The Daily Yonder's coverage of rural economic issues, including workforce development and the future of work in rural America, is supported in part by Microsoft.
It’s no secret that Jeff Bezos is a champion of urbanist and Blue State values, and the sweepstakes for Amazon’s new North American HQ2 headquarters reflects its C.E.O’s. predisposition. Bezos claims to need loads of affordable housing for a diverse workforce numbering in the tens of thousands, proximity to major highways and airports, and nearness to a major research university. Predictably, the speculative list of finalists—Austin, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and the greater Washington DC/Northern Virginia metro—looks very much like the ubiquitous “best cities to live in” and “smart cities” picks that too often reinforce the idea that urban and progressive is the sole recipe for quality of life.
As an educated seventh generation ruralite from deep in “flyover country,” and one who’s been an Amazon Prime member for years, I’d like to ask Amazon to give rural America a fairer trial. Of the seven states who reportedly opted out of the Amazon sweepstakes, four—Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, are among the most rural and Republican—in other words, not Amazon-friendly territory at first glance. And yet a 2011 report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranks three of those states (North Dakota, Wyoming, and South Dakota) among the top five growth performers nationwide.
Could Amazon ever see fit to headquarter itself in a rural ranching or mining state, provided that state met their logistical wish list, and, if not, why not? Are the Great Plains and northern Rocky Mountain states poorly run or economically unsound? Hardly. In fact, according to a 2016 study reported in USA Today, Amazon hold-out North Dakota topped the list of best-governed states, with Wyoming coming in at number four. According to the latest Bankrate.com figures, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota continue to boast the lowest foreclosure ratings in the nation, a calling card that speaks not just to their affordable housing, but to their fiscal discipline and economic stability.
To those on the coasts, rural America’s refusal to jump on the Bezos bandwagon may appear stubbornly self-defeating, fear-based, or even jingoistic or xenophobic—not worthy, in any case, of a company as high-minded as Amazon. But viewed in a more sympathetic light, their rationale for withholding a bid might reasonably be interpreted as old-fashioned horse sense and an unwillingness to buy, with tax incentives and other costly giveaways, a golden ticket for a corporate lottery odds say they have little chance of winning despite affordable housing, ample land for warehousing, and often excellent and underused transportation networks.
Changing for others’ sakes, chasing after the latest fad, or inflating the latest bubble has never been the modus operandi in places like Missoula or Cheyenne. By contrast, Stonecrest, Georgia, in suburban Atlanta, reportedly offered to change its name to “Amazon” if the company headquartered within its city limits. Laissez-faire capitalists and free enterprisers would eagerly concede that Amazon has the right to choose with whom it associates—in this case opting for hypereducated, urbane, and highly mobile over the rural and rooted. But in stacking the deck so heavily in favor of America’s already well-endowed major metros, the internet commerce giant misses the vast swath of flyover country where populations, albeit small, are well-known for their willingness to work. And if Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas are indeed exporting many of their best-educated young, locating a headquarters in Butte, Billings, Bismarck, or the Black Hills, for example, could prove to be a demographic game-changer for an entire rural region, mobilizing a youthful, tech-savvy, and highly dependable workforce.
Rather than pick the winners of its important corporate sweepstakes in advance via quietly exclusionary if not politically biased criteria, Bezos and Co. might better live out their admirably social justice-minded, equity-based creed by specifically inviting applications from cities in America’s Great Plains and Intermountain rural states, evaluating such places by what we have to offer—demonstrated work ethic, low rates of absenteeism and cost of living, affordable housing, underutilized infrastructure, high rates of civic participation and volunteerism, proximity to outdoor recreation and natural resources—rather than condemning us for our supposed lack of demographic fitness. And in return perhaps red and rural America might stop begrudging Bezos the energetic export and sale of his most cherished ideals.
Zachary Michael Jack teaches writing and leadership, ethics, and v=Values (LEV) at North Central College. A seventh-generation Midwesterner, he is the author of books on rural culture, including most recently Wish You Were Here: Love and Longing in an American Heartland.