Tiny Titans

Worth A Look, Agriculture, Frontier Centre

One-third of the American jobs created between 2001 and 2004 went to 16 million people. That’s a tiny number in a country of nearly 300 million. It’s equal to the populations of Florida or greater Los Angeles.

So who are these lucky ones, this 5% of the total population behind 33% of the new jobs? Redheads, perhaps? Hockey fans? (No, that’s way too many hockey fans.) Asian immigrants? (Good guess, but wrong.) Correct answer: the residents of 397 rural U.S. counties averaging 40,000 in population.

And ignored by the big city press! Think about this. If an outsize percentage of new U.S. jobs hatched during the last three years had occurred anywhere near the media hives of New York, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles, you would have heard about it. You would have seen daily stories on TV and in major newspapers about America being a roaring jobs-creation machine. John Kerry might have had to drop his “Benedict Arnold CEO” schtick in the face of such good news. Paul Krugman would have had to expel his columnist’s gas on other topics. Gas prices, perhaps.

The swell news about rural America doesn’t surprise Jack Schultz. He’s the CEO of Agracel, an economic development consultancy in Effingham, Ill. Schultz has written a book, Boomtown USA, that examines an emerging trend: Americans, he says, are moving to small towns for quality-of-life issues. These are educated and entrepreneurial people, says Schultz, and they are reinvigorating America’s boondocks. “While not a tidal wave, this trend appears likely to continue for many years. It has caught the attention of futurists who address not only how we will live in the 21st century but also where we will live.”

I agree with Schultz. Ever since 9/11, I’ve wondered if the time was ripe for a rebirth of towns in America’s heartland. Hooterville is wildly cheaper than Metropolis, as a place to both do business and buy a house. The price gap continues to grow. Yet the sophistication gap between large cities and small towns is narrowing. Novelist Sinclair Lewis rose to fame in the 1920s (and won the 1930 Nobel Prize in Literature) by satirizing small-town small-mindedness, in Main Street and Babbitt. Lewis wasn’t all wrong. Growing up in North Dakota, I felt cut off from the world. The 1960s didn’t arrive in my town until 1973.

But consider what the last 25 years have brought to small towns: cheap overnight delivery service, cable television, USA Today, national retail chains, Internet access, cell phone coverage and broadband. New Yorker or New Paltzer, we sip from the same information hose now. Yes, broadband is hard to get in many small towns. Wireless will soon solve that problem.

Schultz is a realist on small towns. He says only a minority, perhaps a third, of America’s small towns are on a success path. He calls them “agurbs.” An agurb is a prospering rural town with a tie to agriculture and a location outside a metro region. Schultz says there are more agurbs in the small states of North Dakota, West Virginia, Mississippi and New Mexico than there are in New York, Illinois and California.

What separates Schultz’s 397 agurbs from those hamlets that are struggling? Schultz lists the reasons in Boomtown USA. I don’t have the space here to spoil Schultz’s story. Buy the book. If you call the shots for your company’s outsourcing or site selection, the book is a must read.