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‘Death of downtown’

The rise of remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic, which spurred residents to flee pricey metropolitan areas for more affordable spaces, along with high numbers of business closures, appear to have slowed the recovery of urban centers, according to the study. This has led researchers to question whether this is the “death of downtown”.

Midwestern cities across the U.S. may face additional challenges.

Although many coastal cities come with a high cost of living, many also boast trendy neighborhoods, job opportunities and beaches. Midwestern cities typically don’t offer the same types of perks.

"What I really think it comes down to in these places is that there's nothing special about any of the downtowns in any of these cities that would be attractive to new residents," Michael Hicks, a professor of economics and business research at Ball State University in Indiana, told Insider in a recent interview.

"The cities just don't have the fundamental amenities that would attract people."

The Midwest has long struggled to attract residents, even prior to the pandemic. Cities like Detroit and Cleveland that once thrived on manufacturing businesses in the 20th century (now lost to automation and competition from other countries) neglected to prioritize the services and amenities that people care about.

These cities now seem to lack both the employment opportunities and quality of life Americans are seeking (and finding) elsewhere.

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What needs to change

The study’s researchers believe that older, denser downtowns that lean on professional and tech workers will continue to deal with the ramifications of remote or hybrid work policies. With a tight labor market, employees have more leverage to ask for flexible working arrangements as well.

The researchers recommend these downtowns branch out their economies, looking into sectors that typically withstand harsh economic cycles, such as education, health and government. They also suggest older office buildings be revamped into spaces for institutional, residential and recreational use.

“It may be time to reinvent downtown,” they write in their report.

Deteriorating downtown cores need to bring more attractions to lure residents as well — whether that’s making room for more open, outdoor spaces and hosting cultural events, or completely redesigning infrastructure to make streets more walkable and enhancing public transit systems.

Take Columbus, Ohio, for example. Its downtown ranks fourth in increased activity in the study — attracting more people now than before the pandemic — and the city was named among Realtor.com’s list of hottest housing markets in May this year.

Columbus appears to be a city on the rise. It’s home to Ohio State University's flagship campus and a massive Intel chip-manufacturing factory. The city’s average home value is just $244,756, well below the national average, according to Zillow.

And just last year, city leaders unveiled a strategic plan to revitalize the downtown core, which includes reducing dependency on cars and improving bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

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About the Author

Serah Louis

Serah Louis

Reporter

Serah Louis is a reporter with Moneywise.com. She enjoys tackling topical personal finance issues for young people and women and covering the latest in financial news.

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