The Boom Towns and Ghost Towns of the New Economy

New York, Houston, Washington, D.C.—plus college towns and the energy belt—are all up, while much of the Sun Belt is (still) down. Mapping the winners and losers since the crash.

One thing I didn’t foresee in 2009 was the stunning rise of America’s energy belt—a region stretching from Houston to Oklahoma City to New Orleans and their surrounding areas that in 2011, by my estimation, produced some $750 billion in total economic output, more than Switzerland or Sweden. The Sun Belt features two kinds of regional economies: declining real-estate economies and booming energy economies. Energy stands alongside knowledge as the second pillar of America’s recovery.

Cities like Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Bismarck and Fargo in North Dakota have experienced strong growth since the crisis, and fracking has brought flush times to out-of-the-way places in North Dakota, Wyoming, and other parts of the country. Several commentators have argued that places with energy-based economies or natural-resource-based economies, not knowledge metros, have been the real stars of the recovery. That goes too far. To put things in perspective, the economist Paul Krugman noted in March 2012 that while “employment in oil and gas extraction has risen more than 50 percent since the middle of the last decade … that amounts to only 70,000 jobs, around one-twentieth of one percent of total U.S. employment.”

Still, the energy economy involves more than just extraction. Houston has clocked the third-fastest rate of job growth of all large metros since the recession, 9 percent. Between 2009 and 2013, it gained more than 250,000 new jobs, 5.6 percent of all new jobs added nationwide. And its job growth has been balanced, with 24 percent coming from high-wage jobs (again, those paying more than $21 an hour), 48 percent from mid-wage jobs ($14 to $21 an hour), and 27 percent from low-wage jobs (less than $14 an hour).

Houston’s high-wage-job growth stems from two main sources—the fossil-fuel industry and information technology. The city is home to more than a third of the country’s petroleum engineers and by far the highest concentration of geoscientists. From 2009 to 2012, Houston added 30,000 jobs in a mix of industries related to oil and gas extraction and scientific and technical consulting services. These pay an average salary of $124,000. Houston has also seen rapid growth in software-development jobs (16 percent) and information-technology jobs (12 percent), along with consistent growth in its medicine-and-health-care sector.

Opinions vary on just how long the shale boom will last—especially in specific localities. And while energy metros have generated jobs, my analysis of all U.S. metros finds that in general, energy economies are not notable for high-wage-job growth. Nonetheless, the fracking boom illustrates how energy and technology are combining. Unlike some oil booms of the past, which turned on the discovery of new oil fields, we’ve known about these shale deposits for a long time. It was new technology that made exploiting them possible. Much has been made of the so-called resource curse—the syndrome whereby countries that are endowed with an abundance of natural resources get lazy, rest on their inherited riches, and fail to invest in the kinds of research, education, and innovation that are key to long-run development. That’s not what has happened in the United States. America’s leading energy hubs prosper not just because of the stuff they pump out of the ground, but because of their ability to combine resources with technology and knowledge.

Cheap energy, especially from natural gas, has been a boon to the broader economy in the past several years, and still is today. Knowledge centers like Houston make it quite plausible that as the fracking boom eventually goes bust, other technologies will arise to provide new sources of inexpensive energy—and the growth that comes along with them.

Back in 2009, I predicted that the crisis would exact its steepest toll in “the interior of the country—in older, manufacturing regions whose heydays are long past,” and “in newer, shallow-rooted Sun Belt communities whose recent booms have been fueled in part by real-estate speculation, overdevelopment, and fictitious housing wealth.”

Sadly, the data bear me out. Just before the crisis, greater Las Vegas was one of the nation’s leaders in population growth; today it has the highest concentration of fast-food jobs in the nation. Palm Coast, Florida, the metro with the fastest population growth since 2001, has seen the nation’s worst rate of growth in economic output per person since that same year (negative 3.2 percent through 2011).

Population growth alone has never proved a sufficient foundation for future prosperity—not when many of the new arrivals are retirees or modestly educated people looking to get in on a real-estate boom. But since the crash, even that imperfect engine has failed many Sun Belt cities. Buffeted by the effects of the housing-and-real-estate collapse, both Phoenix and Las Vegas saw their population growth stall in the wake of the crisis. And Sun Belt metros that were once rapidly growing, like Las Vegas, Reno, Miami, and Orlando, all saw their productivity decline between 2009 and 2011. The Harvard economist Edward Glaeser argued in April 2011 that “human capital follows the thermometer,” but the crisis appears to have broken this connection. My analysis, focused on the past four years, finds no association whatsoever between warmer temperatures and high-wage-job growth.

The metros where low-wage jobs make up the largest share of job growth since 2009 are in the Rust Belt and the Sun Belt: St. Louis (where 90 percent of new jobs are low-wage); California’s so-called Inland Empire of Riverside–San Bernardino (where nearly three-quarters of new jobs are low-wage); New Orleans; Tampa; Orlando; Columbus, Ohio; and Rochester, New York (where more than half of new jobs are low-wage). Temp jobs account for an extraordinarily large share of recent job growth in Memphis, Birmingham, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Cleveland.

Percentage Increase for Low-Wage Jobs, 2009–13

It is striking, nonetheless, how some of the hardest-hit places have begun to sow the seeds of recovery in ways few people, including myself, would have predicted.

