Statistics can be very useful, yet many times they can be completely unreliable – especially when trying to measure or rank something as large and complex as a city. So when statistics are used in over-simplified lists by various media outlets to rank cities, they tend to be worth little more than the paper they’re printed on. Case in point: the August 2008 Forbes list of America’s Fastest Dying Cities, the February 2009 Forbes list of America’s Emptiest Cities, and the March 2009 Site Selection Magazine Governor’s Cup rankings of cities with the most new or expanded capital projects (ie best place to locate your business). Dayton was at or near the top of both lists – huh?
These lists are silly. First of all, when was the last time you heard of a city that “died”? Of course Dayton is struggling in many aspects, but the city and region have many strengths that would prevent it from ever “dying”. The city is known to have a very strong arts & culture scene among similar-sized cities. The region has some of the best suburban public schools in the state. And Ohio’s largest single employer, WPAFB, is here and not likely to disappear anytime soon. So while Dayton has seen better days, it is not dying – and it could even be poised for an upswing.
At the same time, the Dayton Region has been getting pounded with bad economic news over the past few years. GM and Delphi were once the area’s largest private employers, and now they are gone. Mead turned into MeadWestvaco and moved to Connecticut. The manufacturing sector was once the region’s powerhouse; it is now simply a shell of its former self. In fact, Dayton is the worst city in the country in terms of job losses – losing jobs for 32 straight quarters. But nevermind, because Site Selection Magazine says Dayton is tops for business among second-tier cities (in terms of attracting economic-development expansion projects). Could Dayton be the worst job-loss city in the country and at the same time the best economic-development expansion city in the country? Don’t get too excited – Toledo, Youngstown and Detroit were near the top as well.
And speaking of lists, don’t even get me started about the “Creative Class Index”…
The point is, none of these “lists” – no matter good or bad – can be taken all that seriously. There is no such thing as a city ranking that offers a true picture of a city that is meaningful to everybody. Things are good here for some and bad here for others – same as every single city on the planet. Honestly, the magazines that publish these lists have figured out that by doing so they end up as a news story in every newspaper and television news broadcast in every city that is included on the list… can you say “free advertising”? But still, these lists do seem to have an impact on the attitudes of the people who live here, and potentially on those looking to move or invest here. So let’s hope that the next list Dayton finds itself near the top of is a “most improved city” list – because it will be positive AND believable.