Summer somewhere across America’s new “out there”


Spokane, Washington. Credit: James Richman

In summer 2016, for three months I rolled from DC to Seattle and back in a Camry. As spring semester had ended, after six years of teaching college Geography, I felt it was time to take summer off to see some places in my own country I’d been reading about and showing slides of for years. I’d heard about rapid changes “out there” in the American Heartland—the interior away from the coasts. Often called “Flyover Country” or the “Rust Belt,” there’s an influx of new industries now in the middle of America. There’s a flurry of urban renaissances in once-dying cities like Fargo, North Dakota and Boise, Idaho. I wanted to see them for myself, and see big spaces, big mountains, and big sky, in big states like Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and Washington. I wanted to finally get to the national parks out west: Badlands, Yellowstone, and Glacier. Here’s some of what I found:

Flipped farm towns. New ideas in old farm towns are generating Heartland 2.0. Farm towns are now also tech poles, university towns, energy producers, tourism gateways, and distribution hubs. Take Fargo, North Dakota, one of America’s fastest-growing midsize cities. Strolling down bustling Broadway, past buzzing conversations in cozy brick-walled Atomic Coffee, funky Orange Records, and the restored art deco Fargo Theatre, you can feel a new urban identity evolving. Fargo first grew as a stop on the northern Transcontinental Railroad, connecting settlers with farmland under the 1862 Homestead Act. Today, not wheat but service industries like North Dakota State University, Sanford Health, and Microsoft are the city’s top employers.

Kilbourne Group and JLG Architects.
First built in 1909, the Loretta Building on Broadway in Fargo, North Dakota was dilapidated and housed one business with six employees before undergoing an historic restoration in 2012. Now it’s home to nineteen businesses, including an art gallery and a popular underground restaurant The Boiler Room. Architects reused the original brick walls, oak stairs, and Douglas fir ceiling and floor in new ways in the interior, while adding new elements like zinc wall panels, raw steel, channel glass, Kasota stone, skylights, and large windows on all levels. The Loretta Building is one of hundreds of historic restoration projects in Fargo in recent decades, helping to restore traditional downtown civic life, including game day festivities for North Dakota State University. Today, walkscore.com gives the city a walk score of 94/100, a “Walker’s Paradise.”

North Dakota’s new governor Doug Burgum is a living example of Fargo’s transformation. Born and raised on a family farm in Arthur, North Dakota, population 363, Burgum attended North Dakota State University, got an MBA at Stanford, and returned to his home state to take over as CEO of startup Great Plains Software in Fargo in 1983. He literally bet the farm, mortgaging $250,000 of family farmland to fund the fledgling company. Microsoft bought it for $1.1 billion in 2001.

As a kid in the 1960s, Burgum walked along Broadway in Fargo with his mom many times. She told him stories about the buildings and the city visionaries who’d built them. But as he got older, he saw people were leaving Fargo, businesses were closing, and the historic buildings were disappearing. So in 2000, Burgum bought the dilapidated Northern School Supply Building, built in 1903, saving it from demolition. He donated it to his alma mater, helped restore it, and now it’s NDSU’s Renaissance Hall—the school’s first downtown campus location.

Suddenly thousands of students were coming downtown every day—not just to go to school, but to eat, socialize, and live. Burgum noticed how restoring a building could help restore traditional downtown civic life. So he started Kilbourne Group in 2006, dedicated to redeveloping downtown Fargo through historic building restorations and mixed-use infill projects. Today, there are 230 projects underway in Fargo’s downtown Renaissance Zone.

NDSU’s restored Renaissance Hall became the first LEED-certified Green Building in North Dakota. “Historic renovation and urban infill is one of the ‘greenest’ things you can do,” says Adrienne Olson, Communications Director of Kilbourne Group. “It means creating new spaces for people without having to add more roads to patrol and snow plow, more pipes and sewers to fix, more fire stations, more power lines and streetlights.” She works in another restored space, the Loretta Building at 210 Broadway. “I work inside a work of art,” she says. “I can touch the bricks and mortar built in 1909. The renovation in 2012 uncovered her good ‘bones’ and brought her internal systems up to modern standards.”

