By Dale Buss, Founder and Executive Director, The Flyover Coalition
For all the talk about how the pandemic, remote work, social distancing and other huge new developments have dislodged traditional patterns in business and life in America and created vast new opportunities in the process, Flyover Country has left a lot on the table. And it’s time for the economic and political leaders in this region to go back and retrieve it.
When Rick Perry was governor of Texas from 2000 to 2015, he developed the right approach to boosting his state’s economy — not just by extolling the true advantages of doing business in the Lone Star State, but by drawing clear comparisons between what Texas was offering and what California was not. He even went to the extent of very openly traveling to the business-hostile Golden State to poach dissatisfied companies. It worked, and the capital and brain drain from the West Coast to Texas continues.
We need more of that spirit today. Flyover Country and our various sub-regions and states basically booted a golden opportunity presented by Covid to reshuffle the deck and upset the ossified imbalance in economic power between the coasts and the heartland that has held sway for a half-century. Government authorities on the edges of the United States were especially draconian in shutting down their economies as the disease spread, causing millennial families and young workers on the coasts to rethink their financial and living situations.
But did we in Flyover Country take advantage of a generational opportunity to highlight what our region, our states, cities, suburbs and rural locales have to offer to coastal denizens yearning to be free of urban decay, sky-high housing prices and general social ennui in California, New York, the Pacific Northwest and the East Coast?
Not so much. There has been some movement, but demographers will tell you most of the migration during and since the pandemic has occurred in a movement from city centers, wherever they are, to the suburbs of the same metropolises. Even at a time of wickedly spiking housing prices (since eased, of course) and unprecedented freedom for white-collar folks to work wherever they wanted to, we couldn’t create ant trails from beleaguered big coastal enclaves to the wide-open, affordable, navigable and welcoming spaces of Flyover Country.
Yet the opportunity continues and may even be intensifying. Meta, Google, Amazon, Twitter and other Big Tech companies on the West Coast are laying off tens of thousands of workers as growth in their sector has fallen off and stock prices have plummeted, and many pure digital-tech startups are faltering as well.
Meanwhile, even the New York Times reports that overall employment in tech occupations has grown this year in the United States because “a majority of [new] tech jobs are at companies outside the tech sector in industries like banking, retail, health and manufacturing whose operations are increasingly becoming digital.”
That’s right — the new tech-jobs boom is occurring in what we long have identified as “legacy” industries that are focused in Flyover Country and that also include furniture making, boat building, insurance, food processing, and agriculture. As leaders in each of these industries undertake vast digital transformations for the sake of their own competitiveness, our region has become a huge beneficiary. Yet the need for skilled labor continues, and Silicon Valley and other coastal tech redoubts keep making their trained people available to us.
So, how are we responding?
Fortunately, there’s some good news on this front. The various competing economic and political entities in Flyover Country finally seem to be figuring out that we can work together much more effectively to get new opportunities in front of us — then divide the spoils — than we can working separately and often at cross-purposes.
Upper Midwest governors seem to be working on a coalition with such an aim for the industrial revitalization of the region around huge investing industries such as microchip manufacturing and EV battery-making and assembly.
And just this week came another promising bit of news: “In an unusual display of regional unity,” according to Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago, Cook County that contains it and surrounding counties “are pooling their efforts to improve the region’s global competitiveness … by presenting a common pitch to the outside world, rather than competing with each other.”
The Greater Chicago Economic Partnership will be staked to get $3 million over the next three years to show what it can do, the magazine said. It would represent a stark departure from the recent past which had Chicago’s leaders raiding the headquarters of large, suburban-based corporations.
It's just one region coalescing, and it is Chicago, which is behind the eight ball in economic competitiveness for a number of reasons. But it’s encouraging nonetheless.
This argument isn’t meant to cause further division in an already highly divided country. But clearly, if we don’t promote ourselves in Flyover Country — and begin to do so collectively — we’re going to be the losers in the economy of the future, and it won’t matter how we feel about our fellow citizens on the coasts.