This weekend, communities are coming together in Dayton to show there's still some life in economically depressed areas. For the past year, Dayton, Cleveland, Youngstown and Canton have been laboring under the title fastest dying cities in the country. It was last August that Forbes called them as the walking dead.
When the Forbes article came out, the economy was just beginning to really sour, a Presidential race was in full swing, and Peter Benkendorf was in the process of moving to Dayton.
"This struck a nerve in Dayton and as a newcomer here, it was clear, that I didn't feel like the city was dying," says Benkendorf.
He wanted to show that the city was very much alive by holding the "Forbes 10 Fastest Dying Cities Symposium". He's invited mayors, city planners and other local groups to Dayton for a weekend of idea exchange and to talk about solutions. Phil Kidd will be there. He's a community organizer from Youngstown, a city that earned its place on the Forbes list in part because of steep decline in the steel industry.
"I would like to be able to communicate with those other communities and say, 'Hey, what are you doing in regards to your over abundance of affordable housing, or what are you dong in regards to incentives for small business start-ups, or minority business start-up?' Because here's what we're doing in Youngstown, how about you, Cleveland?" says Kidd.
Kidd doesn't see the bleak future for Youngstown that the Forbes article suggests. He bristles at the research that was done for it. In Youngstown, population loss is actually part of its strategy. "Smart Decline" is the term they use to enhance the quality of life for the people that remain. So, according to Kidd, the Forbes article really doesn't tell the whole story.
"I think it's the designation of dying that's the reason that we didn't give it that much emphasis," says Kidd.
"When you talk about a city dying, it's not the same as a person dying," says Joshua Zumbrun, the author of the notorious Forbes article, "It's not as if the cities will become total ghost towns where there's no living person in them. And I don't think that was implied."
Implied or not, a lot of people took it personally. Zumbrun says he had never received as much response from any of his other work, and that surprised him.
"The story was a pretty straight forward look at pretty straight forward statistics. From my perspective, I didn't pick these cities out, it was just what the statistics said," says Zumbrun.
Zumbrun acknowledges that this was meant to be a simple economic analysis, and not an insult to the people that live in these cities.
"I'm from the Midwest. I care about the Midwest. I want the country to get policies in place to help these cities. It's important to call attention to, so that people here in Washington are aware of it. So, I'm proud of it from that standpoint. I think there's potential for a lot of good to come from this story," says Zumbrun.
In fact, Zumbrun plans on attending the symposium. Organizer Peter Benkendorf says the article serves as a call to action for these cities to try and create a brighter future. But with other groups in the community already doing similar activities, the question remains, will it work? Benkendorf says it's worth a try.
"There's a free market of ideas, just like there's a free market of products and services in the for-profit sector. And we should be heralding the fact that so many people want to be engaged, and may the best ideas serve the needs of the community," says Benkendorf.
Benkendorf hopes the symposium will help breathe some life into Dayton, and the other "dying" communities. He intends on making the forum an annual event and wants to open it up to other cities in the Midwest and across the country. Also, he would like to leave behind the ties to the Forbes article and says, maybe next year, he'll just call it the "Living Cities" forum.