Burgum sees Heartland towns as competing to attract new migrants in the coming decades. He thinks having a vibrant downtown is a key asset: “Two large demographic groups, millennials and retiring baby boomers, are seeking walkable neighborhoods,” he says. He’s now spreading his Main Street Initiative in visits to towns across the state. Burgum has big plans for North Dakota, named Best State for Millenials by WalletHub and Best State for Female Entrepreneurs by small business loan site Fundera. The state has the lowest unemployment rate, third-lowest foreclosure rate, and, according to ZipRecruiter, best job market in the USA.

“Fargo has been known as the Gateway to the West,” says Olson. “Now it’s a destination.”

Surging outdoor tourism hubs. There’s a perpetual flow of kinetic outdoor energy pumping through the mountain town of Bozeman, Montana. The New York Post rated it the #1 place to live in America, and its population grew by 21% from 2010 to 2017, adding 7,900 new residents. With Bozeman’s popularity, many middle-class residents are finding themselves priced out of their own housing market as wealthier newcomers arrive. The town’s median single-family home price jumped from about $325,000 in 2014 to $400,000 in 2018.

Tens of thousands of tourists roll through Bozeman’s hotels and restaurants, coming to/from the world famous national parks two hours south, Yellowstone and Grand Tetons. Cowboy-rancher types in oversize Ford F150s and Chevy Tahoes swing in regularly for a taste of urbanity, from Wyoming and the plains of eastern Montana. In more pickups and SUVs, there’s an endless stream of outdoorsmen gearing up in Bozeman’s big box outdoor stores with tackle, rifles, tents, and licenses. Montana State University students are milling about the bars, cafes, and coops on Main Street and heading on and off the M Trail network that starts downtown. Trophy ranch owners—some residing in Montana only a few weeks each year—swoop in to discuss custom additions, from river rock fireplaces to reclaimed timber flooring. And assorted nomadic souls from parts unknown are passing through/hovering indefinitely, easily spotted with the seat reclined, jamming to car stereos in front of The Clothesline laundromat on Main Street. The owner of the Clothesline is CJ Swoboda, former morning DJ on Bozeman’s 96.7 The Sky. Swoboda fixes the washers and dryers with his own hands and refuses to install change machines, because it wouldn’t be personal—there’s also somebody at the counter happy to give out quarters. He says he wants to create an environment like Cheers, where everybody knows your name. With an entrepreneurial spirit, a small town feel, modern conveniences, and the Gallatin Range visible from Main Street, Bozeman seems designed by REI.

Help wanted. Some 300 miles northwest of Bozeman lie Kalispell and Whitefish, Montana, two of America’s fastest-growing small towns. Despite populations of just over 7,000 and 22,000, respectively, these twin towns are outdoor tourism hubs of epic proportions. They lie on the doorsteps of three major attractions: Glacier National Park, drawing three million visitors each year; Flathead Lake, the largest lake in the American West, with 300,000 visitors each year; and Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort, bringing another 320,000 annual visitors. That’s over 3.6 million tourists for these small, picturesque towns to feed, house, and fuel up. Help is always wanted.

Brian Schott
Currently at about 7,300, the population of Whitefish, Montana has grown by about 15% since 2010, and recent job growth of 3.21% in Whitefish is double the national average. It is one of many fast-growing tourism hubs in Montana, including Bozeman, Kalispell, and Helena. The small town is home to a major ski resort and is a gateway to Glacier National Park in the Rocky Mountains, one of the ten most visited parks in the US.

In Whitefish, at the packed Buffalo Café diner downtown a sign in the window advertises $18 an hour for waiting tables. At the counter, over omelets and coffee the extremely-satisfied owner of a custom home framing company told me there’s no end to the dream-home projects here in Flathead County. People want the mountain and lake views. He said for him the hard part is not finding contracts but finding enough skilled workers for his crews. “America’s been gutting vocational education programs since the 1970s,” he said. “I just hired some 20-year old guys with trade certifications from the Czech Republic. From day one they knew more than guys I’ve worked with for fifteen years—a lot more,” he said. “When I hire young guys from here, they’re useless. I have to train them myself—and pay them—at least six months before they even begin to become productive.” He’s among the many who say America needs to invest in high-skill vocational training to fill the jobs of the future.

