Seven cities that surprised in recession

Akron, Ohio, and Pittsburgh have done unexpectedly well, according to a new ranking of the best and worst performing cities. One lesson: There's more to economic activity than housing.

By , Staff writer

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    Skyline view of downtown Akron, Ohio. Akron has managed to hold steady or add jobs in the second quarter this year.
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A new report tracking the US economy by metro areas finds that some cities are already leaving recession behind, while others remain mired in hard times. And the hills and valleys of economic performance aren't necessarily where you'd expect.

Of course, it's no surprise that the housing bust puts lots of Florida cities on the "worst-performing" list during the recession. But the Metro Monitor report, released Tuesday by the Brookings Institution, ranks Rust Belt icon Pittsburgh among the best performers in this recession.

Here's a list of seven surprising winners and losers culled from the report:

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Winners

1. Akron, Ohio: job gainer. Five of the 100 largest metro areas managed to hold steady or add jobs in the second quarter this year, compared to the previous quarter. Akron stands out because it's in a state that most often makes economic news for its automotive job losses. Akron wasn't on anybody's "most likely to lead" list for the post-recession economy. The other job-gaining cities (up from two in the first quarter) were Buffalo, N.Y., Columbia, S.C., Madison, Wis., and McAllen, Texas.

2. Riverside/San Bernardino, Calif.: standout "GMP." Just as the output of a nation gets measured by gross domestic product (GDP), there's also something called gross metropolitan product (GMP) for metro areas. Despite having a deep mortgage bust, the Riverside and San Bernardino metro area ranks as No. 12 in the nation for its GMP performance during the recession (down only 1.8 percent from its peak). The lesson here is that there's more to an economic activity than just the housing market. Another subtext: California's economy appears to be moving faster toward recovery than Florida.

3. Rochester, N.Y.: overall Top 20. Maybe the obituaries for Eastman Kodak – and upstate New York – were premature. The city made the list of 20 best performers during the recession. (The ratings are based on total job losses, change in the jobless rate, GMP, and home prices.) The Top 20 list was dominated by cities in Texas and the Great Plains, and Rochester made the list thanks to its specialization in higher education and healthcare.

4. Pittsburgh: overall Top 20. Pittsburgh, which symbolized blue-collar economic anxiety in the early 1980s, also ranks among the areas least affected by the recession. It's not that steel plants are escaping the impact of the automotive slump. But like Rochester, Pittsburgh has lots of higher education and healthcare activity, and a steady housing market.

Losers

5. Portland, Ore.: job loser. For all its reputation for high quality of living and high-tech prowess, the Pacific Northwest's "Silicon Forest" stalled out during this recession. Oregon's leading metropolis is one of the worst five cities in unemployment over the past year. Its jobless rate rose by 6.1 percentage points in the 12 months ending in June.

6. Boise, Id.: overall bottom 20. Four years ago, Boise symbolized the Mountain-state boom. But its rapid growth got ahead of itself. Housing prices have fallen. And as in Portland, the bumpy ride for the high-tech industry hasn't helped the job market. Boise-based Micron Technology is a large (but now smaller) maker of computer chips.

Other

7. New York: nowhere on the list. OK, maybe we shouldn't highlight a city that didn't score well or poorly in the Brookings study. But when that city is the nation's financial capital, during a recession rooted in a financial crisis, it's worthy of notice. Banks have laid off a lot of people. But the Brookings researchers found that cities such as New York, with a heavy emphasis on finance have done better than average, perhaps because they boast a more diverse economy in general.

Runner up: Cape Coral, Fla. This Gulf Coast community was among 20 cities nationwide that posted at least a modest gain in GMP in the second quarter. The city is still working its way through a major foreclosure crisis, the fallout of speculative home buying before the recession. But the rise in GMP may hint at some light in the tunnel.

The Brookings report also notes three cities where GMP has risen above pre-recession levels: Austin and McAllen in Texas, and Washington, D.C.

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