayne osedach

    The cities will still be around when ever we recover from this recession. At the very least part of the bailout funds should be directed to their needs.

  • J Graham Brock

    Here Here! Cities are the center of this country and need to be updated. Too long have we let them deteriorate and languish. Now in the last ten years have they started to rejuvenate and come to life. In the future they will be the driving force of economy. We should do all we can to promote cities and their infrastructure.