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Let's Unite To Draw Distressed Coastal Residents

Thousands of people on the coasts are pleading for help getting out of the urban enclaves from which they once looked down their noses at us, out in Flyover Country.

How should we respond? By taking advantage of an economic-development opportunity for the ages.

The reports by now have become too numerous to dispute: People in droves are leaving, or want to leave, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and other once-formidable coastal outposts. Now they want to get the heck out of Dodge because of the inhospitable results of Covid-19 lockdowns, the dispersal of white-collar work away from offices in Manhattan and Mountain View and Redmond, violent protests and calls to defund the police that are actually getting traction, and the ruination of restaurants and theaters and sports stadiums and museums and other entertainment and cultural venues that traditionally have helped define life in these places.

In other words, many of the things that used to make life worth living in these hugely expensive and fundamentally inconvenient cities … have vanished, and many aren’t likely to return. So, many of their residents are acting rationally.

Consider this stat: A survey of San Francisco Bay Area tech workers in mid-May found that 42 percent would move to a less-expensive city if their employer asked them to work remotely full time. Many of these people already seem to be putting their money where their mouths are. There were 96 percent more property listings in San Francisco in the first week of August compared with a year earlier, according to Zillow.

So where are these people going? That’s a good question. They’re going all over, and wherever. And that’s why we in Flyover Country need to have a plan for snaring them.

Here’s my plan: The states and cities of the heartland should pull together in a concerted effort to put our case before these individuals and the companies to which they’re attached, and improve their understanding and appreciation of what we do in the rest of the country – and how we’d welcome them to join us.

In other words, CEOs, foundations, governments, state and local agencies and everyone else who’s got a stake in the economic improvement of Flyover Country should band together and recognize that we share a common stake. And that coalescing under a singular effort will be the best way to get the attention of those unfortunate people on the coasts for all the advantages of relocating to the heartland.

These advantages (with the current notable exceptions of Chicago and Minneapolis) include calm, normalcy, affordable housing, reasonable costs of living, fantastic urban and suburban amenities, easy availability of the wonders of nature -- and schools that mostly are trying to be in session this fall. Freed from the shackles of high costs of living and too-cool offices that now lie empty, many coastal denizens will be eager to sample not only the environs an hour or two out of their city but also what we have to offer in Flyover Country.

Take a guy the Wall Street Journal interviewed last week. After spending 14 years in the Bay area with a variety of tech giants including Uber and Airbnb, Jaime Contreras decided during the pandemic to move closer to family, buying a two-family duplex in Racine, Wisconsin, for just $160,000, the newspaper said.

“If you have the luxury of maintaining your Bay Area salary and moving elsewhere, it goes a lot, lot longer,” Contreras said. “I’ll live like a king.”

Of course, many of these new lookers from the coasts have no idea how to differentiate anywhere in Flyover Country. They don’t know Omaha from Des Moines, Birmingham from Little Rock, or Columbus from Ann Arbor. They think of us as a blob that they’re used to -- well, flying over.

If we can get some of these coastals to change their opinion about what our entire region is all about, then they'll bother to check out the many wonderful individual locales that we offer.

So let’s leverage the power of good old middle-American collectivity to market the warmth, appeal and economic opportunity offered by Flyover Country. Once we do that, our states and cities can compete for shares of the resulting population influx.

We’ve never been good in Flyover Country at understanding the possibilities in regional economic development nor at executing such an approach. There are a few groups of counties that cross state lines and work together for obvious reasons in attracting businesses to a metro area, such as the Ohio and Kentucky counties that form a hub around Cincinnati, and the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois.

There also are some notable regional coalitions around limited purposes, such as the Big Ten and Big 12 athletic conferences, and a cluster of Midwestern states including Michigan and Ohio that are trying to attract investment in autonomous vehicles.

But by and large, we in Flyover Country are failures at recognizing the potential in regional economic development. With the sudden availability of potentially thousands of folks who are looking for someplace to move, we should get better at tooting our collective horn – and fast.

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