Topping the list is Youngstown, Ohio, which, like Pittsburgh, suffered from the decline of the steel industry and never fully recovered. Dayton is similarly depressed: Late last year, one of its biggest employers, General Motors, shut down its plant in the city. In Toledo, the unemployment rate is 9.8% (the national average is 8.1%), and manufacturing jobs decreased by 16% in January 2009 from January 2008.
And while the economy in Cleveland is diversified--from the Cleveland Clinic to NASA's Glenn Research Center to the headquarters of paint and building-supply company Sherwin-Williams--it's not viewed as a shining star of the Midwest.
But Youngstown has it the worst, seeing the biggest population declines: a 0.8% drop from 2007 to 2008 and a 5.4% decrease from 2000 to 2007. Next was Flint, Mich., with a 1.2% drop from 2007 to 2008 and -0.3% from 2000 to 2007.
Some metro areas, like Detroit, ranked fourth, and Flint (both of which continue to experience devastation as the U.S. automobile industry collapses), have enough systemic problems to continually drive their populations away. But other cities on the list do possess a few oft-overlooked bright spots, indicating that negative perceptions keep new residents from coming as quickly as others leave.
Buffalo, for example, saw a 0.8% increase in housing value over the last year. Sure, the median home price is just $106,200, but home values have decreased by 30% in some parts of the country over that same period.
And in Youngstown, local officials have established the Youngstown Business Incubator, a nonprofit organization partially funded by the state government that aims to accelerate the growth rates of local tech start-ups.
But these positive notes can only help so much. Foster, whose job is to come up with business strategies to further develop Buffalo, says that what these areas really need is better marketing.
"When I moved to Buffalo, I carried the same misconceptions that most do. What I found was jaw dropping" she says of the city's architecture and cultural offerings. "Efforts to market the region are so important."
But Safford think it goes further than that. "It's about competitive companies," he says. "We'd all like to think that Seattle is popular because it's cool, but come one, it's because of Amazon and Microsoft: companies that generate cash. They're not stuck in the past."