Diversity and the Rise of America’s Second-Tier Cities
by Andrés T. Tapia –
The Cincinnati skyline at twilight
In my work as president of Diversity Best Practices, I travel around the country a lot—meeting with members, consulting, giving speeches. While my engagements often take me to the usual big cities—New York City; Boston; Washington, D.C.; San Francisco—increasingly my work is pulling me to second-tier towns. Like most people, I had preconceived ideas about our country’s smaller cities—slower paced, homogeneous, lacking in resources and amenities. To my surprise, there is a fervent movement around diversity and inclusion in these secondary cities that I believe is evolving into a national trend.
From Pittsburgh to Columbus to Omaha to Grand Rapids to Milwaukee to Indianapolis to Minneapolis, cities that people have typically assumed lack diversity are more diverse than people think. In fact, the percentage of racial minorities in Pittsburgh; Columbus, Ohio; and Milwaukee surpasses that of New York City. And Grand Rapids and Milwaukee come close to rivaling the Big Apple in terms of the percentage of Latinos.
What’s more, because many of these cities are experiencing economic growth the imperative of diversity is growing right along with their rising economic indicators. Omaha has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, Columbus one of the fastest economic growth rates, and Pittsburgh is the poster child of a city making the pivot from an industrial economy based on steel to the new economy of finance, healthcare, and technology.
In their growing dynamism, companies in these second tier cities are awakening to a realization that not only do they need to leverage the diverse talent pool already in the city; they need to bring in more talent from outside to keep their economic growth momentum. This means attracting more diversity—racial/ethnic, immigrant, LGBT—to cities that on first blush may not be seem to be magnets for big-city types from groups that historically may not have felt welcome.
It’s this legacy perception that they lack the diversity and amenities found in major metropolitan areas that poses a fundamental challenge to these second-tier cities. If they don’t overcome it, their economic growth may stall out due to lack of talent.
So companies in these markets are working together to get their diversity story out. I have been with passionate diversity leaders in Milwaukee, Columbus, Omaha, and Cincinnati, where they have banded together through city-wide diversity councils where big and medium-sized companies (even competing organizations) are addressing their common diversity challenges. They’re also partnering with their local Chambers of Commerce and city development organizations to make their cities more attractive. Because when it comes to attractive city life its not just about seeking tolerance; it’s also about finding a place to do my hair, find my spices, boogey to my music. So these diversity leaders are helping their cities with the following three-prong communications effort.
Spread the word about the economic opportunities as the nation as whole struggles with a sluggish recovery. These cities are home for some of the largest companies in the nation, many of them in the FORTUNE 100. Mutual of Omaha, Union Pacific, and ConAgra in Omaha; Cardinal Health, Abercrombie & Fitch, Nationwide, Limited Brands, Huntington Bank in Columbus, Ohio; Fifth Third, Macy’s, Procter & Gamble, Kroger in Cincinnati; 3M, Target, Cargill, Best Buy, General Mills in Minneapolis; PNC, Humana, US Steel, Heinz in Pittsburgh; MillerCoors, Manpower, Rockwell, and Harley Davidson, Johnson Controls, Northwestern Mutual in Milwaukee. And then there’s the largest employer in the world in the middle of Bentonville, Ark. Wal-Mart is so much of a force in its headquarter town that some of its vendors have set up large facilities in the southern town specifically to serve the big box retailer—supersizing the retailer’s already outsized economic influence on the town.
With economic strength comes the benefit of increased tax revenues. Increased revenues have fueled a civic renaissance providing residents and visitors alike with a very cosmopolitan experience.In Omaha’s Market Square, the small-town quaintness of horse-drawn carriages meandering down cobblestone roads meets a metropolitan menu of sushi, Indian, French, and Latin fusion restaurants representing a savory selection of international cuisine typically reserved for the big city. Pittsburgh has transformed from a soot-producing steel town to a clean, landscaped happening urban hub. Cleveland’s Historic Warehouse District with its potted flower lined sidewalk cafes is reminiscent of European scenes. Milwaukee’s shuttered factories have been reborn as funky lofts for artists and restaurants and night clubs for hip professionals. Cincinnati’s historic riverfront on the Ohio River offers a large urban park experience that can be topped off in the evening with a cabernet sauvignon and a prime rib cooked medium rare.
Confront and cast off the legacy that these cities are not welcoming to racial and ethnic minorities and other underrepresented groups. A Cincinnati study found that despite the city’s growing diversity, a majority of its residents feel that still more diversity is needed and that they still fall short of providing a truly inclusive and welcoming spirit to outsiders. Cincinnati’s findings likely represent the feelings of those in many of our country’s second-tier cities and these cities know their work is not done.
These systematic, city-wide approaches already in action are the key to achieving greater diversity in these smaller cities. The next step involves metropolitan-wide collaborations with local businesses—grocery stores, beauty salons, barbershops and more—in an effort to truly meet the needs for lifestyle amenities that potential residents seek when contemplating a new home. The effort is a win-win for all involved—these cities and their residents and the companies located there. For an influx of greater diversity will mean a growing population with needs for all kinds of mainstream and exotic goods and services.
This trend is still evolving. Keep your eyes open. There’s an emerging diversity story here, in a second-tier city near you.