Household income drains
Reprinted from The Plain Dealer, September 21, 2003
By Robert L. Smith and Dave Davis
As the sun-tanned residents of Naples, Fla., count their blessingsthe Gulf Coast community enjoys one of the highest standards of living in Americathey probably ought to be thanking Cleveland, too. Northeast Ohio is helping to finance their enviable lifestyle.
People leaving the seven-county region for the Naples area have brought with them a whopping $153 million in household incomes since 1996. Fast-growing Collier County, which surrounds Naples, drew more new money from Greater Cleveland than from any metro area in America except Minneapolis-St. Paul and Greater Chicago.
It's one of the top destinations for people leaving Northeast Ohio, according to a Plain Dealer analysis of seven years of IRS tax-return data, and many of the folks we send their way are smart, active and affluent.
"Well, you're very nice to do that," said Michael Reagen, executive director of the Naples Area Chamber of Commerce. "I'm glad you have that kind of money to send to us."
We don't, of course, and the contradiction points up a growing problem. It's no secret that Northeast Ohio has been leaking people and talent to more prosperous places. But researchers are alarmed at the amount of money going with them.
Since 1996, the seven-county region has hemorrhaged nearly $3.4 billion in household incomes to other parts of the world. The net loss, calculated by The Plain Dealer in constant 2003 dollars, totaled $456 million for 2002, more than double the annual revenue lost in 1996.
The damage is shared by the entire region, prompting some civic leaders to begin to call for regional solutions. But the income drain hits Cuyahoga County hardest.
Cleveland's home county is consistently losing the most people and the most money, with about half of those who move settling nearby in expanding suburbs in Lake, Geauga, Portage, Summit, Medina and Lorain counties.
"Northeast Ohio has a huge band of troubled older suburbs," said Myron Orfield, a former Minnesota state senator and one of the nation's leading urban planning "smart growth" gurus. "Most of the suburbs in Cuyahoga County are declining, and resources and people are moving farther out into the fringe, into the Bath and Richfield townships, the Solons, Auroras."
Orfield and others point out that the region's population peaked 30 years ago. We are not growing, just scattering.
"There's an expectation, I think, in any region, that the central county is going to provide certain big things," said Robert Layton, a federal transportation planner in Cleveland.
Big things like Chicago's lakefront parks, Pittsburgh's new convention center or Boston's high-tech clusters.
Layton thinks it will be a long time before a Medina mayoral candidate campaigns on a theme of sharing tax revenue with Cleveland. But it might not be so long, he said, before Medina parents find their children leaving for Phoenix or Houston because Cleveland cannot offer the same jobs and attractions.
Cuyahoga County still generates plenty of wealth and remains one of America's most populous counties, with 1.4 million residents. But comparisons with other counties show it now exports far more people and wealth than it imports, and with a force that is reshaping other communities.
Planners say our economy and community suffer as our affluent elderly flee for Florida and our educated professionalssome single and others with growing familiesstrike out for places such as Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta, and Ohio's white-collar capital, Columbus.
Meanwhile, the region also lost $103 million to Phoenix's Maricopa County, $79 million to Mecklenburg County, N.C., which includes Charlotte, and $76 million to Clark County, Nev., home of Las Vegas.
The flow of people and money has not been subtle. Expatriate communities of Clevelanders are rising in America boomtowns as they follow one another in immigrantlike chain migrations. Some Cleveland businesses, hip to the trend, are joining the wagon trail.
At gatherings of the Cleveland Club of Southwest Florida, people write the old neighborhood on their name tagsCollinwood, Lakewood, Broadview Heightsthen wade into a reunion.
Last November, they dined and danced the night away in the lobby of the Cleveland Clinic Naples, a $90 million hospital that the Cleveland Clinic opened in 2001. Alumni from the old St. Colman grade school on West 65th Street filled two tables. Former Cuyahoga County Commissioner Vincent Campanella popped in to say hello.
"It's much more fun than just a class reunion, because you never know who you're going to meet," said Diane Corcelli.
"I love the outdoors, and here you can be outdoors all year round," she said.
That same year, she founded the Cleveland Club, longing to swap stories with folks from home but deciding that the North Naples Browns Backers was not her crowd. They meet four times a year to share dinner and memories and to marvel at themselves.
"There's thousands of Clevelanders in the area," said Corcelli, who has been joined in the area by two brothers. "I think one person moves down and invites someone to visit, and that starts it. Everyone in our group seems to have relatives and friends here."
Many Clevelanders leaving for the Sun Belt are retirees, and that softens the loss, Layton notes. Their prime earning days are behind them. He's more intrigued by Clevelanders moving to nearby counties, people who are more likely to be younger and working.
Between 1996 and 2002, Northeast Ohio lost roughly $112 million in income to Greater Columbus as Clevelanders streamed into Franklin and Delaware counties. The trade-off between Cuyahoga County and its immediate neighbors is even starker.
Regionally, each county trades people and incomes with the other, but Cuyahoga County always gets the worst of the deal. It lost $382 million to Summit County over the last seven years and $353 million more to Lorain County, where most of the money went no farther than the new upscale subdivisions of Avon and Avon Lake.
The pattern is repeating itself in every metro area of Ohio.
"It started with the central city in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus," said Hazel Morrow Jones, a professor of regional planning at Ohio State University. "Now you're seeing it spread through the counties. As usual, Cuyahoga County is ahead of the rest of us."
None of the growing counties, meanwhile, can begin to carry Cuyahoga's freight. Medina County may have doubled its population over the last 10 years, Layton notes, but it's still a community of only 150,000, too small to support regional facilities.
"There's that recognition that we need a strong county, we need a strong central city, to make it," Layton said. "We have to talk about how to support it."
Some think an answer lies in places that also are losing people and money to Naples but still flourishing.
In the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, the surrounding seven counties share revenue from new industry and commerce, no matter what county plays host to the development. Other regions are exploring versions of Minnesota's tax-base sharing to spread the wealth and support the urban county.
Cuyahoga County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones thinks the concept will be a tough sell in Northeast Ohio, home to more than 200 independent and often competitive political subdivisions.
"I think that would be ideal, but Rome wasn't built in a day," Jones said. "There's a long road before we come to that."
He said he sponsored a regional economic summit at the NASA Glenn Research Center last July, in part, to get business and government leaders to start thinking regionally. He hopes to continue the momentum at another summit this fall.
Meanwhile, he expects support for regional sharing to come slowly, maybe as families ensconced in the far suburbs notice the ripple effects of a faltering urban county.
"When the kids in Medina start moving to Houston, then I think there will be much more willingness to cooperate," Jones said.
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© 2003 The Plain Dealer
Cleveland's home county is consistently losing the most people and the most money, with about half of those who move settling nearby in expanding suburbs in Lake, Geauga, Portage, Summit, Medina and Lorain counties. In seven years through 2002, Cuyahoga County suffered a net loss of more than 52,800 people and $1.5 billion in income to its six neighboring counties, according to the newspaper's analysis.