Twenty-six years ago, I saw an employment ad in Editor & Publisher, then the bible of the news business, seeking reporters for a new publication covering state and local government. It was 1987: Ronald Reagan was president, nobody had email and hardly anybody knew what a 401(k) was.
I was intrigued enough to put my investigative reporting skills to work. Rather than simply responding to the ad, I tried to figure out who would have such a crazy idea. As it turned out, the respected publication Congressional Quarterly deserved credit. With the Reagan-era devolution of power away from the federal government, they had decided to start a new magazine tentatively titled Governing the States and Localities. Before long I was in Washington, D.C., talking to the publisher, Peter Harkness, and the editor, Eileen Shanahan, about writing for it.
Today, Editor & Publisher is long gone—a victim of online publishing—but I’m still writing for Governing. Though I never joined the staff full time, I’ve been hanging around the magazine writing about economic development for almost three decades now. During that time, I’ve had a circuitous, unorthodox career: journalist, publisher, author, think-tank researcher, part-time college professor, land-use planning consultant, mayor and national advocate for smart growth. But through it all, I’ve continued to write for Governing, particularly this column every other month for the last 18 years.
Until now. In July, I started a dream job I never knew I wanted. I’m now the planning director for the city of San Diego. It’s not a job I went looking for. After all, I had just moved to Washington, D.C., last year after living in Southern California for 30 years. But when the mayor’s office called me in May to discuss the position, I couldn’t resist. San Diego may have a national reputation as a sunny, laid-back military town, but in reality it’s a big, diverse, multifaceted city.
With 1.3 million people, it’s the eighth-largest city in America, complete with the ethnic and racial diversity typical of California. It’s both blue-collar and white-collar, with lots of R&D, lots of manufacturing and trade, and lots of tourism. It’s also a tech boomtown focused around the University of California, San Diego, where 20 Nobel laureates have taught. And it’s got a spectacular urban planning history, dating back to when John Nolen produced a plan for the improvement of San Diego in 1908. It called for linking Balboa Park and the waterfront.
In recent years, however, San Diego’s proud planning history has been diminished, as budget cutbacks have harmed the city’s ability to do long-range planning. And while the region is prosperous as a whole, that prosperity is not widely shared. Almost half of the city’s employed residents work at low-wage jobs, double the national average.
All of which makes for a fascinating job for the lucky guy who now oversees the city’s planning and economic development efforts. But that makes it hard for me to continue serving as an independent voice on the issue in this distinguished magazine. So I’ve decided to step down from column writing, at least for now.
It’s not an easy decision for me to make. Throughout my career, I have always viewed myself first and foremost as a writer. And I have always loved using the Governing gig as an excuse to parachute into a town and figure out what’s going on. That was true the first time I did it, when I wrote a story 25 years ago about the closing of the first-ever foreign auto assembly plant in Pennsylvania. It was equally true when I wrote a column in July about a new R&D park revolving around a Rolls-Royce jet engine plant in Virginia.
In between, there have been columns and stories about all kinds of things: downtown entertainment districts, convention centers, airports, manufacturing plants of all kinds, retail power centers, the debate about economic development subsidies—which never seems to end—and on and on. And over and over again, I have returned to the two economic development themes that have quite literally shaped my life—the challenge of restoring prosperity to the Rust Belt, where I grew up, and the challenge of taming it in the Sun Belt, where I have lived most of my adult life.
The most wonderful thing about writing for Governing is the window it’s given me on how economic processes shape cities and places in America, and vice versa. Cities and towns exist largely because they are wonderfully efficient vessels for commerce. Every column I’ve ever written has somehow described how these processes work, especially in the interplay between commerce and places. To me, this has always been the core of the American dream—learning how to use the assets that cities and towns give us to generate the prosperity that powers our lives.
For me, however, it’s time to stop writing and start doing. I hope that during this next phase of my career, I’ll be able to put into practice many of the lessons I’ve learned about economic development in 26 years of writing for Governing. It’s always a lot harder to do than to write, but that’s what makes it such a great opportunity. Thanks for reading all this time, and I’ll let you know how it goes in San Diego.