Downtown turnaround? In these places, yes.

Downtown Minneapolis (Photo: Dan Anderson)

For decades, “going downtown” meant something special – probably from its very first use as a term to describe the lower tip of Manhattan, which was then New York City’s heart of business, commercial and residential life.

Downtown was literally “where it was at” – jobs, shopping, cultural attractions and all.

But then, beginning in post-World War II America, many downtowns lost their luster, as people were drawn to the suburbs thanks to cheap land and easy means to traveling to and fro.

In some places, downtowns and the areas immediately adjoining them became places of high crime, industrial decay, shopworn appearances and various socio-economic pathologies.

Things hit rock bottom in the late 1970s, as personified by the Times Square area of New York City. But since then, many downtowns have slowly come back from those near-death experiences, spurred by new types of residents with new and different priorities.

Dan Cort, author of the book Downtown Turnaround, describes it this way:  “People – young ones especially – love historical buildings that reintroduce them to the past.  They want to live where they can walk out of the house, work out, go to a café, and still walk to work.”

There are a number of cities where the downtown areas have come back in the big way over the past several decades. Everyone knows which ones they are:  New York, Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis …

But what about the latest success stories? Which downtowns are those?

Recently, Realtor.com analyzed the 200 largest cities in the United States to determine which ones have the made the biggest turnaround since 2012. To determine the biggest successes, it studied the following factors:

  • Downtown residential population growth
  • Growth in the number of restaurants, bars, grocery stores and food trucks per capita
  • Growth in the number of independent realtors per capita
  • Growth in the number of jobs per capita
  • Home price appreciation since 2012 (limited to cities where the 2012 median home price was $400,000 or lower)
  • Price premium of purchasing a home in the downtown district compared with the median home price of the whole city
  • Residential and commercial vacancy rates

Based on these criteria, Realtor.com’s list of the Top 10 cities where downtown is making a comeback are these:

  • #1 Pittsburgh, PA
  • #2 Indianapolis, IN
  • #3 Oakland, CA
  • #4 Detroit, MI
  • #5 Columbus, OH
  • #6 Austin, TX
  • #7 Los Angeles, CA
  • #8 Dallas, TX
  • #9 Chicago, IL
  • #10 Providence, RI

Some of these may surprise you. But it’s interesting to see some of the stats that are behind the rankings.  For instance, look at what’s happened to median home prices in some of these downtown districts since 2012:

  • Detroit: +150%
  • Oakland: +111%
  • Los Angeles: +63%
  • Pittsburgh: +31%

And residential population growth has been particularly strong here:

  • Pittsburgh: +32%
  • Austin: +25%
  • Dallas: +25%
  • Chicago: +21%

In the coming years, it will be interesting to see if the downtown revitalization trend continues – and spreads to more large cities.

And what about America’s medium-sized cities, where downtown zones continue to struggle. If you’ve been to Midwestern cities like Kokomo, IN, Flint, MI or Lima, OH, those downtowns look particularly bleak.  Can the sort of revitalization we see in the major urban centers be replicated there?

I have my doubts … but what is your opinion? Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Where’s the Best Place to Live without a Car?

For Americans who live in the suburbs, exurbs or rural areas, being able to live without a car seems like a pipedream. But elsewhere, there are situations where it may actually make some sense.

They may be vastly different in nearly every other way, but small towns and large cities share one trait – being the places where it’s more possible to live without a car.

Of course, within the larger group of small towns and larger cities there can be big differences in relative car-free attractiveness depending on differing factors.

For instance, the small county seat where I live can be walked from one side of town to the other in under 15 minutes. This means that, even if there are places where a sidewalk would be nice to have, it’s theoretically possible to take care of grocery shopping and trips to the pharmacy or the cleaners or the hardware store on foot.

Visiting restaurants, schools, the post office and other government offices is also quite easy as well.

But even slightly bigger towns pose challenges because of distances that are much greater – and there’s usually little in the way of public transport to serve inhabitants who don’t possess cars.

At the other end of the scale, large cities are typically places where it’s possible to move around without the benefit of a car – but some urban areas are more “hospitable” than others based on factors ranging from the strength of the public transit system and neighborhood safety to the climate.

