A number of recent media articles suggest that millennials are increasingly interested in relocating to the suburbs or to America’s smaller legacy cities. If this is indeed true, it could be a very good thing as it will reduce the cost of living for millennials and build more prosperous legacy cities. But, let’s not get too excited yet about the prospects for legacy cities. A new Pennsylvania Economy League study, “Communities in Crisis,” takes a deep dive look at the economic health of that state’s legacy cities (i.e. places like Allentown, Reading, Scranton and York), and finds much cause for concern. Like many larger older cities now in the news for the wrong reasons (e.g. Baltimore, Detroit, St. Louis), these communities face massive financial challenges. The study assesses the fiscal health of more than 2,300 municipalities and finds that many places are in an insurmountable fiscal bind where tax burdens are growing while the local tax base shrinks. Pennsylvania’s cities, towns, and townships are struggling to pay for basic services, especially police which is by far the number one cost burden for smaller places.
I plan to dig into this topic in greater detail, but at this point, one conclusion is clear. We will need to rethink local government structures if we truly want to revitalize America’s legacy cities. It won’t be enough to simply attract or grow more businesses. No one, including millennials, will move to communities that struggle with basic services like fire, ambulance, police, and basic infrastructure support. These basic services aren’t free—they’re paid for with tax revenues. Current fiscal structures don’t work. Reforming local government is a big lift, but a necessary part of real community revitalization.