Something is happening in Flyover Country, a phenomenon that we’ve been talking about for months: We’re rising, in part because more and more of our fellow Americans on the coasts are discovering (or re-discovering) the heartland and turning inland for their future.
Whether it’s the page-one story in the Wall Street Journal the other day about Silicon Valley tech workers emigrating from the San Francisco Bay Area, or the multiple indications that self-exiled New Yorkers are having second thoughts about moving back into Gotham after the pandemic, the truth is that COVID-19 ultimately may become a huge economic boon for Flyover Country.
“We’re seeing some movement there,” Jeff Taylor, commissioner of the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, told me. “There are some places where we’re having to sharpen the blade for this, and we are doing this. We already have specialized teams picking things apart.” Murray Kessler, president and chief executive officer of Perrigo's North American operations, said, "Right now, people are vacating Manhattan and New York and the high personal income taxes, and Michigan is very reasonable versus the East Coast." Kessler, who had built his business career on both coasts, decided to keep the company's headquarters in Michigan with a new building in Grand Rapids after he became Perrigo North America chief two years ago. Kessler told me some coastals "teased me when I first got here about west Michigan. But the truth is, it's a kind and inviting and welcoming place to live."
Demographer Joel Kotkin has been anticipating this moment. “Large heartland metropolitan areas like Nashville, Austin, Detroit, San Antonio, Grand Rapids and Dallas-Fort Worth are all gaining educated millennials far more rapidly than coastal ‘magnets’ like New York, Los Angeles or even the Bay Area,” Kotkin, who runs the site NewGeography.com and is based in Orange County, California, wrote recently.
What’s more, a post-COVID “rubber-bander” phenomenon is snapping more young workers back to their birthplaces. “People will say, ‘I can go live in the Rockies, or near my mother in Mankato, Minnesota – or just about anywhere if you’re valuable enough to your company,” Wendell Cox, who heads an urban-strategy consulting firm based in St. Louis, told me recently. “It’s a much broader reset than ever.”
Jay Garner, the Atlanta-based head of the Site Selectors Guild, added, “Tech oligarchs in Silicon Valley have well-paid employees who are still living in their cars, and when they could, they used the gym facilities for personal hygiene. But who wants to live that way?”
Meanwhile, as Antoine van Agtmael and Fred Bakker argue in the book, The Smartest Places on Earth: Why Rustbelts are the Emerging Hotspots of Global Innovation, the Midwest already has become an epicenter of a growing interface between manufacturing and technology, where a legacy of industrial expertise is fertilizing growth in technologies ranging from self-driving cars to digital agriculture.
Metro Detroit, for instance, is benefiting from its auto-industry legacy of engineering expertise. “We’re promoting Michigan as a software hotbed, where software development can converge with our business-friendly climate and high concentration of engineers to create many industries of the future,” Josh Hundt, chief business-development officer for the Michigan Economic Development Commission, told me.
All of these are indications that we in Flyover Country, our companies and our business and government leaders, should be striking while the iron is hot. Are we?