By Chloe Coleman and Tom Carroll
Last fall, a Manhattan Institute study identified 185 inner-ring suburbs—so-called first suburbs—in six states that were labeled as “declining” and suggested these suburbs merge with nearby central cities.1 The village of Silverton, Ohio—a diverse, working-class first suburb next to Cincinnati—was one community mentioned in this report.
We have heard the urge to merge before. This message is routinely repeated around the United States, coming from state officials, chambers of commerce, newspaper editorial boards, and academics. But is merging with a larger city really the only or even the best path forward for first suburbs?
Drawing attention to the challenges facing these communities is a welcome line of academic inquiry. First suburbs were the subject of research in the early 2000s, but there has been less focus on these communities in the decade since the Great Recession.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans live in smaller communities that hug central cities, and these inner-ring communities face disinvestment, deindustrialization, and population loss. Public administration literature has examined how central cities like Pittsburgh, Chicago, and now even Detroit have successfully reestablished vitality in a post-industrial era.
A newer body of research is examining revitalization in “legacy cities” like Youngstown, Ohio; South Bend, Indiana; and Cedar Rapids, Iowa.2 A decade after the Great Recession, a renewed examination of how to revitalize first suburbs is warranted.
Obstacles to Mergers
Unfortunately, academics often lump first suburbs into one category. We believe this is a mistake. From our front-row seats working in local government, it is clear the 2017 Manhattan Institute study included many communities in the Cincinnati region that did not fit squarely within the box of declining.
This study, for instance, listed the village of Indian Hill, Ohio, as declining because real household income has fallen, and total population has declined since 2000. We do not dispute the data, but Indian Hill is home to many of our region’s Fortune 500 executives and established-wealth families. Most of the homes there are on at least five acres of land and are estate homes and mansions.
At the other extreme are first suburbs having concentrations of poverty. In places like East Cleveland, Ohio, and East St. Louis, Illinois, the middle class fled long ago, and intractable poverty has been distilled in these suburbs. In between these extremes is a broader category of modest first suburbs like Silverton, which is home to middle-class families. Indeed, first suburbs vary greatly.
As professional managers, we need to entertain all policy options—including mergers. There are, however, obstacles that make merging with a central city unlikely and impractical. Affluent first suburbs have no interest in sharing tax revenue with a larger central city, and central cities have no incentive to absorb their most economically challenged neighbors.
Even if a first suburb that is not at either socioeconomic extreme was absorbed, why would a central city want to allow it to cut to the front of the budgetary allocation line? Why would a modest first suburb want to become one of many middle neighborhoods competing for scarce budgetary resources?3
Race, class, and partisan politics present unspoken but real barriers to merging. As local government practitioners, we see merging a first suburb and a central city as rarely feasible. Merging is simply against the interests of so many key stakeholders.
While we appreciate the renewed academic attention on first suburbs, as a profession, we need to explore additional policy tools to help first suburbs reverse population loss and disinvestment. We hope this article sparks more discussion with ICMA members.
The Silverton, Ohio, Example
In 2011, results of the 2010 Census were released and Silverton learned that its population had fallen below 5,000 residents, marking 50 years of gradual population loss. Under Ohio law, Silverton reverted from a city to village status.
The change in Silverton’s status created anxieties within the police department. In Ohio, villages have less opportunity than cities for collective bargaining, so members of the department feared a loss of benefits and job protections.
Between 2011 and 2013, six of the 10 sworn officers in the department took other jobs or retired, and new officers could not be hired and trained fast enough to replace them. During this time, the state of Ohio was reducing local revenue and eliminating estate taxes.
With a recovery from the Great Recession still elusive, the finance director openly wondered if Silverton was financially sustainable. This further fueled employee and resident anxiety. These were troubling days in Silverton.
Seven years later, this diverse village is in the midst of a revitalization. Today, more than $33 million in private investment is under way. This investment will expand the community’s tax base 17.5 percent, create 250 new jobs, and add 200 new households. A third of our roads have been reconstructed and resurfaced in five years.
Two parks have been revamped and a new pocket park was dedicated in fall 2018. Crime rates have declined. A new craft brewery will open next spring. Silverton has more revitalization work to do, but our trajectory is turning upwards. Here is what worked for the village.
Revamp the public safety business model. As already mentioned, police attrition outpaced hiring between 2011 and 2013. During the summer of 2013, Silverton contracted with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office to cover five of the seven night shifts per week.
The deputies were skilled professionals and quickly built trust in the community. By early 2014, it was clear it was infeasible to rebuild the Silverton Police Department as the remaining sworn officers were still looking for other jobs. In August 2014, the village contracted with Hamilton County for all law enforcement functions and eliminated its police department.
