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Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017 12:22 am

Branching out

What might Springfield do to boost population growth?

In 1909 its Chamber of Commerce undertook a campaign to make Springfield “the largest city by all odds in the state outside Chicago.” Our best Babbits insisted that there was “no good reason why Springfield” (which then counted some 51,000 people) “shouldn’t become a city with a population of 100,000 within the next 10 years or even sooner.” In fact, the city’s population 10 years or so later, in 1920, was not even 60,000 people, which left it far from Illinois’ No. 2 city. We’ve had nearly a century to catch up, but Springfield today ranks not No. 2 but No. 6 in population, more than 30,000 people smaller than No. 5 Naperville, which in 1910 had 3,500 residents.

The “spring” in Springfield is from “hope springs eternal.” When this paper began publication in 1975, Springfield was again gripped by growth fever. The new university and continued expansion of state government were predicted to cause a modest population boom after a half-century of stagnation. In 1972, the editors of the old Illinois State Journal told readers that the city and county constitute “a growing economic community with virtual unlimited potential for the future.” In 1975, the Midwest Research Institute in Kansas City ranked the city among the nation’s top 30 “excellent” places to live, and the U.S. Department of Commerce predicted a 41.3 percent increase in population by 1990 – a rate nearly double that of the nation as a whole.

Catching up to Rockford is not my idea of unlimited potential, but Springfield in the 70s did look ready to boom; in the 1960s it had grown by 10 percent, more than five times faster than it had in the 1950s. But much of that was a result of annexation, which by the mid-1970s had gobbled up pretty much all there was to gobble. That predicted 41.3 percent increase in population turned out to be 15 percent, and rather than begin the 1990s with a population of 130,000, the capital city was home to only 105,000.

The unimpressive growth the city has seen over the past 30 years is expected to continue through 2040, if we’re lucky. The city of Springfield has two population problems. One is the loss of residents to nearby towns, driven mainly by school quality, about which the city can do very little. The other, more general, problem is the loss of residents to other states and Illinois counties – about which the city can do very little. Springfield can’t change state hiring levels. And the city can litter the area with industrial parks like McDonald’s wrappers on a windy day, but  as I mentioned in “Manufacturing crisis,” new factories won’t mean many new jobs. (Yes, Champaign-Urbana has an industrial park and it is buzzing, but that’s because that park is next to the U of I.)

But there is what the city can’t do, and there is what the city doesn't do because it doesn't know that it might. Back in 2009, urbanist Aaron Renn wrote about new kinds of economic development that don’t involve things that move on trucks. Pointing to New York City, he noted that there are good reasons why the deal-makers of the big banks and investment houses have to be in Manhattan. However, their back-office operations, where is done the essentially clerical work that cleans up the mess made by traders every day, don’t have to be there. That work can be outsourced to lower-cost cities that also offer workers affordable housing and better quality of life. And that’s what the finance industry has done, sending jobs to Florida, North Carolina, Delaware and the like.

Several kinds of work lend themselves to this separation of functions. One of them is the law. By “offshoring” prep work for big cases to branches in places outside the Loop, Renn argues, the big Chicago firms could tap a pool of lower-cost lawyers. “Chicago,” he wrote, “might be the only elite city in the country where you can get access to a far lower cost point just by going beyond the immediate metro area.”

Renn argues for Milwaukee and Indianapolis as bases for such operations, but might similar possibilities exist for Springfield lower on the food chain? The city has a white-collar workforce, many of whom at the moment haven’t much to do. It also offers some lifestyle advantages to young lawyers. including a quick drive home to a relatively cheap house. That would seem to make it a good place to open what amounts to legal back-office operations, linked with the state’s economic engine via genuinely high-speed public transportation and super-fast broadband. Springfield would have a bright future as, not a branch office, but a branch city.

Ah, but that would have required lobbying and development efforts that should have begun a decade ago at least. And that would have required – and aldermen, I hope you’re reading – hiring professionals who can keep the city alert to what people like Aaron Renn are thinking. By now, a different kind of future might loom; it would be nice if the city undertook to find out what it is.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.

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