BUFFALO Commons, won't you come out tonight?
No? Too busy making a living?
In the late 1980s, a Rutgers University professor and his wife proposed that a large portion of the Great Plains region, which includes Oklahoma, be turned into “the ultimate national park” and restored as a “buffalo commons.” The area was depopulating so rapidly, argued Frank and Deborah Popper, that we might as well let the bison have it back.
Today, the Great Plains is one of four U.S. corridors recognized for extraordinary economic growth by the Manhattan Institute's Joel Kotkin. Not every square mile in the Great Plains would have been included in the commons, and not every county in the area is thriving today. But many of them are, down the spine of the country from Canada to Mexico.
New Jersey, home to Rutgers, and New York City, home to the Manhattan Institute, aren't far from each other. Neither of them is anywhere near the parts of the U.S. where high growth is taking place. In addition to the Great Plains, the thriving corridors are the Intermountain West, the Gulf Coast and the Southeastern industrial belt. By and large, these locations are politically red. Growth is lagging in the “fashionably blue bastions” of the Northeast and California, Kotkin says.
In his report, “American's Growth Corridors: The Key to National Revival,” Kotkin argues that the four corridors are doing what it takes to prosper. Historically, these areas were little more than outposts, economic colonies rich in natural resources that were shipped to wealthier, more advanced areas.
Not now. They're attracting foreign investment and young careerists. The Great Plains region, which by this measure includes Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Dallas and Austin, Texas, is taking advantage of low population density, affordable housing, abundant natural resources and conservative governance.
In fairness to the Poppers, who drew a huge crowd in a 1990 Oklahoma City appearance, the Buffalo Commons idea primarily concerned a relatively narrow swath of the Plains that had been losing people for decades. Yet western North Dakota and eastern Montana, which would have been included in the Commons, are booming today due to energy exploration. Oklahoma City is booming partly because energy firms based here are involved in the exploration in North Dakota, eastern Montana and other Great Plains locales rich in natural resources.
Instead of a shortage of people, these areas are experiencing a shortage of housing.
Western Oklahoma will begin shipping another natural resource — wind energy — to the Southeastern industrial belt. Southeastern states are thriving not because of natural resources but because of value-added industries. Kotkin quotes a 30-year-old statement from the head of the pro-growth Southern Regional Council: “Southerners don't have any rich relatives. God was a Northerner.”
God made the bison that once roamed the Great Plains. He also made the land where they grazed. Humans exploited it, mismanaged it. The bison nearly disappeared. In the late 1980s, it was feared that people would disappear from the region as well.
The area is the largest but least populated of the four growth corridors. “This is the region,” Kotkin says, “that might have been least expected to do well. After its half-century of slow — even negative — population growth, many in the mainstream media had all but written off the region.”
Yet five of the six best cities for “starting over in 2012,” according to a report cited by Kotkin, are in the Dakotas, Iowa and Nebraska. What sets the four growth corridors apart from the rest of the nation? Opportunity, friendly business climates and optimism.
As Europe and parts of the United States stagnate economically, people in the four growth corridors are dancing — like the buffalo gals of song — by the light of the moon.