Recently, real estate brokerage firm Redfin took a look at large U.S. cities (those with over 300,000 population) to come up with its listing of the 10 cities it judged the most amenable for living without a car. Redfin compiled rankings to determine which cities have the better composite “walk scores,” “transit scores” and “bike scores.”

Here’s how the Redfin Top 10 list shakes out. Topping the list is San Francisco:

  • #1: San Francisco
  • #2: New York
  • #3: Boston
  • #4: Washington, DC
  • #5: Philadelphia
  • #6: Chicago
  • #7: Minneapolis
  • #8: Miami
  • #9: Seattle
  • #10: Oakland, CA

Even within the Top 10 there are differences, of course. This chart shows how these cities do relatively better (or worse) in the three categories scored:

Redfin has also analyzed trends in residential construction in urban areas, finding that including parking spaces within residential properties is something that’s beginning to diminish – thereby making the choice of opting out of automobile ownership a more important consideration than in the past.

What about your own experience? Do you know of a particular city or town that’s particularly good in accommodating residents who don’t own cars?  Or just the opposite?  Please share your observations with other readers.

Cross-Currents in the Minimum Wage Debate

usmap-minimum-wages-2017This past November, there were increased minimum wage measures on the ballet in four states – Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington. They were approved by voters in every instance.

But are views about the minimum wage actually that universally positive?

A survey of ~1,500 U.S. consumers conducted by Cincinnati-based customer loyalty research firm Colloquy around the same time as the election reveals some contradictory data.

Currently, the federal minimum wage rate is set a $7.25 per hour. The Colloquy research asked respondents for their views in a world where the minimum wage would $15 per hour — a figure which is at the upper limit of where a number of cities and counties are now pegging their local minimum wage rates.

The survey asked consumers if they’d expect to receive better customer service and have a better overall customer experience if the minimum wage were raised to $15 per hour.

Nearly 60% of the respondents felt that they’d be justified in expecting to receive better service and a better overall experience if the minimum wage were raised to that level.  On the other hand, nearly 70% believed that they wouldn’t actually receive better service.

The results show pretty clearly that consumers don’t see a direct connection between workers receiving a substantially increased minimum wage and improvements in the quality of service those workers would provide to their consumers.

Men feel even less this way than women: More than 70% of men said they wouldn’t expect to receive better service, versus around 65% of women.

Younger consumers in the 25-34 age group, who could well be among the workers more likely to benefit from an increased minimum wage, are just as likely to expect little or no improvement in service quality. Nearly 70% responded as such to the Colloquy survey.

One concern some respondents had was the possibility that a dramatic rise in the minimum wage to $15 per hour could lead retailers to add more automation, resulting in an even less satisfying overall experience. (For men, it was ~44% who feel that way, while for women it was ~33%.)

Along those lines, we’re seeing that for some stores, labor-saving alternatives such as installing self-service checkout lanes have negative ramifications to such a degree that any labor savings are more than offset by incidences of merchandise “leaving the store” without having been paid for properly.

Significant numbers of consumers aren’t particularly thrilled with the “forced march” to self-serve checkout lines at some retail outlets, either.

Perhaps the most surprising finding of all in the Colloquy research was that only a minority of the survey respondents were actually in support of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. In stark contrast to the state ballot measures which were supported by clear majorities of voters, the survey found that just ~38% of the respondents were in favor.

The discrepancy is likely due to several factors. Most significantly, the November ballot measures were not stipulating such a dramatic monetary increase, but rather minimum wage rates that would increase to only $12 or $13 – and only by the year 2020 rather than immediately.

That, coupled with concerns about automation and little expectation of improved service quality, and it means that this issue isn’t quite as “black-and-white” as some might presume.

A Generational Shift within the American Workforce

bmI’ve blogged before about the cultural differences between older and younger Americans in the workforce. Some observers consider the differences to be of historic significance compared to previous eras, due to the confluence of various “macro” forces driving change at an extraordinary pace.

And somewhere along the way when few were looking, the millennial generation has now become the largest cohort in the American workforce.

And it isn’t even a close call: As of this year, millennials make up nearly 45% of all American workers, whereas baby boomer generation now comprises just over a quarter of the workforce.

