Conor Sen is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a portfolio manager for New River Investments in Atlanta and has been a contributor to the Atlantic and Business Insider.
There's a common sentiment, especially among people who remember the halcyon mid-century, that the middle class and middle America have been hollowed by globalization. That may be true. If so, it's great news for younger Americans -- because thanks to those same forces of globalization, the hollowed-out communities in the middle of the country are now attractive places to build a life.
For those who got to enjoy their high wages, factory towns surely provided a lot of economic benefits. But with the benefit of hindsight, we can see how unsustainable the whole relationship was. The factories and their manufacturing jobs were the only reason the towns existed. Without the factories there wasn't enough economic activity to sustain the towns, and workers with options moved elsewhere.
Because of how painful the transition costs have been for a large number of communities, it can be hard to see what opportunities now exist in some of these places. This story about Water Valley, Mississippi, can shed some light on one possibility. Water Valley's population peaked in 1920, so its development was shaped before the post-war era governed by sprawl and the automobile. Its historic Main Street was dilapidated but still existed.
Importantly, land was cheap. Dirt cheap. While annual office rents in high-flying metro areas like the San Francisco Bay Area can go for over $100 a square foot, with buildings selling for well over $1,000 per square foot, on Water Valley's Main Street dilapidated old buildings could be bought for as low as $8 per square foot. It took only around 20 of Water Valley's residents to have a big impact on turning around the community's historic district by renovating around 30 of its 100 historic commercial buildings.
While small towns may have lost their well-paying factory jobs to automation and outsourcing, they now exist as potential cheap platforms for globalization. What sustained these communities used to be high wages. Today, the opportunity is ultra-cheap consumption and production.
Someone can open a coffee shop importing the best coffee beans from around the country or the world. Craft breweries have always preferred to set up shop where the land is cheap rather than in sparkling expensive urban downtowns. Entrepreneurs in agrarian communities can coordinate with local farmers to create local food markets and restaurants. Residents can organize and elect competent, forward-thinking leaders; it's amazing what a good mayor and a handful of city council members or county commissioners can do. Ideas for redevelopment, planning and governance have never been more readily shared and perfected than they are now in this online era. Investing oneself in a small community earning not much money seems no crazier than working 80-hour weeks in a big city earning a lot of money but paying it all toward rent and child care.
Too often in America we look for grand-scale catalysts to fix big problems, and we give short shrift to iterative improvements. There doesn't always have to be a single big idea that revolutionizes a local economy -- a new factory or a corporate relocation or a streetcar or the next billion-dollar internet company. What kept the lights on in urban America during their low point in the 1970s wasn't Google offices or brunch spots offering $6 avocado toast; it was immigrant-run convenience stores and bodegas selling cheap goods. Maybe the way to bring back smaller communities isn't waiting for a hero, but rather making countless small improvements and building on the assets already in place.
Cheap land and labor. All of the distribution tools of the internet. A handful of residents ready to make their communities better. And hundreds and hundreds of incremental improvements. That's what will get small-town America back on track, not yearning for the past or blaming foreigners.