European and American Cities Can Learn From Each Other as They Battle Brain Drain

“Europeans travel more and move less.  Americans travel less but move more.” This statement, from American University Professor Gary Weaver, was part of an introduction to the Marshall Memorial Fellowship program in Washington, D.C. as we began our respective journeys on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

Economic mobility in the United States is made relatively seamless by our system of interstate commerce. A common and mobile labor market has been critical to growth. However, there have been clear winners and losers as jobs and people have shifted to regions with greater perceived opportunity and the federal system of infrastructure and other sources of funding follows population growth rather than targeting maintenance and reinvestment in existing communities.

I was born and raised in Northern Ohio, a region where manufacturing jobs declined and the population and economy stagnated.  Residents moved to other parts of the country in search of economic opportunity or a more exciting place to live. Americans’ willingness and ability to move has forced cities like Cleveland to confront head-on the challenges that made them less competitive, and to embrace and invest in the assets that set them apart. These strategies will be critical to stemming “brain drain”.

While Europeans have historically moved less often than Americans, in the era of the European Union, globalization and the Euro crisis have forced many Europeans to move for increased economic opportunity.  This has created a brain drain problem for many regions. Romania, for example, has lost over one million residents in the last ten years.

The Marshall Memorial Fellowship provided me with the opportunity to visit Bucharest, Romania as well as Lübeck, Germany and Thessaloniki, Greece. Lübeck and Thessaloniki exist in countries on opposite ends of the current European economic spectrum, but both offer examples of places fighting to retain talent and population during difficult economic times.

Lübeck lost 25,000 shipbuilding jobs over the last few decades and is working to rebuild its economy and its brand by building on its historic cultural assets and architecture. I toured the site of the new Hanseatic League Museum, which is estimated to add 200,000 visitors per year to a growing tourism industry there. The city is also working to leverage the presence of a university conducting medical research that benefits the economy through commercialization.

These efforts are similar to initiatives in Cleveland that seek to endear rich cultural amenities to a younger audience. Cleveland has also had success in leveraging commercialization of its research institutions in order to diversify the economy.

In Thessaloniki, Yiannis Boutaris, a dynamic new mayor, is working to eliminate public corruption and has also taken strong steps toward making Thessaloniki a more welcoming city.  For example, he supported the city’s first Gay Pride parade. He also personally reached out to invite back the Jewish and Turkish communities, which both had a strong presence in the city before the Holocaust and forced migration respectively.

Similar changes are underway in Cleveland, where a corrupt Cuyahoga County government was recently reformed and the community has rallied around Global Cleveland, an effort designed to attract immigrants to a region that has historically not been welcoming to newcomers. Cleveland will also serve as host of the International Gay Games next year.

A clearly identifiable distinction between struggling regions in the U.S. and European cities is the investment being made by the EU. The Hanseatic League Museum in Lübeck and major subway and waterfront development projects in Thessaloniki are benefitting from significant EU investments.  These investments will stimulate the local economy during difficult times while also providing long-term assets that will lead to a more sustainable future.

Ultimately, an increasingly flat world means that American cities like Cleveland share much in common with European cities like Lübeck and Thessaloniki. Rather than taking a protectionist stance and retrenching, cities struggling with brain drain should learn from one another and develop solutions based on their unique assets aimed at providing the economic opportunity and quality of life that residents with choices have come to expect.  The federal government should continue to invest in these regions so that, rather than dragging down the economy, they can contribute to continental prosperity as they have done in the past.

 Eric Wobser, Executive Director of Ohio City Inc., is a Summer 2013 American Marshall Memorial Fellow.