When Amazon pulled out of a huge project planned for the Long Island City neighborhood in New York in the face of local opposition, spectators from other cities (and many in New York) were aghast. Amazon’s “HQ2” was supposed to generate 25,000 well-paying jobs.
New York City will be fine. It has an economy that is broadly diversified and is fueled by thousands of new businesses that arrive every year, each much smaller than Amazon but collectively forming an economic force that creates jobs at a steady rate. They come to New York because creative people want to live there, close to the arts and everything else that thrives in an international hub.
Smaller cities long ago found economic strength the same way. Wacoans don’t have to look far to find a great example. When Austin sought to become a tech hub, they wisely advertised themselves as “the Live Music Capital of the World,” knowing that the key to sustained growth was drawing entrepreneurs, and that the way to do that was to make creative people want to live there. It worked, perhaps too well. The tech success now threatens the music scene as everything gets more expensive.
What didn’t work? I know the answer to that pretty well; I’m from Detroit, after all. That city bloomed when brilliant business innovators like Henry Ford built enterprises from the ground up. It stultified over time, though, as building cars became dominant and the population gradually lost its innovative edge as they worked for well-established companies. Relying on a handful of employers in a single industry turned out to be the recipe for an epic economic disaster. Only now — because of the efforts of newcomers and innovators with new ideas — is the city showing signs of life. Detroit’s fate was not isolated: Just within the last month the city of Lordstown, Ohio, was decimated by the closing of a huge General Motors plant there.
In the same way as New York City, Waco’s economic revitalization does not come from any one employer. Yes, some people tell me, the “Fixer Upper” effect is real, courtesy of the HGTV show that for five years regularly conveyed to an international audience the beauty of the Central Texas landscape and the optimism of people eager to settle and invest in a home there. Yet this economic boom largely comes from people beyond Chip and Joanna Gaines, as others open businesses in and around the city that take advantage of the crowds of visitors who come to the mecca that is the Silos. And that is a very good thing.
On a short trip back to Waco last fall, I saw this everywhere: storefronts being readied for new business, food trucks trolling for customers and renewal of buildings long vacant. It was like watching spring come after a long winter.
So who is doing all of this? I have a few clues. Two years ago, I sat down with one of my favorite students at St. Thomas Law School to talk about his future. Chris Clark had gone to Baylor University for his undergraduate degree, so I kept track of him as he blazed his trail through law school. Now it was time to plot his future. Chris has a sharp mind and was beloved at St. Thomas; he would have many options going forward.
I was struck by the plan he laid out: He was going back to Waco. He saw it, correctly, as a place of opportunity where he could make his mark. He didn’t know what those opportunities would be, exactly, but he has certainly found them. Since returning to Waco, he has worked on repurposing old buildings and seeding new businesses. That’s how things get done in a capitalist society.
In the north woods I am always struck by the ecology of large and small animals. Bears are large and infrequent visitors, even up in the wilderness of the Boundary Waters, a 1,090,000-acre area within the Superior National Forest straddling the U.S.-Canada border. It is thrilling to glimpse a bear, even as such creatures lumber off when they see you. They are fascinating, but the woods would be pretty much the same without them. The same cannot be said of bees, which are essential to nearly any ecosystem with flowering plants. The woods and meadows can thrive without the bears but will no longer flourish if the bees are gone. After there is a fire, the burned-over area springs back to life with jack pines, their cones buzzing with yellowjackets filling themselves with pollen, the fuel of rebirth.
Like those bees, one could argue that a thousand Chris Clarks are better, in the long run, than one Amazon. Yes, the size and nature of Amazon’s project is mesmerizing, but that organism, too, will die as our ways of doing business take their next turn, just as the seemingly eternal Sears recently closed its doors at Richland Mall. Change is inevitable, but culture endures. If Waco is developing a culture that attracts people like Chris Clark, it is doing something very right.