The “Zone of Sanity.” That’s urban geographer Joel Kotkin’s term for what he says America’s Heartland has become: a region with significantly lower unemployment, fewer foreclosures, and saner housing prices than the coasts. The Zone of Sanity centers on the Northern Great Plains states, which have the lowest foreclosure rate in America, according to data analytics firm CoreLogic. In “Cities of Aspiration” like Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Kansas City, Missouri, Kotkin says regular folks are finding the American Dream achievable: holding a solid job and owning a single-family home in a good environment, with good schools for the kids and enough disposable income to thrive instead of scraping by. “The idea that people would be moving from Los Angeles to Sioux Falls would have been unthinkable 10 to 15 years ago, but it’s happening now,” said Kotkin at a 2014 conference.

By coincidence, it was in Sioux Falls that I bumped into Ron Dannenbring, a fellow Geography teacher. As I was sweating over the bridge that crosses the Big Sioux River in Falls Park—how many cities have waterfalls downtown?—Ron sped past me, but I managed to flag him down to ask some questions. He turned out to be a good guy to ask. Full of energy and ideas, Ron taught Geography at Lincoln High School in Sioux Falls for 38 years before retiring six years ago—and his wife Sharon taught Family and Consumer Science for 35 years at nearby Whittier Middle School. Ron and I ended up talking under a shady tree for over an hour, about the AP Human Geography exam—why do they test on the Von Thunen Model if the textbook specifically says it does not apply to the real world?—fall lines, rocks, and river patterns, and life in the Heartland vs. the coasts.

visitsiouxfalls.com
Falls Park in downtown Sioux Falls, one of the fifty fastest-growing cities in America and the fastest-growing city in South Dakota. In the midst of a construction boom, a city record of $588 million in building permits were issued in 2013. Currently at 183,200, the population of Sioux Falls has grown by over 30% since 2000, roughly three times the national average rate.

Ron came to Sioux Falls in 1971 to attend Augustana College. He started teaching at Lincoln High right out of college, liked the area, got married, and raised a family. His son got a Masters in Architecture at Princeton, where he met his wife, also an architect. The young couple went to work in Manhattan, where Ron and his wife had recently spent a year in babysitting their grandson. “Best experience of our lives, it’s a wonderful city. But it’s an expensive city to live in.”

He’s right about that. In his book The Next 100 Million: America in 2050, Kotkin calls cities like New York, San Francisco and Boston “Superstar Cities”: great places if you’re a millionaire, but too pricey for most people to advance. Ron’s son recently moved from New York to Minneapolis, a City of Aspiration, where the number of square feet and bedrooms in his home rose dramatically. “They knew it was better for their son,” said Ron.

In heart of the Zone of Sanity, Sioux Falls’ wide-open spaces, big blue sky, downtown riverscapes and waterfalls, great air quality, and easy commutes are all free of charge—as is the occasional brief summer hailstorm, like the one that pelted my Camry one June evening. Livability.com ranked Sioux Falls #5 on its 2016 Best Affordable Places to Live.

Sioux Falls has been called “The town credit built.” Many big banks have their credit card divisions in Sioux Falls: Citibank, Wells Fargo, HSBC, and dozens of others. Ron remembers “when the big banks started coming in the 1980s, the people who moved here from New York found they could buy and build huge homes with low taxes compared to what they had. I’ve talked to many transplants who would never go back to the east coast.”

Kotkin projects a future in which many more Americans will be making choices like Ron. He says most people want to live somewhere where they can make a difference. Kotkin says a “declustering” of America has already started: Americans are dispersing away from coastal cities and migrating to small cities and towns of the interior.

Connected people in remote towns. The internet has been a game-changer in overcoming remoteness in smaller cities and towns across the middle of America. As faster communications and transport connectivity make it increasingly thinkable to live “out there,” so-called micropolitan areas have grown fast. Micropolitan area is a term coined by the US Office of Management and Budget for towns with between 10,000 and 50,000 people, there are some 500 of them in America today.

The US Census Bureau reported that the fastest-growing micropolitan area for 2013-14 was Williston, North Dakota. It’s in the heart of the Bakken Formation, the largest oil field in the US outside Alaska. A fracking boom took off in Williston from 2007 to 2015, more than doubling its population from about 15,000 to over 30,000. Through social media tips and online job boards, mudloggers, pipefitters, pipeliners, and welders from all over America have been finding jobs in Williston. Getting there by road is an adventure in itself: it’s 80 miles from the US-Canada border and 125 miles from the next US city with over 10,000 people.

