Looking for Work: Which Cities Are the Worst?

So Cleveland will focus on inanities such as convention business and tourism, believing we all fantasize about a week enjoying the sights along Lake Erie. Yet even high-profile buildings like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, completed in 1986, have not transformed a gritty old industrial town into a beacon for the hip and cool.

Old industrial cities like Cleveland are better off focusing on their locational advantages--access to roads, train lines and water routes--while offering a safe, inexpensive and friendly venue for ambitious young families, immigrants and entrepreneurs.

Meanwhile, cities with formerly robust economies--like Reno, Nev., Las Vegas, Orlando, Fla., Tampa, Fla., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., West Palm Beach, Fla., Jacksonville, Fla., and Phoenix--are more likely to rebound. These areas topped our list for much of the 2000s; their success was driven first by surging population and job growth and later by escalating housing prices.

But the collapse of the housing bubble and a drop in large-scale migration from other regions has weakened, often dramatically, these perennial successes. "We could rely on 1,000 people a week moving into the area," notes one longtime official in central Florida. "These people needed services, houses and bought stuff. Now the growth is a 10th of that."

Instead of waiting for the real estate bubble to return, these areas should choose to focus on boosting employment in fields like medical services, business services and light manufacturing. In much of Florida and Nevada, there's also a need to shift away from a reliance on tourism, an industry that pays poorly on average and is always subject to changes in consumer tastes.

We can even be cautiously optimistic about some of these former superstars. After all, observes Phoenix-based economist Elliot Pollack, the existing reasons for moving to Arizona, Nevada or Florida--warm weather, relatively low taxes and generally pro-business governments--have not disappeared. "There's no change in the fundamentals," he argues. "It's a transition. It's ugly, and there's pain, but it's still a cycle that will turn."

Once the economy stabilizes, Pollack says he expects the flow of people and companies from the Northeast and California to Phoenix and other former hot spots will resume, once again lured by inexpensive real estate, better conditions for business and a generally more up-to-date infrastructure.

The Problem with California

So what about California? The economic well-being of many metropolitan areas in the Sunshine State has been sinking precipitously since 2006. This year, three California regions--Oakland, Sacramento and San Bernardino-Riverside--have sunk down into the bottom 10 on the large cities list. That's a phenomenon we've never seen before--and never expected to see.

Like other Sun Belt communities, California suffered disproportionately from the housing bubble's bust, which has devastated both employment in construction-related industries as well as much of the finance sector. But some, like economist Esmael Adibi, director of the Anderson Center for Economic Research at Chapman University, where I teach, thinks a real estate turnaround may be imminent.

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