World Mayor 2023
American mayors establish
economic recovery taskforces

By Tony Favro, Senior Editor

ON THIS PAGE: Common framework with local variations ||| Equity ||| Resiliency |||| Regionalism ||| Summary |||

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US cities: post CovidPost-Covid, American cities
strengthen economic equity,
resilience and regionalism

March 2021: Within a few months of the start of widespread Covid-related lockdowns, US mayors began establishing task forces to help guide their cities’ economic recovery from the pandemic. Many of these task forces have now issued reports. While the reports’ recommendations address specific local needs, there is a convergence of thought on how a post-pandemic local economy should unfold and the role of cities and mayors.

Common framework
with local variations

Perhaps the first pandemic economic recovery task force in the US was established in Washington, DC in March 2020 by an existing group of academic, nonprofit, public, and private sector leaders, including former DC mayor Anthony Williams. Other US cities quickly followed with their own task forces. Task forces are active in the largest cities, such as New York and Chicago, mid-size cities, such as Durham, North Carolina (population 270,000), and Lincoln, Nebraska (population 284,000), and smaller cities, such as Sugar Hill, Georgia (population 23,000) and Stevensville, Montana (population 2,200). A primary goal of all the task forces is, in the words of Roanoke, Virginia Mayor Sherman Lea, “to evaluate the [current pandemic-related] situation and make recommendations about how best to financially support the community’s recovery.”

Certain sectors of the US economy and certain regions suffered more employment and investment loss during the pandemic than others. Not surprisingly, the task forces’ recommendations vary according to local conditions. The report of San Francisco’s Economic Recovery Task Force, for example, calls for creating a pilot basic income program for the city’s many artists, while that of Bartlesville, Oklahoma (population 36,000) calls for helping struggling local businesses pay overdue utility bills; Washington, DC’s Strategic Renewal Task Force report recommends a new bio-defense facility for the nation’s capital.

While the focus and flavor of the individual reports is local, most share a common framework or approach to economic recovery:

Virtually all the reports target equity as a fundamental objective. “People of color and low-income people did not benefit from the last economic recovery. We need to make sure this doesn’t happen again as we prepare the next economic recovery,” explained Portland, Oregon Mayor Ted Wheeler when discussing the goals of his city’s economic recovery task force.

Recommendations in the majority of the reports are designed to ensure equity in income and wealth across demographic groups “to unlock the potential of all people,” according to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Typical recommendations include more childcare, accessible public transport and other essential public services, greater availability of early-childhood education, and expanded affordable housing.

US mayors and their partners have long embraced resiliency by attempting to diversify local economies to fortify them against future economic shocks. New York City, for example, led a successful effort over many years to diversify from finance by expanding its tourism and arts sectors, while tourism-reliant Orlando, Florida successfully expanded its high technology sector. US cities have also taken the lead in building resiliency to climate-induced change.

The economic recovery reports understandably place an emphasis on health; that is, how to best manage future public health crises and thus make their local economies more resilient.

There is also an emphasis on zoning code updates, neighborhood infrastructure improvements, public space redesign, and other relatively small, short-term investments to make cities more connected, sustainable, safe, and attractive to sustain local the economy for the long term.

A lesson of the pandemic is that impacts of major forces are rarely limited to a single jurisdiction or geography. The actions of one local government, therefore, must be integrated with similar efforts of other local governments at the regional level. This is especially important when government funds are stressed. Implicit in many reports is the acknowledgement that the ecosystem for cooperation and collaboration currently exists in a given region; it just hasn’t been brought together.

For example, Washington, DC’s report recommends the creation of an economic development plan that permeates the jurisdictional barriers that “cause Maryland, Virginia and the District to operate in silos.” In Tennessee, the state’s four largest cities of Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, and Chattanooga have taken a further step to regional cooperation by forming a joint Tennessee Major Metros Economic Restart Task Force. “We will get through this crisis by working as a team,” said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland of the task force. “It will take that same teamwork to revive our economy.”

Advocacy for equity, resilience, and regionalism is nothing new for American mayors, especially the mayors of America’s larger cities. Nor are task forces for local economic development.

What seems to be new is a broad-based recognition that equity, resilience, and regionalism are accelerating trends, and that those local economies that embrace and plan for those trends rather than resisting their impacts will be the ones that outperform in the future.

In a sense, the word “recovery” in the name of most of the cities’ task forces and reports is somewhat misleading. Rather than an economic recovery - that is, trying to get a city’s and region’s economies back to where they were - the various economic recovery reports paint a different picture of where a city’s and region’s economies should be headed.

“There is a great hunger and need for investment. There is a great hunger and need for healing,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago told the Chicago Sun Times newspaper of her city’s economic recovery plan. “What this task force report does very well is meld those two aspects to make sure that we are building healthy and vibrant communities that…can unleash the potential that has been suppressed for way too long.”

Mayors are leading planning efforts with significant unknowns, such as the long-term impacts of the pandemic on trade, real estate markets, consumer behavior, and tax bases.  They are under no delusion that the challenge of attracting regional investment and cooperation while ensuring equity and building resilience will be easy.

“[We are] at the beginning of what we know is going to be a long road to recovery,” said Mayor London Breed of San Francisco.

However, notes Mayor Lightfoot with the optimism and can-do attitude that permeates most efforts, “If we do this right, it will be the kind of transformation that, generations from now, we’ll be talking a renaissance.”