The rapid influx of fracking workers to Williston—about 95% of them male—has created a housing shortage. Thousands are living in trucks, RV parks, or makeshift barracks nicknamed “man camps” for years at a time—even with salaries of $70,000 and up. Today, fracking job growth has slowed in Williston as the global price of oil has dropped by half, but median income is still over $70,000.

Williston’s average January temperature is 4° F, and it regularly drops to -20° F. Most RV homes weren’t designed for this. But, sipping steaming coffee at laptops, fracking workers transfer their hard-earned wages from RV parks in Williston to family and friends all across America.

Sprawl eating up limited living space. Idaho is America’s fourteenth-largest state, but about two-thirds of it is public land. It has four national parks, thirty state parks, and five American Indian Reservations. About 38% of the state is held by the US Forest Service alone. After public land, another 22% of Idaho is farmland. That leaves 11% of Idaho’s territory for most people to live in. Is the limited living space being used wisely? Not really. Suburban sprawl is exploding in that 11%, as the state tries to house America’s ninth-fastest growing population. I drove for hours searching in vain for the downtown cores of two of Idaho’s largest cities, Nampa and Eagle near Boise. But downtown doesn’t exist in these sprawlscapes—although there are plenty of malls and massive shopping centers. Eagle has some 23,000 residents, yet zero neighborhoods with over twelve people per acre.

“How likely is it that you will run into friends on the street when your land supports twelve people per acre?” says Fargo’s Adrienne Olson. It’s a pivotal question for the future of the human landscape in the Heartland. On one hand, some towns are making long-term investments in civic life downtown, like Fargo’s Renaissance Zone and the Old Boise district—part of the twenty-year urban growth plan Blueprint Boise. Other cities, like Nampa and Eagle, don’t have a downtown to invest in.

US News ranks Idaho among America’s top states in cost of living, public safety, and commute times. Entrepreneur magazine ranks it the fourth-best state for starting a business. Straddling the Rockies, Idaho has America’s most rugged terrain; but life is clustered mostly in the flatter areas, on the Snake River Plain that curls across the state map. The Snake River Plain hosts Idaho’s six largest cities as well as most of its farms—and wind farms. In fact, with 15% of its electricity from wind power and 59% from hydropower—mostly from nine dams on the Snake—Idaho gets 79% of its electricity from renewable sources, second highest in America after Vermont. Through the roadside pines, lone fishermen casting lines into the teal Snake are visible from the highway. In Idaho, getting to pristine rivers, mountains, and forests is easy from just about everywhere.

Ethnic pockets. In Boise, Idaho, about 16,000 residents are of Basque origin, one of the largest Basque communities in America. On the Basque Block downtown, one historic rowhouse has a full jai alai court inside. Down the road is Boikeso Ikastola, a preschool where the Basque language Euskara is the primary language of instruction. Thousands from the Basque Country of Spain and France immigrated to Boise from the late 1800s through the 1970s. Many became sheepherders on the surrounding Snake River plains, living totally alone in sheep wagons—karro kampos—for months at a time. They wintered in boarding houses on what is today the Basque Block.

Begone Zabala was my tour guide to the Basque Block—the block where her Basque immigrant parents found each other. The family ran one of the boarding houses, and Begone grew up helping run it: speaking Euskara, cooking paella and chorizo, and singing Euskedi folk songs about love and the sea to a house full of Basque bachelors. Like many others, her father spent several years herding sheep alone, in exchange for US citizenship and money to invest in a new American life. Today, hundreds of historic black and white photos of rugged Basque-Idahoan faces in berets line the Boise Basque Museum walls.

At Cedar Pass Lodge restaurant inside Badlands National Park in South Dakota, the friendly wait staff are part of another ethnic pocket. Some 28,000 Oglala Lakota Native Americans—members of the Great Sioux Nation—live at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which spans over 3,400 square miles surrounding the park’s southern half. Inside the reservation, Shannon County, formerly Oglala Lakota County, is one of the ten poorest counties in America. It’s poverty rate hovers over 50% and unemployment over 12%—which makes the jobs at busy Cedar Pass Lodge especially important. The restaurant has great service, and the gluten-free elk burger with giant Portobello mushroom subbing for a bun is highly recommended.