According to a new report by management training and consulting firm RainmakerThinking titled The Great Generational Shift, there are actually seven groups of people currently in the workplace at this moment in time:

  • Pre-Baby Boomers (born before 1946): ~1% of the American workforce
  • Baby Boomers first wave (born 1946-1954): ~11%
  • Baby Boomers second wave (born 1955-1964): ~16%
  • GenXers (born 1965-1977): ~27%
  • Millennials first wave (born 1978-1989): ~27%
  • Millennials second wave (born 1990-2000): ~17%
  • Post-Millennials (born after 2000): ~1%

roowPersonally, I don’t know anyone born before 1946 who is still in the workforce, but there are undoubtedly a few of them — one out of every 100, to be precise.

But the older members of the Baby Boomer generation are fast cycling out of the workforce as well, with more than 10,000 of them turning 70 years old every day.

By the year 2020, the “first wave” Boomers are expected to be only around 6% of the workforce.  Meanwhile, Millennials are on track to represent more than 50% of the workforce by 2020.

Now, that makes some of us feel old!

The Great Generational Shift report can be downloaded here.

For physicians on the front lines, burnout is a real concern.

bdoIf you’re like many people, you may have begun to notice some telling changes in the “atmospherics” you encounter in your visits to the doctor’s office.

Perhaps the signs are just subtle, but things seem to be a little more stressed in the office – and a little less comforting for patients.

With the big changes happening in how healthcare services are delivered and how care providers are compensated, perhaps those changes are to be expected.

But a new survey of more than 500 physicians by InCrowd, a Boston-based market intelligence company focusing on the healthcare, pharmaceutical and life sciences fields, points to some unwelcome “collateral damage” that has to be concerning to everyone.

According to the InCrowd research results, three-fourths of the physicians surveyed do not feel that their healthcare facility or practice is doing enough to address the issue of physician burnout.

For the purposes of the research, burnout was defined as “decreased enthusiasm for work, depersonalization, emotional exhaustion, and a low sense of personal accomplishment.”

If three-quarters of the physicians think that too little attention is being paid to burnout issues, that may be one explanation for the changes in the “dynamics” many patients sense when they pay a visit to their doctor.

This doesn’t mean that the majority of physicians feel that they themselves have experienced burnout. But in two particular physician categories – emergency care and primary care – nearly 60% of the physicians surveyed reported that they had personally experienced burnout.

And most of the remaining respondents know other physicians who have experienced the same.

While burnout may be a more extreme condition, for many physicians the average day presents any number of challenges and frustrations. Nearly four in ten respondents reported that they “feel frustrated” by their work at least a few times weekly — or even every day.

dtThe two biggest contributors to this frustration? Time pressures, and working with electronic medical records.

Perhaps the most startling finding from the InCrowd survey is that ~58% of the physician respondents say that they’re either unsure or wouldn’t recommend a career in medicine to a family member or child.

To me, that finding says volumes. When a profession goes from being the object of aspiration to something to be avoided … we really do have a problem.

What’s been your experience at your doctor’s office on recent visits?  Do you sense a degree of tension or stress that’s more than before?  Please share your thoughts with other readers.

The Top Ten U.S. Cities for Stretching a Dollar

… They’re pretty nice in other ways, too.

Wausau, Wisconsin
Wausau, Wisconsin

A few months ago, my eldest daughter received her graduate degree in higher education academic counseling, and immediately thereafter started a new career position at a university located in a medium-sized city in the state of Wisconsin.

Of course, the main attraction was the job position itself and the potential it offers for professional growth.

But another important factor was the cost-of-living dynamics in an urban area where real estate and other costs are clearly more “friendly” to a career person just starting out.

Along those lines, the recent publication of CareerCast.com‘s newest “Ten Best Cities for Return on Salary” is revealing.

What it shows is that for young professionals just beginning in their careers – and likely saddled with student loans that are a significant chunk of change – the top cities for “stretching a dollar” aren’t particularly known for being the hippest places around.

By the same token, they aren’t the dregs, either.

