Atlantic Cities

Signs of Recovery in the Great Lakes

Signs of Recovery in the Great Lakes
A worker at the General Motors Cruze assembly plant in Lordstown, Ohio. (Reuters/Aaron Josefczyk)

The 21 metropolitan areas of the Great Lakes region are among the most resilient areas coming out of the recession, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution. Twelve of the region’s metropolitan areas were ranked among the top 40 metros in the U.S., determined by measurements of employment, unemployment, gross metropolitan product and housing prices.

The report, a quarter-by-quarter analysis by Jennifer Bradley and Richard Shearer, also ranks metro areas by how those rates have changed since the onset of the recession, tracking which places are recovering the fastest. In a bit of a surprise, metros with strong ties to auto production have been among the quickest to rebound. Between the second quarter of 2010 and the second quarter of 2011, job growth in manufacturing was at more than 5 percent in Akron, Grand Rapids, Madison, and Toledo. Detroit and Youngstown, the two postertowns of Rust Belt decline, saw manufacturing job growth rates of 10 and 19 percent, respectively.

These results are a good sign for these cities, but they don’t mean their employment problems have been solved. Losses in manufacturing jobs since the beginning of the recession still outweigh the gains. Detroit has only regained about 16 percent of the manufacturing jobs it lost. Youngstown has regained 30 percent.

"The one caveat about places like Detroit and Youngstown is that their strong recovery hasn't been strong enough to make up for all the ground they've lost," says Bradley.

Beyond manufacturing, the report highlights other gains in employment. Except for Des Moines, each of the Great Lakes metropolitan areas is on its way up from its lowest employment figures. Of the 20 metropolitan areas in the U.S. that saw the smallest increases in unemployment rates between June 2008 and June 2011, 11 are in the Great Lakes region. But, as Bradley notes, employment is still lagging in much of the region.

"Output, as measured by gross metropolitan product, is recovering much better than employment," Bradley says.

The specific health of each metropolitan area depends on the lens through which it is viewed, says Bradley. Detroit, Toledo, and Youngstown may have performed well since the recession set in, but the decades preceding it were an economic nightmare. On the other hand, cities like Rochester and Buffalo might not be recovering from the recession as quickly as Detroit, but they also didn't fall as far down. Their decline happened decades ago. "They weren't as sick as the rest of the country," Bradley says.

In some senses, the metropolitan areas of the Great Lakes appear to be persevering through the recession. But just like the rest of the largest 100 metropolitan areas in the country, housing prices have continued to fall in the region. This mixed bag of increases and declines is an indication of the complexities of recovery. The process is clearly not over yet, but at least some gains in employment offer hope that these places will begin to more vigorously claw themselves out of the varying depths to which they've sunk as a result of the recession.

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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