James Richman
The Palouse Hills of eastern Washington form one of the most productive farming regions in America, surrounding college town Pullman and wine hub Walla Walla. Formed tens of thousands of years ago by wind-blown loess silt left behind by prehistoric Ice Age lakes, the hills look like giant sand dunes covered in vegetation. Today they are covered in wheat, lentils, peas, canola, chickpeas, bluebunch wheatgrass, and wine grapes. Most of the massive wheat crop here is exported to Japan to make noodles and dumplings.

Intact farming identities. Many Heartland towns retain strong agricultural identities, even as new industries become dominant. Take Pullman, Washington. Over 20,000 are enrolled at Washington State University in Pullman, a research leader in bioplastics, electron microscopy, and animal welfare. The ladies at the Pullman Chamber of Commerce say tourism is booming—they say the surrounding Palouse Hills are nicknamed the American Tuscany. But let’s talk big guns: Pullman is the Lentil Capital of America. It’s National Lentil Festival each August draws over 25,000. It holds the world record for largest pot of lentil chili at over 350 gallons—stirred with a canoe paddle. The Palouse Hills grow 18% of America’s lentils, and an afternoon rounding sharp curves through yellow and green slopes of lentils, wheat, and canola, under a pink-blue sunset, is a surreal ride.

Boise streetball. Not a typo. With mountain bikers popping jumpers, the BAM Jam Boise 3 on 3 basketball tournament is legit. It spans some twenty courts downtown across six blocks near the Idaho state capitol building. Three days in August, two hundred teams, all ages, several former Division I college players, hundreds of friends and family in lawn chairs on sidewalks. The Slam Dunk and 3-point Challenge is on the capitol steps. Is there a better way to bring folks back downtown? Lots of fun.

Lisa Jordan/Lisa’s Eye View.
The Boise BAM JAM 3 on 3 tournament brings thousands to the streets of downtown Boise for three days every summer. The “City of Trees,” this state capital has a walkable but neglected downtown in which many historic buildings and its Chinatown were leveled in the name of urban renewal in the 1960s and 70s. But today, a new wave of renewal projects aimed at preservation is underway, including the historic Old Boise District, Linen District, BoDo District, and the Basque Block. The 20-year development plan Blueprint Boise calls for major redevelopment in the city center.

Independent souls in Montana. I definitely found a lot of those. I met Carl Brown in the Bozeman Library Parking lot, where he was relaxing—deservedly—in a massive SUV. Carl had just finished a two month stretch of sleeping in the SUV high up in the Rocky Mountains, getting up at two a.m. each day to observe the breeding habits of the black-rosy finch. Armed with binoculars, digital cameras, field guides, and computers, he’d been doing field work studying this rare bird that only breeds on mountaintops above the treeline, over 10,000 feet. The black-rosy finch makes nests in cracks in mountaintops and it forages for food up there, in alpine snowfields and tundra. At such high elevations, it’s one of the least-studied birds in America—only about five parties have ever documented finding its nests. That’s where Carl comes in. He’s a Masters student in Wildlife Science at the University of Wyoming. Because the black-rosy finch breeds only in this temperature-dependent snowy microclimate, Carl’s work has strong connections to climate change.

I met Tracey Roberts at the craft fair at the huge Fourth of July Festival by the railroad tracks in Livingston, Montana—an All-American place to be. Tracey was displaying wares from Rattlesnake Creek Alpacas, which she operates on her family ranch 140 miles down the highway near Dillon, Montana. The Robertses started raising alpacas in 2012, and with the wool—known as “fiber from heaven”—she sews hats, gloves, scarves and other products and sells them online and at fairs. She says with a smile she often likes to sit in the barn hanging out with the alpacas, sewing and talking to them to chill out. Tracey said she grew up on a Montana family farm trapping beavers, shooting deer and elk, raising cattle, and riding horses—there was always something to do. Sounds like the makings of a tough girl—no doubt she must be—but Tracey is super sweet and down to earth, with a great sense of humor. Now she’s a mom and living what she calls the “alpaca lifestyle.”

