Midsize Midwest Cities — Where Do They Go Now?

Postcard showing Terre Haute, IN.  Source: allposter.com


There are some things I posted in the early days of this blog that probably enjoyed very little attention and received little followup on my part.  This piece on midsize Midwestern cities definitely fits that bill.  Since I started this blog nearly two years ago, the attention given to the Rust Belt seems to have grown exponentially — Detroit’s bankruptcy, Chicago’s crime, and Pittsburgh’s revitalization have occupied center stage at various times.  Unconventional ideas are emerging on how to turn around major Rust Belt cities, but smaller ones seem to escape inclusion.  So rather than repost my original post without further comment, I’ve decided to revisit and do some followup commentary.  

First, the research.  Looking at 2010 U.S. Census data, I found there are 74 cities in the Midwest as as I’ve described it with a population between 50,000 and 300,000.  I eliminated primary cities that fit the population threshold but were part of metro areas that had more than one million people (i.e., St. Paul, MN; Cincinnati, OH; Buffalo, NY), leaving me with 71 midsize Midwest cities.  The largest is Toledo, OH (287,208 residents) and the smallest is Elkhart, IN (50,949).  In between are cities that have become the icons of American Heartland – see the table below.

Midsize Midwest Cities
2010 City Population
2010 Metro Area Population
Toledo, OH
287,208
651,429
Lincoln, NE
258,379
302,157
Ft. Wayne, IN
253,691
416,257
Madison, WI
233,209
568,593
Des Moines, IA
203,433
569,633
Akron, OH
199,110
703,200
Aurora, IL
197,899
9,461,105
Grand Rapids, MI
188,040
774,160
Sioux Falls, SD
153,888
228,261
Rockford, IL
152,871
349,431
Joliet, IL
147,433
9,461,105
Kansas City, KS
145,786
2,035,334
Dayton, OH
141,527
841,502
Topeka, KS
127,473
233,870
Cedar Rapids, IA
126,326
257,940
Evansville, IN
117,429
358,676
Independence, MO
116,830
2,035,334
Springfield, IL
116,250
210,170
Peoria, IL
115,007
379,186
Lansing, MI
114,297
464,036
Ann Arbor, MI
113,934
344,791
Elgin, IL
108,188
9,461,105
Rochester, MN
160,769
186,011
Fargo, ND
105,549
208,777
Green Bay, WI
104,057
306,241
Flint, MI
102,434
425,790
Erie, PA
101,786
280,566
South Bend, IN
101,168
319,224
Davenport, IA
99,685
379,690
Kenosha, WI
99,218
9,461,105
Waukegan, IL
89,078
9,461,105
Lawrence, KS
87,643
110,826
Duluth, MN
86,265
279,771
Sioux City, IA
82,684
143,577
Champaign, IL
81,055
231,891
Bloomington, IN
80,405
192,714
Gary, IN
80,294
9,461,105
Racine, WI
78,860
195,408
Appleton, WI
78,086
225,666
St. Joseph, MO
76,780
127,379
Bloomington, IL
76,610
169,572
Decatur, IL
76,122
110,768
Kalamazoo, MI
74,262
326,589
Canton, OH
73,007
404,422
Muncie, IN
70,085
117,671
Waterloo, IA
68,426
167,819
Iowa City, IA
67,862
152,586
Lafayette, IN
67,140
201,789
Youngstown, OH
66,982
565,773
Oshkosh, WI
66,083
166,994
Eau Claire, WI
65,883
161,151
St. Cloud, MN
65,842
189,093
Lorain, OH
64,097
2,077,240
Janesville, WI
62,948
160,331
Hamilton, OH
62,477
2,130,151
Council Bluffs, IA
62,230
865,350
Bismarck, ND
61,272
108,779
Terre Haute, IN
60,785
172,425
Springfield, OH
60,608
138,333
Pontiac, MI
59,515
4,296,250
Ames, IA
58,965
89,542
Dubuque, IA
57,637
93,653
Owensboro, KY
57,265
114,752
Anderson, IN
56,129
131,636
Grand Forks, ND
52,838
98,461
Normal, IL
52,497
169,572
LaCrosse, WI
52,485
133,665
Manhattan, KS
52,281
127,081
Battle Creek, MI
52,347
136,146
Saginaw, MI
51,508
200,169
Elkhart, IN
50,949
197,559


I listed them all in a spreadsheet that included their 2010 city population and their 2010 metro area population, and started to make some early observations.  For example, metro area population is likely a better indicator of the relative “imprint” of a city, rather than primary city population.  Saginaw, MI, with a population of 51,000 but a metro area of 200,000, seems bigger than Muncie, IN, with a city population of 70,000 but a metro area population of just 118,000. And of course, cities that were relatively close to large metro areas (having a population greater than one million) seem to share more characteristics with their bigger neighbors than their smaller ones, economically and socially. 

That led me to ask a few questions that could shed some light on other city characteristics:

·         Is the city a county seat or a county’s largest city, yet not the primary city of a metro area?
·         Is the city a part of or adjacent to a large metro area (with a population of more than one million)?
·         Is the city less than 60 miles from a large metro area?
·         Is the city a state capital?
·         Is the city a college town?

