A growing handful of Midwestern cities, like Columbus, Ohio, Traverse City, Michigan, and Carmel, Indiana, are reaching beyond traditional incentives for recruiting business and industry, focusing on how to expand their populations by promoting the region as a good place to live.
“This is probably the fastest-growing innovation in economic development for 50 years,” said economist Michael Hicks, a professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where he runs the Center for Business and Economic Research.
The county in Indiana with the strongest population growth—Hamilton—for instance, is “almost exclusively trying to attract people,” Hicks said. With four mid-sized cities, including Carmel, the county’s 350,000-plus population has a median household income of around $100,000 and officials are projecting consistent job gains over the next five years. The county and its cities consistently make “best places to live” lists because of the quality of public schools, amenities for singles, the health of the population and opportunities for outdoor recreation.
Parts of the Midwest served as longtime anchors for U.S. manufacturing, but saw declines in recent decades as jobs moved overseas or to Southern states where companies see factors like fewer labor unions, lower taxes and cheaper land as upsides. Meanwhile, coastal cities like Boston, San Francisco and Seattle served as magnets for firms and talent in the tech sector.
The emerging focus on attracting people who can provide the foundation for a solid workforce in the region stands in contrast to other approaches to economic development, which can often prioritize policies like tax breaks for companies to build factories or warehouses.
But as economics professor Amanda Weinstein of the University of Akron’s College of Business, in Ohio, noted, “We are increasingly seeing the jobs move to people rather than the people move to jobs.”
The rise of remote work adds another twist, allowing professionals in some fields to work anywhere and giving communities across the country a chance to lure them in.
Weinstein, like some other economists, advises local governments to invest in and promote quality-of-life amenities, along with health care and education, to help retain residents and attract out-of-staters looking to relocate to affordable, family-friendly communities.