Sustained Outrage

In reading the Brookings report “MetroNation: How U.S. Metropolitan Areas Fuel Prosperity” and writing Wednesday’s summary of it, one question kept bugging me:

brookings3.JPGWhich comes first, metro prosperity or metro government?

Several of the metropolitan areas cited in the report have merged governments or functions. Metro government proponents in Kanawha County cite this report in support of merging governments into a metro system here.

The report clearly spells out that metropolitan areas, no matter their form of government, have urban centers whose economic fortunes are intertwined with their surrounding areas. Metro areas parlay innovation, human capital and infrastructure into more opportunities, employment and wealth.

But does that mean if you form a merged metropolitan government, prosperity will follow?

I asked the report’s author Alan Berube, senior fellow and research director at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, in short, if economic prosperity is the cause of metro government rather than the result? Here’s his answer:

 “I think your inclination is correct — creating a metro government in Charleston will not magically produce the collection of underlying economic assets that make large metropolitan areas such powerful players in the national and global economy — innovative firms, educated and skilled workers, modern and efficient infrastructure, high-quality sustainable places.

“Yet you shouldn’t overlook the outsized economic contribution that the Charleston region already makes in the WV context.  As the largest metropolitan area in the state (and the 147th largest in the nation), the Charleston, WV MSA contains 17% of the state’s population, 20% of the state’s jobs, and generates almost 24% of the state’s GDP.  So like most metro areas, Charleston already “punches above its weight.” (See here for stats)  Note that this represents the contribution of the whole metro area: Kanawha County plus Boone, Clay, Lincoln and Putnam counties.

“So in light of this, what’s the potential meaning of consolidating the Charleston city and Kanawha County governments?  I’d point to three things:

— Studies suggest that there are financial efficiencies that can be gained from eliminating duplicated services.  If those resources were reinvested in the real drivers of metropolitan prosperity — e.g., research universities, workforce development, transportation/energy/telecommunications infrastructure — then consolidation could act indirectly as a spur to economic growth.

— Making growth-related policy decisions (e.g., land use, housing, transportation) at a level of government that more closely resembles the regional labor and housing market, which is metropolitan in scope, could forestall the sort of growth patterns that produce economic and social separation, consume greater financial and environmental resources, and ultimately erode the ability to create and sustain “quality places” that we see are crucial for attracting and retaining innovative firms and talented workers.

— For purposes of profile, size matters, to put it crudely.  Charleston has about 50k people.  I don’t know where that puts it among all US cities, but it’s pretty far down the list.  A merger would give the Charleston-Kanawha Consolidated City a population of about 191,000 — and all of a sudden you’re the size of Little Rock, Grand Rapids, Mobile.  Of course, those are all larger metro areas, but in terms of putting you on the “investment map” for firms outside WV, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.  This was part of what drove Louisville and Jefferson County, KY to consolidate a few years ago; see this report.

“I hope this helps.  Metro governance does not alone create metro economic growth, but done well, it could act as a platform for fostering the sort of assets that contribute to metro prosperity in larger places.”

Browse other metro government topics.