Here’s CareerCast’s “Top 10” listing in order of the most budget-friendly cities:

  • #1 most budget-friendly: Wausau, WI
  • #2: Tucson, AZ
  • #3: Pittsburgh, PA
  • #4: Midland, TX
  • #5: Lincoln, NE
  • #6: Houston, TX
  • #7: Fort Worth, TX
  • #8: Durham, NC
  • #9: Columbus, OH
  • #10: Austin, TX

Scanning the roster, you might see a few surprises.

One shows up as #10 on the list; certainly no one is going to accuse Austin of being anything less than trendy.  Houston and Fort Worth (#6 and #7 on the list) are major metropolises.

Affordable, livable housing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Affordable, livable housing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

And more people are falling in love with the charms of Pittsburgh, PA (#3 on the list) – especially when compared to its old, worn-out and unsafe urban counterpart on the other side of the state.

The Midwestern cities on the list might not be the end-all in trendiness, but one can’t complain about quality-of-life factors like friendly neighborhoods and lower crime rates in places like Lincoln, Columbus and Wausau.

And if nothing else, Midland is the city that played host to President George W. Bush in his formative years …

Overall, I think it can be said that these ten cities aren’t a bad set of choices for young working professionals. The fact that they also happen to be the best ones for stretching a dollar is just icing on the cake.

Another for-profit higher educational institution bites the dust …

it

Last week, ITT Technical Institute, a for-profit higher educational institution enrolling ~40,000 students on more than 130 campuses across the country, announced that it is shutting down, while also laying off the lion’s share of its more than 8,000 employees.

This development comes hard on the heels of the closure of Corinthian Colleges last year. Together, it raises the question as to whether such “glorified trade schools” are doing any kind of service to students who seek to better themselves but who don’t have the scholastic record – or the money – to attend traditional two-year or four-year colleges.

tlpThere’s no question of the pent-up demand for higher learning. Guidance counselors push continued schooling as the next logical step for high school students, and society in general promotes a college education as the ticket to the good life.

For-profit colleges have benefited greatly from an environment which prizes higher education as the next logical step for high school graduates, and during the Great Recession beginning eight years ago, these schools continued to promote their curricula heavily while churning out more students into what was a very weak job market.

Students graduating from not-for-profit institutions had a hard enough time landing employment in their chosen fields … and for graduates of ITT, Corinthian and other such schools it was even worse.

corinthian_colleges_logoThe U.S. Department of Education had had its eye on both ITT and Corinthian for a number of years. Becoming alarmed at the inability of graduates to pay off their federally funded student loans, the Department ultimately banned both schools from enrolling any new students who rely on federal financial aid – which was nearly all of them, of course.

An angry ITT Technical Institute pronounced the sanctions unwarranted, inappropriate and unconstitutional – amounting to a death sentence.

A news release from the school stated, “These unwarranted actions, taken without proving a single allegation, are a lawless execution.”

As is often the case in such situations, there’s more than meets the eye. At the same time, ITT Technical Institute is also facing fraud charges from the SEC plus a lawsuit from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Not only that, the institution has been under investigation at the state level in 19 different jurisdictions.

Academic accreditation is also an issue, as the ACICS (Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges & Schools) determined that the school was not in compliance with ACICS’ accreditation criteria.  ACICS cited a whole range of questionable practices in admissions, recruitment standards, retention, job placement and institutional integrity.

The school itself, using aggressive and pervasive advertising while pushing its “power packed studies” in fields such as IT, electronics, CAD design and health services, also informed prospective enrollees that credits earned at ITT Technical Institute would be “unlikely to transfer.”

This sorry state of affairs at ITT-TI now makes it that much more difficult for ~40,000 students to pursue their career goals. It’s yet another example of how a laudatory mission can lead to negative consequences for the very people who need help in launching their working lives the most.

Ben Miller, who is a director for post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress, puts the blame nowhere but on the school:

“Years of mismanagement by ITT leadership put it in a position where the Education Department’s action was necessary.”

In the coming years, it will be interesting to see the degree to which other for-profit institutions with far-flung operations – Brightwood/Tesst, Capella, Strayer, the University of Phoenix and others – will fare under the klieg lights of heightened scrutiny.