This law enforcement contract with Hamilton County created economies of scale, saving almost $300,000 per year from a $1.3 million annual police budget. This not only restored a structural balance after state budget cuts, but also freed up funds to invest in other public services.
A carefully crafted contract with the sheriff’s office was key. One vital provision: The sheriff provided comparable positions for the remaining Silverton police officers as part of the transition. We measured outcomes with performance metrics, and crime rates have trended down.
Reinvest savings. Silverton used savings from policing to leverage state grants for road and park investments. State grant programs vary widely; in Ohio, most state grants reward larger local matching contributions. The more local money you put in, the more likely you are to receive state grants.
Police savings allowed Silverton to increase its local share and thus obtain more state funding than ever before. Because we were bidding larger reconstruction projects, we obtained competitive bids and included other repaving work as alternates in our bidding process.
This allowed us to get a lot more work done with a mobilized contractor, and the benefits started to ripple throughout our neighborhoods.
Property maintenance. In 2014, the village launched a systematic property maintenance initiative with direct oversight by the village manager. During the first year of this effort, 15 percent of property owners were issued warnings or citations.
One key lesson was to set generous deadlines for the properties that were most significantly out of compliance. If an exasperated homeowner responded, “I can’t paint this house until next spring,” we gave them a due date of next May and held them to it.
The emphasis has continued year after year. Property maintenance is not glitzy nor can you ever cross it off your “to-do” list, but it is critical.
Land assemblage and redevelopment. Modest first suburbs often have shuttered factories, tired retail centers, and struggling downtowns. Macroeconomic forces played a part in bringing these conditions about, and market forces will almost certainly prevent these obsolete commercial properties from revitalizing on their own.
The best way to change the future of commercial space in a first suburb is for the local government to play a catalytic role in assemblage and redevelopment.
Silverton is fortunate to have had a city manager in 2008—Mark Wendling, ICMA-CM—who saw the opportunity to obtain strategic land through a creative, cashless land swap. Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) was planning to close its Silverton elementary school and rebuild it elsewhere.
Wendling negotiated an exchange that gave an underused portion of a park to CPS as a new school site, and Silverton received the 5.8-acre former school site once the new school was built. It took five years for the new school to be opened, and Silverton did not receive the old school site until 2015.
By that time, the village had assembled adjacent properties to form a much more marketable property. This assemblage involved 22 separate purchases and complicated bond financing, yet it is clear the development community would not have undertaken this assemblage on its own.
A 10-acre site—assembled, zoned, and virtually shovel ready—drew the interest of first-class developers. Silverton fully recovered its assemblage costs and made a profit to reinvest in roadways.
Strategic site control is the best way for local governments to change the future of antiquated commercial properties.
Partnerships. No modest first suburb can lift itself up without partners. The state of Ohio has been a key partner through competitive grants. Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Neil and his deputies facilitated the transition to a new policing model in 2014.
Several Hamilton County agencies provided competitive grants to help with property demolition and infrastructure improvements. Arts organizations and philanthropists supported several park projects, filling the funding gap and stretching local tax dollars farther. Private developers and entrepreneurs are investing through public-private partnerships.
Be bold. Author David Halberstam has noted that “in government it is always easier to go forward with a program that does not work than to stop it altogether and admit failure.”4 He points to the essential first suburban challenge: How can an inner-ring suburb reverse decline with the same governing approaches that failed to prevent it in the first place? The short answer is we cannot.
Silverton is in the midst of forging an approach to reverse decline, so our work here will continue. Merging is one tool that may be useful from time to time. But not every first suburban problem is a nail, and we will need more tools than just the merger hammer.
Endnotes and References
1 Mergers May Rescue Declining Suburbs,” Aaron Renn, The Manhattan Institute, 2017. https://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/mergers-may-rescue-declining-suburbs-10611.html.
2 “Looking for Progress in America’s Smaller Legacy Cities: A report for Place-Based Funders” (2017) and “Revitalizing America’s Smaller Legacy Cities: Strategies for Postindustrial Success from Gary to Lowell” (2017). https://www.chicagofed.org/region/community-development/community-economic-development/looking-for-progress-report and https://www.lincolninst.edu/sites/default/files/pubfiles/revitalizing-smaller-legacy-cities-lla170702.pdf.
3 “Caught in the Middle: When Neighborhood Isn’t Rich—But Isn’t Poor—Government Tends to Forget About It.” Alan Greenblatt. Governing, June 2018. http://www.governing.com/topics/urban/gov-middle-neighborhoods-government.html.
4 The Best and the Brightest. David Halberstam New York: Random House, 1972.