They are gambling on riverboat casinos to help turn around Gary, Ind. Pittsburgh hopes a new sports stadium sparks its downtown economy, following in Baltimore's footsteps.
In the shadows of rusting steel mills and abandoned manufacturing plants, blue-collar cities turned in new directions during the past decade to revive slumping economies and lure back families that left town.
So far, the results are mixed.
The 2000 census shows the cities that suffered the biggest drops in population were Gary, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and other once-prominent industrial locales in the Midwest and Northeast.
The good news: declines for many of the cities were not as steep as previously forecast. For instance, Baltimore's 2000 population stood at 651,000, about 85,000 people less than 1990, but 30,000 more than what experts had predicted.
In each of these places, officials trumpet grand economic development plans they say offer bright prospects for the future. But their ability to rebound will be just as important for other parts of the country as well, said Bruce Katz, director of the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy for the Brookings Institution.
"If you look at the Southwest and the Sun Belt, there is growing concern that they are growing way too fast," said Katz, highlighting skyrocketing housing costs and quality-of-life concerns in places like Atlanta and Las Vegas.
"The market will probably take care of some of that because you may find firms looking for regions that are more affordable," he said. "But the country benefits when all these areas find their competitive niches and balance out their assets."
The once-a-decade head count confirmed long-forecast trends of population shifts south and west. The 10 fastest-growing cities between 1990 and 2000 were all in those regions, including Las Vegas, Phoenix and Austin, Texas.
Growth in the Midwest and Northeast lagged behind. The 13 percent decline in Hartford, Conn., was the largest among cities with a population of over 100,000, though that figure is being disputed by local officials.
Among other cities with the 10 largest percentage declines, two were in economically struggling upstate New York — Buffalo and Syracuse. Two others — Hartford and Norfolk, Va. — suffered from cutbacks at area military bases.
Gary, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Flint, Mich., also were among the top 10 losers. Many saw residents flee to the suburbs.
For instance, Gary's population declined 12 percent, but Lake County, Ind., where Gary is located, grew 2 percent. St. Louis also saw its population decrease 12 percent, while there was tremendous growth in its western suburbs.
Pauline Humphrey knows it will take time to lure those people back. After watching her north St. Louis neighborhood decline for decades, crime is down and abandoned homes that once served as a haven for drug dealers have been demolished.
Still, she said "we could use a little more attention. Too much of it is focused downtown and not enough on neighborhoods," said Humphrey, who has lived in the same neighborhood for 40 years.
A revival is already occurring in some Rust Belt cities that have more options for economic expansion, said Morton Marcus, executive director of the Indiana Business Research Center. Chicago, Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio, all saw population increases.
However, the plights of many smaller cities like Flint, Gary and Hartford have gone relatively unnoticed while redevelopment efforts in bigger cities like New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh grab headlines, Marcus said.