I met Edward Campbell in the upstairs eating area in the Bozeman Food Coop, after inquiring about the copy of Plato’s Apology lying next to his coffee and open notebook. Looking born on a hiking trail with pen in hand, Campbell was working on his own translation of the Apology from the Greek—not for any school or job, it’s just what he does. A peripatetic soul with an enormous backpack, Mr. Campbell is a self-described “philologist and independent scholar of the Greek and Roman Classics.” Since 2009, he has independently published his translations free online of works by Appian, Boccaccio, Cicero, Diogenes Laertius, Herodotus, Lucan, Parmenides, Sallust, and Tacitus, as well the Book of Genesis, along with “Campbell’s Commentaries” on other works. Mr. Campbell pointed out that up the street, Montana State University doesn’t teach Classics at all, despite an enrollment of some 15,000. He’s made many inquiries and suggestions, but still the university bookstore doesn’t sell a single Greek or Latin dictionary. I suggested he think about teaching. I told him we need more people like him, who live and breathe their subjects, in the classroom.

Towns of contrasts. In remote Walla Walla, Washington, there’s a stark contrast between luxury and poverty. This micropolitan area of 32,000 lies some 260 miles southeast of Seattle, near the Oregon border. Downtown are chic wine bars like Vintage Cellars and farm-to-fork restaurants like Bacon & Eggs—which does make a great local bacon and eggs. Just a half mile out from downtown, the trailer homes appear by the hundreds. Twenty percent of Walla Walla County is on food stamps, and recent job growth is negative at -.68%.

Until relatively recently, Walla Walla’s city center was boarded up and broke; the state penitentiary was one of its claims to fame. Today, five minutes from the prison stand upscale eateries like Frosted Cupcake Shop and Brasserie Four. What happened? In 1977, one first-generation Italian-American family opened Leonetti Cellars, the county’s first commercial winery. Since then, Walla Walla County’s wine industry has exploded to over 120 wineries today, with labels like Maison Bleu, Goose Ridge, and L’Ecole No. 41. Walla Walla is now the winemaking hub of Eastern Washington. Since 2001, Walla Walla Community College has operated a Center for Enology and Viticulture, which runs the teaching winery College Cellars. Can Walla Walla find more ways to leverage its success in the wine industry to spur economic diversification to lift the wider community?

Towns that weren’t so lucky. It’s not all rosy in the Heartland. There’s a lot of pain, poverty, and urban decay. For every town undergoing an urban renaissance, there’s another in decline or on the verge of extinction. Bozeman is rising fast, but Butte has been headed the other way. Copper mining made Butte the richest city in Montana in the early 1900s. But today, every part of downtown Butte looks like the wrong side of town. With block after block of boarded-up houses and businesses, the neglect is stark and palpable. In recent decades, Butte’s mining industry evaporated, and now the town is destitute. The defunct Berkeley Pit copper mine—open pit, still open—remains a mile-long open wound, blatantly visible on the drive in. The pit is now a federal Superfund cleanup site, as it leaches acid mine waste full of toxic heavy metals into the groundwater.

Migration to the Low-Sun Belt. Like tourism hubs Kalispell and Whitefish, Montana, other northern towns like Bismarck, North Dakota, and Washington’s Tri-Cities Richland-Kennewick-Pasco are among the fastest-growing places in some of America’s fastest-growing states. They’re all upwards of 46 degrees north latitude, farther poleward than Montreal, Canada and Augusta, Maine. Up here, the sun never climbs too high in the sky—but that seems just fine for thousands of incoming migrants. Every northern state from the Dakotas westward to Washington is in America’s top sixteen in population growth.

What’s drawing people to the Low-Sun Belt? Largely making and doing industries: energy, natural resources, agriculture, building, and outdoor recreation and tourism. These industries are propelling the resurgence of America’s Heartland today.

Scarce minority residents in Big Sky Country. The populations of the Big Sky states Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho are about 90% white. Native Americans make up most of the remaining 10%, with a dozen Indian reservations scattered among the three states. To be sure, however, tourists from all over the world outnumber residents here in huge numbers: Montana has roughly 150,000 residents but 10 million tourists annually. So the actual ethnicities and nationalities on the ground are much more diverse than state demographics might indicate. But having said that, these states need people and jobs; could they do a better job of marketing themselves as a home for minority entrepreneurs?