And that exercise led to some interesting conclusions.  Using those questions I was able to identify seven different categories of midsize Midwest cities, and the categories provide a glimpse into each city’s economic history and strengths:

1.  Captured Satellite City: A once independent midsize city that has been pulled into the “orbit” of a larger metro area. There are eleven in this category.

2.  Emerging Satellite City: An independent midsize city that is in the process of or on the verge of being pulled into the orbit of a larger metro area.  There are six in this group.

3   State Capital and College Town:  A city fortunate enough to be a government center and the home of a major university.  There are just three in this category.

4   Emerging Satellite City and College Town: A combination of points 2 and 3, they retain some measure of independence from larger metros, and benefit from having large schools.  There are only two in this group.

5   State Capital: Self-explanatory.  There are four here.

6   College Town: I’m defining a college town as one with a school with an enrollment greater than about 15,000 students, making the school large enough to have a significant impact on the local economy (in case you’re wondering why Notre Dame and South Bend, for example, aren’t included).  There are ten in this group.

7.   Independent Midsize City: Ah yes, the largest group, with 35 in this category.  Too far from major metros to bask in their glory, and no state capital or university to build from.

Here’s how the cities stack up in a table:

Midsize Midwest City Categories
Cities By Category
Captured Satellite City
Aurora, IL; Joliet, IL; Kansas City, KS; Independence, MO; Elgin, IL; Kenosha, WI; Waukegan, IL; Gary, IN; Lorain, OH; Hamilton, OH; Pontiac, MI


Emerging Satellite City
Akron, OH; Dayton, OH; Flint, MI; Racine, WI; Springfield, OH; Anderson, IN


State Capital AND College Town
Lincoln, NE, Madison, WI; Lansing, MI


Emerging Satellite City AND College Town
Ann Arbor, MI; Bloomington, IN


State Capital
Des Moines, IA; Topeka, KS; Springfield, IL; Bismarck, ND


College Town
Lawrence, KS; Champaign, IL; Bloomington, IL; Kalamazoo, MI; Muncie, IN; Iowa City, IA; Lafayette, IN; Ames, IA, Normal, IL; Manhattan, KS


Independent Midsize City
Toledo, OH; Ft. Wayne, IN; Grand Rapids, MI; Sioux Falls, SD; Rockford, IL; Cedar Rapids, IA; Evansville, IN; Peoria, IL; Rochester, MN; Fargo, ND; Green Bay, WI; Erie, PA; South Bend, IN; Davenport, IA; Duluth, MN; Sioux City, IA; Appleton, WI; St. Joseph, MO; Decatur, IL; Canton, OH; Waterloo, IA; Youngstown, OH; Oshkosh, WI; Eau Claire, WI; St. Cloud, MN; Janesville, WI; Council Bluffs, IA; Terre Haute, IN; Dubuque, IA; Owensboro, KY; Grand Forks, ND; La Crosse, WI; Battle Creek, MI; Saginaw, MI; Elkhart, IN

So what do the categories suggest about each midsize city’s present and future economic prospects?
Captured Satellite City: These cities have economic fortunes that are closely tied to the economic fortunes of the much larger metro area surrounding it.  Some cities seem to recognize this and have planned accordingly; others still have memories of their earlier independence and have struggled in the face of industrial restructuring.  Perhaps their future is better served by becoming low-cost urban options in otherwise suburban areas.
Emerging Satellite City: These are cities that sit on the periphery of major metro areas, and have yet to fully benefit from being “pulled” into the larger orbit.  They, too, have memories of earlier independence, and may struggle with adjusting to a more dependent future.
State Capital and College Town: With only three in this category, Madison leads the way in terms of economic strength, with Lincoln not far behind.  Lansing, despite having the capital and college attributes, has historically relied on its industrial legacy as well, possibly diluting the government and education benefits.  If it can tap those strengths maybe it can duplicate the others’ success.
Emerging Satellite City and College Town: Ann Arbor and Bloomington are truly unique in that they are the flagship universities in their respective states and are in close proximity to each state’s largest city.  Ann Arbor seems to figure more prominently in metro Detroit’s future; Bloomington remains relatively disconnected from metro Indy.  My guess is that when these cities are fully brought into the larger metro’s orbit, they — and the entire metro — will greatly benefit.
State Capital: As long as the four cities here remain state capitals, they have a reason d’etre and economic catalyst that will support them.  They will continue to have strengths that will elude other similarly-sized cities.
College Town: In many respects the college towns are similar to the state capitals, with an existing reason d’etre and economic catalyst.  The difficulty, perhaps, lies in strengthening and reinforcing the college’s links to the rest of the city and metro.
Independent Midsize City: Here, I believe, are the midsize Midwest cities whose future is most tenuous.  When people wonder about the future of smaller post-industrial cities, these are generally the ones we think of.  What can Youngstown, OH do to forestall its decline?  What strengths does Decatur, IL have that can serve as a foundation for revitalization?  What lies ahead for Terre Haute, IN?  Wtih respect to the other midsize Midwest cities, which have more clear futures (whether or not they choose to accept them), I’ll start exploring what might happen with the independent, midsize, post-industrial Midwest city.

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