The Great Great Plains

By Kotkin, Joel | Newsweek, July 12, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Great Great Plains


Kotkin, Joel, Newsweek


Byline: Joel Kotkin

How heartland cities like Fargo and Omaha became the nation's new boomtowns.

On a drizzly, warm June night, the bars, galleries, and restaurants along Broadway are packed with young revelers. Traffic moves slowly, as drivers look for parking. The bar at the Donaldson, a boutique hotel, is so packed with stylish patrons that I can't get a drink. My friend, a local, and I head over to Monte's, a trendy Italian place down the street. We watch a group of attractive 30-something blondes share a table and gossip. They look like the cast of the latest Housewives series.

It might sound like an evening in the Big Apple, but this Broadway runs through downtown Fargo, N.D. A decade ago, this same street was just another unremarkable central district in a Midwestern town: bland restaurants, adequate hotels, no decent coffee. After the local stores closed for the day, the street was mostly populated by a few hard-drinking

louts.

That has all changed, part of a transformation that foreshadows the growth of the vast Great Plains region. "I come from a big city, but I like the lifestyle here," says Marshall Jackson, an African-American who played football for the nearby University of Minnesota, Crookston, and now works for the local Audubon Society. "In a decade this place will be a small Minneapolis. Everyone sees a bright future ahead."

Jackson may be an anomaly in this still homogeneous state--the population is more than 90 percent white, and Native Americans constitute the largest minority by far--but he senses something very real. Throughout the good times and, more important, the bad of this new millennium, the cities of the plains--from Dallas in the south through Omaha, Des Moines, and north to Fargo--have enjoyed strong job growth and in-migration from the rest of the country. North Dakota boasts the nation's lowest unemployment rate--3.6 percent, compared with the national average of 9.7--with South Dakota and Nebraska right behind it.

The trend has been particularly strong in urban areas. Based on employment growth over the last decade, the North Dakota cities of Bismarck and Fargo rank in the top 10 of nearly 400 metropolitan areas, according to data analyzed by economist Michael Shires for Forbes and NewGeography.com. Much of that growth has come in high-wage jobs. In Bismarck, the number of high-paying energy jobs has increased by 23 percent since 2003, while jobs in professional and business services have shot up 40 percent.

That's not bad for a region best known by East Coast pundits for the movie Fargo. It got so bad a decade ago that even local boosters suggested North Dakota jettison the "North" to make the place seem less forbidding. Two Eastern academics, Frank J. Popper and Deborah Popper, predicted that the region would, in a generation, become almost totally depopulated, and proposed that Washington speed things along and create "the ultimate national park." Their suggestion: restock the buffalo.

Certainly, many small towns across the plains--such places as Reeder, N.D., which lost its only school, or Mott, N.D., with its struggling downtown--have withered. Others are likely to disappear altogether. But growth has rebounded in larger towns, according to Debora Dragseth, an associate professor of business at Dickinson State University. She describes places like Fargo--with a population approaching 200,000--as "sponge cities," absorbing population from rural areas. Just a decade ago, those people fled the region entirely.

The primary drivers of this new growth, says Dragseth, are basic industries like agriculture and energy. Salaries may be low by coastal standards, but so are living costs.

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