There has been less longing, in recent years, to be part of our own countryâ€™s version of a rust belt â€“ the one that comprises such Southwestern Ontario cities as Windsor, London and St. Catharines, and patches of Eastern Ontario. Young people have fled in droves as the regionâ€™s employment numbers have tanked, seeing the loss of more than a quarter of manufacturing jobs in the last decade.
The plight of the region has been a driving force behind a provincial deficit that remains at over $10-billion, as well as a net loss for Ontario in the migration of people within Canada, and an alarmingly aging population.
Even with Alberta driving the national economy, the country could ill afford Ontarioâ€™s struggles; itâ€™s hardly healthy for the largest provinceâ€™s per-capita GDP to be lower than the rest of Canadaâ€™s, and it helps explain why the federal government has remained in the red.
With oilâ€™s current slide, Canada really canâ€™t afford for it to remain a drag â€“ and in fact there is some expectation that Ontario will instead reclaim its old role as the leader of Canadaâ€™s economic growth. Its premier, Kathleen Wynne, recently expressed optimism that plummeting oil prices and a sinking dollar will prove a boon to manufacturing. â€œI donâ€™t wish for low oil prices and a low dollar for Alberta,â€ she said earlier this month. â€œBut at the same time, we want our manufacturing sector to rebound. So if that [low oil price] helps, then thatâ€™s a good thing.â€
While they could indeed help in the short term, itâ€™s difficult to imagine those volatile factors leading to the lasting revival of traditional sectors competing with consistently low-cost jurisdictions such as Mexico, China and even the American South.
For sustainable renewal, Ontarioâ€™s old industrial towns will have to work harder at reinvention â€“ and they should be looking to some of their counterparts in the U.S. A two-week road trip through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan revealed in often surprising ways how our neighbours are much further along in reinventing their most hard-hit cities, and how much we have to learn.
â€œThe wind is at the back of these cities in a way that it wasnâ€™t before,â€ says Jennifer Vey, a fellow at the Brookings Institute who studies the revitalization of old industrial centres. And although many of them will remain smaller than in their industrial heyday, the numbers bear that sentiment out. When the Manhattan Institute ranked Americaâ€™s 100 biggest U.S. metropolitan areas for their economic performance in the wake of the Great Recession, mid-size Northeastern and Midwestern cities accounted for nine of the top 20.
As Mr. Piiparinen and others are quick to stress, jobs will always be the cornerstone of any regeneration. But employers themselves can be drawn to a city by affordability and infrastructure, and like to set up shop where highly skilled people want to put down roots. The renaissance of former industrial powerhouses is fuelled by attracting and keeping well-educated, entrepreneurial citizens committed to community-building and capable of creating wealth and quality of life around them.
Of course, direct comparisons between the U.S. and Canadian experience is never exact: The places I visited tended to be larger than their Canadian counterparts; and although they may have such superior amenities as major-league sports teams and world-class museums, they also suffer from some entrenched disadvantages â€“ notably an appalling history of race relations that has left a legacy of poverty, crime and troubled public schools.
So why is it that a younger generation is finding opportunity in these Rust Belt cities (or some of them, at least; nobody sees Flint, Mich., or Gary, Ind., as models) more than in places like London or Windsor, which have some decent bones themselves? As Ontario attempts to take back Canadaâ€™s economic reins, it would do well to learn from whatâ€™s worked, and know what itâ€™s up against.