I will be the first to acknowledge that I do romanticize small town America.
There will always be a soft spot in my heart for the fictional town of Mayberry, NC. (Who couldn’t like Andy, Aunt Bee, Barney, Otis, Floyd, Gomer and Goober?)
I pick up my mail in Red Oak, Texas, population 6,200, where a few weeks ago the post office was echoing the sounds of highly disturbed chickens that were about to be shipped off somewhere. And I like driving back roads near Red Oak (Never mind that I am 25 minutes from downtown Dallas) with my black lab Corbin in the back of the pickup truck. I mean, ain’t that America?
Well, yes it is, and hopefully there will always be a special charm to small town America and rural places. And while people and businesses can and do prosper in the hinterlands, we have to realize that it is our big cities that hold our nation’s economic clout and future.
“Go West, young man” was a saying about America’s Manifest Destiny popularized by 19th century American author Horace Greeley. For the 21st century, Bruce Katz, a vice president at the Brookings Institution, would advise that young men and women seek their future in our cities.
According to Katz, it is in our our larger metro areas where we “are able to concentrate all the assets that really matter to grow a modern economy, whether it is innovation or infrastructure or human capital.”
Our Prejudice Against Big Cities
Now many of us have a prejudice against big cities. They are congested with traffic and crowded with people, many of whom we perceive as being quite different from us. There is crime and homelessness. No wonder that Jonah in the Old Testament wanted to avoid the “great city” of Nineveh, even after getting his marching orders from high above.
Still, we cannot avoid the facts. While we may not act like one, may not think like one, the United States has become a metropolitan nation, said Katz, with 83 percent of our population living in metro areas, accounting for 90 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.
“We may be nostalgic about small town America, but it is metropolitan America that drives our national economy and determines national prosperity, said Katz, who regularly advises federal, state, regional and municipal leaders on policy reforms that advance the competitiveness of metropolitan areas
Step one in formulating an economic policy for the nation, says Katz, is to simply recognize that the metropolitan areas are the true economic engine drivers.
A Very Magical Mix
“If the US is going to prosper and compete in this century, we finally need to understand that we are a powerful economy, because we are a network of metropolitan economies. And these metros are powerful because they really do connect up assets, this very magical mix of advanced research institutions, global companies, small and medium size enterprises, and then all the institutions, whether they are community colleges or workforce providers, all of which help and extend the competitiveness of these places.”
Step two is to recognize that cities are very different from each other and then plan accordingly.
“The most important thing we have to do as a country is to allow our big metros to recognize their special strengths and special assets and build from them. Because we have had this economy that is so intensely consumption oriented, as opposed to production and export oriented, it allowed metros to think that they were basically similar to each other, because a Wal-Mart is a Wal-Mart is a Wal-Mart, whether it is in suburban Phoenix or suburban Pittsburgh,” said Katz.
“But Phoenix is a very different exporting economy than Pittsburgh. The challenge for the US in general is to recognize that we are a metro nation but then to move in such a way that every metro is really enabled to build upon their distinctive strengths.”
Enable. I like that word. It means that we not only allow something to happen, but we also encourage it to happen, which often means sinking resources into it. We plant the seed to enable it to grow.
The Big Rub is Politics
And therein lies the big rub. Just about everyone and their brother wants to be enabled. We live in a democracy where fair play is part of our national consciousness. It is our body politic and as a result, resources are typically allocated because of the political market and not the real economic market. Remember Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” in the 2008 presidential campaign? Thankfully it was never built.
“When the president and Congress allocated money for high-speed rail funding, they decided to give a little to Wisconsin. Let’s give a little to Ohio. Let’s give a little to Florida. And then let’s give a little more to the places that could really use it like California and on the East Coast,” Katz said.
So in essence, our politics water down and get in the way of our chances for success.
In China, with no pesky democratic institutions to thwart top-down decision making, the decisions on making structural investments in the cities are made with the cold and steely eye of a bureaucratic regime that is thinking “what is it going to take to make this place grow.”
And it goes beyond that, Katz said. China is now designing, building and operating the infrastructure to keep its cities, with different strengths and focal points, connected to each other.
“The Chinese are taking the approach, ‘Let’s build our cities in a way that they are technologically enabled so that we become the vanguard of the next wave of technology innovation.’ That is what the Chinese are doing. They are doing things with an eye toward capturing markets and they are doing it in a way that reflects and leverages the distinctive assets of different places.”
Answering the Challenge
To answer the challenge, the metro areas in the U.S. should purposely strive to be centers of innovation, relying on their own particular features and strengths.
“Every metro should get focused and disciplined and purposeful and deliberate about their growth. If they do that, over time it will affect state policy, federal policy,” Katz said. “And if the government is not up to the task, it will attract private investment. … So my answer is for metros to get smart and to get aggressive. Be strategic in design and intelligent in action.”
Strategic in design and intelligent in action. Gosh, that has a nice ring to it. But it really is good advice, and not just for big cities but for small town America, too, where there certainly is a future for economic growth.
To economic develop organizations in big cities and small towns, I have long advised that you play to your strengths, be cognizant of your weaknesses, and do not make the common mistake of claiming or worse yet believing that you are right for every business investment under the sun. Know your strengths and put them to use.
Bruce Katz strikes me as an original thinker. He certainly gets me thinking. Next week, I will offer up a second helping from this futurist. But now I got to go see a man about a horse.
Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm in Red Oak, Texas — www.barberadvisors.com