Detroit has been a case study in industrial decline and white flight for decades. Long before the economic crisis, its population had cratered and its city services had collapsed. In many ways, things have gone from terrible to even worse in the wake of the crisis. As of July, the city is officially bankrupt, with the fates of thousands of municipal pensioners hanging in the balance.

Yet amid all of that truly dreadful news are signs of a comeback. Despite the continuing exodus of its residents, Detroit has posted the third-highest rate of productivity growth of any large metro since the crash. And while the greater Detroit region is home to affluent suburbs and has world-class research and knowledge communities like Ann Arbor just outside its borders, reinvestment in the city’s once-burned-out core is spurring a partial recovery in Detroit itself. The past several years have seen a flow of new residents into the downtown area, including architects, designers, techies, and innovative musicians.

Much of the immediate impetus for the boom has been provided by Quicken Loans, whose billionaire founder, Dan Gilbert, has been taking advantage of Detroit’s real-estate collapse to amass millions of square feet of real estate. A major new initiative is under way to animate the business districts with dozens of pop-up food markets, cafés, restaurants, and shops. Though these developments don’t begin to erase the city’s misery, the fact that some green shoots are pushing upward is astonishing.

Something similar is happening in downtown Las Vegas, in and around its Fremont East neighborhood, a place that had also fallen into steep decline, even before Las Vegas’s housing market imploded. Two years ago, Tony Hsieh, the CEO of the online apparel retailer Zappos, leased the old Las Vegas city hall for his new corporate headquarters, bringing jobs into the area. (Hsieh has called upon me, as well as other urban experts, to advise him from time to time.) He’s also investing hundreds of millions of his own dollars into his much-ballyhooed Downtown Project, which seeks to turn the area into a thriving tech hub in just five years by attracting companies from places like the Bay Area; opening cafés, bars, theaters, and restaurants; using shipping containers to create instant start-up incubators; and launching bike- and car-sharing programs (the latter includes a fleet of 100 Tesla electric cars). “One of our goals is to have everything you need to live, work, and play within walking distance,” he told Inc. magazine in May. “In an ideal world, we’d like to help people get rid of their cars.”

Whether or not Gilbert and Hsieh are doing this out of sheer love for their cities, moving their companies back to urban centers—even the dilapidated centers of the most-distressed cities—makes financial sense. Extremely low real-estate costs make it economical to move jobs to these places. And after surveying his workers, Hsieh told me, he realized he couldn’t provide the amenities they wanted on a suburban campus. Gilbert is blunter. “We realized we needed to control the hardware, or the buildings,” is the way he puts it. “The good news was there was a skyscraper sale going on in Detroit at the time.”

Cynics suggest that Hsieh’s Las Vegas and Gilbert’s Detroit amount to 21st-century versions of company towns, albeit more enlightened and less exploitative. Still, by bringing investment back to largely abandoned commercial corridors, they generate jobs in the urban core and provide much-needed tax revenues, giving hard-pressed cities the beginnings of a foundation that they can build on.

America’s emergent growth model, which is taking shape around its knowledge and energy hubs, may be more powerful than its old one. That pre-crash model depended on the continual building of debt-financed houses with bigger and bigger footprints, sprawling ever outward. It was dirty, resource-inefficient, crisis-prone, and ultimately unsustainable.

Clear away the rubble, and one can better see the country’s formidable strengths. The recovery has been more robust in the United States than many expected, much more so than in Europe. That’s partly a result of America’s willingness to print money and run substantial deficits. But what other nation has even one start-up ecosystem that can rival Silicon Valley’s, San Francisco’s, New York’s, or Boston’s—to say nothing of Seattle’s or Austin’s? What other nation boasts the number of world-class universities and college towns that America has? What other advanced nation can combine such knowledge resources with such abundant energy resources?

The main threats to America’s growth model don’t come from other countries, but from domestic contradictions. The more talented people cluster, the greater the economic returns they produce. But as these clusters of highly educated people form and grow, they tend to push out the middle class, resulting in a ruthless sorting of people and places. As great as its potential may be, this new economic landscape is also notable for its widening fissures.

The cultural, political, and economic gulfs that separate advantaged and disadvantaged people and places go well beyond the wage gap. Knowledge workers benefit from living in neighborhoods with better schools, better amenities, and lower crime rates, while less advantaged groups are sometimes stuck in place, with limited prospects for climbing even one rung up the economic ladder, and insufficient resources to move out of stagnant areas. Americans have seen a dramatic decline in economic mobility, overall. But a poor person from a knowledge center like San Jose or San Francisco has twice the chance of becoming wealthy as a poor person from some Rust Belt or Sun Belt centers like Cleveland or Atlanta.

Reckoning with these deepening class and geographic divides, finding and implementing a set of policies that can build a sustainable prosperity for everyone, is the toughest and, at the same time, most urgent challenge we face.

Maps by mgmt. Sources: Economic Modeling Specialists International; National Venture Capital Association; PricewaterhouseCoopers; Thomson Reuters

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Richard Florida is a senior editor at The Atlantic and the editor at large of The Atlantic Cities. He is also the director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and a professor of global research at NYU. More

Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative Class, Who's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He's also the founder of the Creative Class Group, and a list of his current clients can be found here.

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