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City forecast: bleak

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There are some bragging rights you'd just as soon avoid, some things you wish you were wrong about.

Rolf Pendall has as much right to say "I told you so" as anyone, except maybe Buffalo Bills naysayers. But like a prescient Bills fan, he's not in an enviable position. Pendall, who's a city and regional planning professor at Cornell University, had his research cited in a report released last week by the Office of State Comptroller Alan Hevesi (you can find our coverage of some of Pendall's work in "Ailing in upstate," www.rochester-citynews.com/gbase/Gyrosite/Content?oid=oid%3A3047).

The comptroller's report --- Population Trends in New York State's Cities --- echoes many of Pendall's grim findings.

As usual, Rochester can take meager consolation in the fact that, hey, at least it's not as badly off as Buffalo. The state's second largest city lost about half of its residents in the second half of the 20th century. That ranks it fourth highest in the nation in population loss, behind only St. Louis, Youngstown, Ohio, and Pittsburgh. Out of large cities nationwide, Rochester was 12th with a 34 percent decline, followed closely by Syracuse (14th) with losses of 33 percent. Each underwent five straight decades of decline the report notes. Meanwhile, suburban towns statewide swelled by more than double from 1950 to 2000.

But the report didn't simply chronicle in greater detail a trend we all already knew about. It also crunched another set of numbers. Looking at four factors --- residents below poverty, single-mother families, vacant housing, and high-school degrees --- it linked population decline to social and economic ills. Predictably, Rochester, Buffalo, and Syracuse were three of only five cities that earned the worst designation: a "far above average" social-stress index. In a chicken-and-egg scenario, the report asks --- but does not answer --- the question of whether population loss creates socio-economic problems or vice versa.

So what does it all mean? This is where the comptroller's report's usefulness starts to break down. Early on it offers a simple, cryptic conclusion: As city population and economic activity drops, "the stability of an entire region's economy can be threatened."

This is an idea that's quickly gaining currency with scholars like Pendall.

"There's actually a growing body of research that suggests economic performance at the regional level is higher in regions that are anchored by central cities that are economically vital," he says. "Conversely, regions that have threatened or distressed central cities don't do as well in international and national economic competitiveness."

But Kent Gardner, a policy analyst for Rochester's Center for Governmental Research, disparages that as "the donut theory."

"You can find cities where the central city is not very prosperous and yet the suburban communities are prosperous," he says. "Unfortunately, I believe it's possible for Mendon to be just fine and for Rochester to continue to decline because I think that the tie between the city and the suburbs is growing weaker and weaker as time goes on."

The main lesson Gardner says he's taking from the study is the absurdity of using outdated notions (like the "city") as a basis for research: "It just reminded me how irrational the collection of municipal classifications [towns, cities, villages] is in the State of New York," he says.

The comptroller's report itself seems to support that claim. It notes that the cities range from New York City, and other large cities like Buffalo and Rochester, to the tiny Sherrill, with less than 3,200 residents in 2000. Excluding New York City, the median city is Plattsburgh with a mere 18,816 residents.

Meanwhile, four Long Island towns each have populations larger than the city of Buffalo, and three other towns top the 125,000 mark.

In New York, the notion of "home rule" is so strong, it's virtually impossible for cities to annex their suburbs. And that weakens the ties between city and suburb, Gardner says. He points to work he's done recently comparing Rochester to Columbus, Ohio.

"Columbus has been able to annex its suburbs, so if you took a look at Rochester and Columbus cities, you'd see that Rochester lost 34 percent of its population over whatever period of time the comptroller's office is using; Columbus has doubled its population in that same time," he says. "But now Columbus is a good chunk of Franklin County."

And Gardner found that, in most cases, Columbus had a competitive edge on Rochester when it came to attracting and keeping businesses. So isn't that an argument for more regional cooperation?

"Sure. I think our communities would be much more rationally governed if we had more liberal annexation rules," Gardner says. "There are a lot of benefits that I think would be achieved from creating a Monroe County-wide city of Rochester. I think a lot of people agree in theory so long as it's not their town that gets merged with the city."

This is where the divergent theories of Gardner and Pendall converge on a similar set of solutions. Both advocate changing state policies to give some clout back to cities.

For Pendall, changing the rules around business subsidies is an important first step.

"If New York State made it less expensive to operate in cities or to live in cities as a matter of policy, then that would reduce the disincentive that's placed on people when they're considering a city house or a city business location versus a town one," he says. "I think if you could make the argument that the region will experience greater overall economic growth and therefore increase its tax base, there might be some economic justification for doing that, because it helps save the city and in turn that will promote regional growth."

And if there's one silver lining to the generally ominous tone of the comptroller's report, maybe it's the fact that it was issued by a state entity, rather than by a professor or a think tank. Could that give it more credibility? "I hope so. I would certainly think so," Pendall says. "That puts this report in a really good position to help important policy."

To download the comptroller's report, go to: www.osc.state.ny.us/localgov/muni/pop_trends.pdf

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