James     Keith AllisonContrived news hooks based on LeBron James are so last week, but Aaron Renn at New Geography has a good link between the departing free agent and a struggling Rust Belt city:

In a sense though, Cleveland’s disappointment was inevitable. LeBron James was never going to turn around the city. No one person or one thing can. Unfortunately, Cleveland has continually pinned its hopes on a never-ending cycle of “next big things” to reverse decline. This will never work. As local economic development guru Ed Morrison put it, “Overwhelmingly, the strategy is now driven by individual projects. …This leads to the ‘Big Thing Theory’ of economic development: Prosperity results from building one more big thing.”

… James’ departure also fits the narrative of generalized anxiety around “brain drain” and cities losing their best and brightest of each generation.

The skepticism of single Big Things sounds rather Tom-Philpottian — Grist’s food writer often makes the case that farms and foodsheds are more resilient when they don’t rely on a single monocrop, and local economies are more resilient when they don’t rely on a single employer or commodity.

As it happens, there’s some interesting work afoot in Cleveland to find durable ways to improve cities without relying on Next Big Things like downtown megaprojects or superstar forwards. Buffalo State College economics professor Bruce Fisher explains:

This weekend in Cleveland, the Great Lakes Urban Exchange is bringing 100 thinkers, activists, elected officials, and wonks to kick around ideas about how one of the richest but most challenged Great Lakes cities can turn itself around. It’s going to be a three-day sequence of sessions on the “urban laboratory” that is underway in Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Toledo, and other towns that are struggling with the prospect of global economic irrelevancy.

The participants are going to describe their experiences with policy innovations like land-banking, with block-by-block reinvestment in distressed neighborhoods, with business plans that work, and with policy initiatives that still need work. The program is noticeably focused on how community-based organizations and small-scale investors are achieving increments of success in places that have been synonymous with economic distress for more than a generation.

One somewhat wonky key to successful regional planning is metropolitan planning organizations that look at metropolitan regions as a whole. City and suburban governments don’t have jurisdiction over the whole interconnected area of, say, greater Chicagoland, so it’s difficult for them to address a whole region’s needs. State governments typically give disproportionate representation to rural areas (as the U.S. Senate does) and hence aren’t very good at considering the health of metro areas as a whole.

Fisher again:

Of all the metros in all the Great Lakes states, only Indianapolis is actually governed as a metro. Every other one is experiencing what Cornell geographer Rolf Pendall calls “sprawl without growth,” and features a hollowed-out central city surrounded by a patchwork quilt of independently governed suburbs that spread ever more expensively and ever farther from the urban core thanks to the dimwit state governors who keep giving them road and sewer money.

On the bright side, the slogan “Less sensible than Indianapolis” is available for any metro area that wants to claim it.