PhillyInc: Region on the rise in new economic ranking

Posted: December 16, 2011

The Philadelphia region reminds no one of a Sun Belt boomtown.

Still, sometimes slow and steady can place pretty high in the rat race, particularly when a deep recession is involved.

No, Philadelphia will probably not brag about placing 49th on the Milken Institute's Best Performing Cities index of 200 large metropolitan areas.

What's notable for an index that was designed to be steady year in and year out is that the region climbed 34 places in one year - the most of any big region. Its only peer making such a move was Los Angeles, up 23 places.

"Philadelphia has done very well among the major metro areas," said Ross DeVol, chief research officer of the economic think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif.

DeVol, who used to live in the Philadelphia area before heading west, knows that the outsize education and health-care sectors play a stabilizing role in the economy here.

Those sectors were among the only ones to add jobs throughout the recession and this weak recovery. Another net job-gainer that tends to get less credit is tourism, DeVol said.

Sometimes, it's what's not here that matters. For as much hand-wringing that's been done over the diminution of Philadelphia's financial sector over the last two decades, that low exposure meant less carnage here when the financial crisis erupted in 2008.

That New York still suffers from a financial hangover can be seen in its decline on the Milken ranking to No. 75 from No. 48 in 2010.

Remember the days when Las Vegas was touted as some economic miracle in the desert? Vegas ranked No. 2 on the Best Performing Cities index in 2003 and 2004. This year, it's No. 197.

The index is not a beauty contest. DeVol said he wanted to create an index that reflected "outcomes," not quality of life. That's why much of the index is weighted heavily on job growth over one- and five-year periods.

The Philadelphia area's job growth between 2009 and 2010 was very good, and the five-year growth of its high-tech output vs. that of the United States as a whole was another strength. Having a concentration of high-tech companies matters because they produce the "highest value-added jobs" of any sector, DeVol said.

Technology and energy explain why nine Texas cities placed in the top 25 of the 2011 Milken ranking. San Antonio rode to the top thanks to renewed drilling in the region's Eagle Ford shale formation and to military-base realignment, according to DeVol.

What of the health-care- heavy Philadelphia region's potential for job loss once key parts of the federal health-insurance overhaul take hold?

Acknowledging the enormous uncertainty surrounding the health- insurance changes, DeVol said he likes Philadelphia's prospects: "I still think the region will fare fairly well."


Contact columnist Mike Armstrong at 215-854-2980

or marmstrong@phillynews.com, or @PhillyInc on Twitter.

Read his blog, "PhillyInc,"

at www.phillyinc.biz.

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