Corporate Eisodos

On August 1st the NY Times ran an article on corporations leaving the suburbs for downtown city locations. Featured in the article are GE’s move to Boston, McDonald’s to Chicago, and Chemours’ decision to stay in Wilmington. The exodus of corporate headquarters to suburban locations shaped metropolitan development in America for half a century, and a reversal of the trend could have equally profound implications.

(Oddly enough, there is no direct English antonym for ‘exodus.’ The English word derives from the Greek ‘exodos’ meaning an exit or departure, and of course is associated with the biblical narrative of the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. Unfortunately, the English language never got around to expropriating its Greek antonym, eisodos, which mean an entrance or act of entering.  Anyway….)

The article is mostly anecdotal so it might be premature to extrapolate an inversion of metropolitan geography from it. Nevertheless, such anecdotes have been accumulating, suggesting something might really be going on.

Two basic explanations are offered for the increasing appeal of urban locations. One is the tax incentives (increasingly?) being offered by municipal governments to companies that are considering downtown relocations. The other is the increased livability of urban areas and corporations’ desire to access a skilled labor force that prefers city living. What’s interesting is that those two reasons represent very different philosophies of urban redevelopment, and are even somewhat contradictory. The first reflects a 1970s-era belief that it’s all about tax competition.  The second reflects a Richard Florida-type strategy that if you make cities attractive enough, the creative class will flock to them and corporations will have no choice but to follow suit. The potential contradiction is that if cities give away their tax base to attract business, there won’t be enough of it to make the quality-of-life investments necessary to attract the creative class.

But maybe they aren’t ultimately contradictory.  If a virtuous circle takes hold, opposite of the vicious cycle that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, cities could both lower tax burdens and improve the QOL. There is nothing to suggest that central cities are at an inherent tax disadvantage; economies of scale in metropolitan infrastructure and services might even give cities a structural tax advantage. Maybe we’re reaching that stage of city-suburban competition. In any case, the $7.9 million in grants given to Chemours, cited in the article, came from the state of Delaware, not the City of Wilmington, as the DuPont spinoff was considering a move to Pennsylvania or New Jersey.