Cities ripe for resurgence. Grungy and green, Spokane, Washington might feel more Seattle than Seattle these days. Transplanted New Yorkers outside Huckleberry’s Natural Market—one of Spokane’s answers to the absence of a Whole Foods—were gushing about the bedroom counts and bargain prices their new homes. They loved the trees everywhere in town—and they are everywhere. Thousands have moved to Spokane from the coasts, especially Portland and Seattle.

greaterspokane.org.
The Kaiser Aluminum plant in Spokane, Washington is the largest flat-rolled aluminum mill in the western U.S. Started in 1942, the company faced bankruptcy in the 2000s but managed to reinvent itself: it stopped producing beverage cans and instead now specializes in high-end products including aluminum plates, sheets, and coils used to make parts for aerospace industries like Boeing and Airbus as well as computers, cell phones, and iPads. Kaiser embraced lean manufacturing and now employs about 900 workers in Spokane.

Over 15,000 workers in 600 companies in Spokane—over 7% of its workforce—are engaged in advanced manufacturing, especially for the aerospace, medical, and mining industries. Aircraft parts—like carbon brakes, air ducts, and control panels—are Spokane County’s leading export, worth $374 million in 2014.

What’s happening in Spokane is one example of the manufacturing renaissance underway in America today. To be sure, since 2000 America has lost some five million manufacturing jobs to outsourcing and automation. But less attention has been paid to the one million new manufacturing jobs created in the past seven years—higher-wage jobs that often require high-tech skills, like operating computerized assembly machines and robots.

Inside Huckleberry’s, at lunch I sat next to a gentleman who turned out to be a dental supply salesman from Idaho. What’s he doing out here? He said he makes regular business trips to Spokane and beyond, as his sales territory is the Inland Northwest: Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho, and Western Montana. Stretching from the edge of the Pacific Northwest eastward into the Northern Rockies, the Inland Northwest region spans about 80,000 square miles, and Spokane is its unofficial capital and central logistics hub.

From Spokane, things move a long way. For example, Caterpillar, Inc. opened a new Logistics Center in Spokane in 2013. It ships over 10,000 heavy equipment parts per day as far as Alaska, Alberta, Canada, and a small area of Eastern Russia, mostly to mining companies. At over half a million square feet, the warehouse stocks some 200,000 distinct parts.

Transport logistics has long been a core part of Spokane’s economy—moving logs, gold, wheat, aluminum, oil, coal, paper, potatoes. Today, the city is a critical intermodal freight hub on import/export networks. It’s at the crossroads where the Canada-to-Mexico NAFTA corridor highway system US 395/I-15 intersects transcontinental I-90, America’s longest highway, from Boston to Seattle. Spokane is also a hub for America’s two largest freight rail systems, BSNF and Union Pacific, which connect to the Canadian Pacific Railway. Only 92 miles from Canada, many Canadian companies use Spokane as their distribution hub into the western US. And the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma send incoming ocean freight from countries like China and South Korea four hours by road and rail to Spokane, which distributes it across North America’s interior.

Spokane’s city planners are now renewing its urban environment to match its economic success. The hundred-acre Riverside Park downtown had not been overhauled since it was built for the 1974 World’s Fair, but now a $64 million redevelopment is underway. Spokane’s new gem is the University District, which combines six schools—including two medical schools that are part of the city’s major health and biosciences sector. The U District is centered around Gonzaga University, which is riding the success of its basketball team, #2 in the country last season.

With low home prices, a leafy, walkable, renewed cityscape, and a surging economy led by rapid job growth in diverse outsourcing-resistant industries, the pieces seem to be falling into place for Spokane to be a major magnet for migration in the coming decades.

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“Out there” in America’s Heartland, farm town populations emptied fifty years ago, as machines replaced farm workers. Today, to be sure, some towns are dying. But many are refilling and growing to new proportions, taking on new identities. Newcomers and longtime locals are transforming their towns, getting busy pursuing the American Dream: entrepreneurs with strategies and risks to take, innovators with boundaries to push, millennials with hunger to move forward, retiring baby-boomers with money to invest and wisdom to share, and families with plans for more kids, more bedrooms, more space. As urbanist Jane Jacobs said, new ideas need old buildings, and Heartland towns have plenty of those, waiting to be flipped, restored, and repurposed. America’s interior is an outlet for many who want more than the coasts can offer, from low overheads to big backyards to wide-open landscapes under big sky, with mountains and national forests on their doorstep. While gas prices are still low, it’s a good time to explore. Who knows? You may bump into someplace, somewhere across America’s new “out there,” right for your dreams to roll in and come to life.