Growing up in South Bend, Indiana, not far from the shadow of Notre Dame’s golden dome, it was disconcerting to watch the economic downturn caused
by the demise of the Studebaker automobile company in the ’60s. Purchased by Packard in 1954, the cultures of the two companies never really worked. At
first, they consolidated production in South Bend, but climbing costs forced the company to move its production facility to Canada in 1964. When the South Bend
operation shut down, many of my friends’ parents lost their jobs and neighborhoods and businesses diminished and died.
Around the same time, my father worked at a missile plant in nearby Mishawaka while my mother taught school. When that plant lost substantial
government contracts, my father also lost his job. He was out of work for nine months before he decided to go back to college and finish his degree. For two years, he left home and lived on campus at Indiana University in Bloomington until he finished with a degree in mathematics. After graduation, he eventually
found employment with Bethlehem Steel at a new plant being built in Burns Harbor on Lake Michigan. He retired from Bethlehem Steel 28 years ago. He found his way
to survive economic change.
In those days, manufacturing was the heart and soul of nearly every major city. Watching those companies fade and eventually close has been
heartbreaking but clearly evidences the change in the basis of our economy. This trend away from manufacturing has continued for many years; fortunately,
technology and the computer chip have provided new ways to compete and be successful. With the growth of China, India and other low-cost nations as well
as the oil producing nations, there is an even greater redirection of resources worldwide.
How are we coping with all these changes and still growing our economy? Rich Karlgaard, editor of Forbes, recently visited Charlotte and spoke about
this, describing a new demographic trend among Americans to more actively determine where they can be happy. In his book Life 2.0, he speaks about the 70
million baby-boomers in the United States and how their aging is affecting our economic lives. One of the most significant trends he identifies is a population
shift away from larger urban centers to smaller cities – “to the heartland.” Facing retirement and a reduced income, people are shedding their assets in
high-cost urban areas and moving to places like Charlotte with a lower cost of living and a higher quality of life.
Nearly 80,000 new residents moved to Charlotte last year, mostly from larger populations in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. This movement to
smaller cities and towns away from larger urban areas is also occurring in other states, primarily in the Southeast and West. On average, these states’
populations have grown by 24 percent over the 1990s while the rest of the nation grew by 13 percent.
Thanks to increasing technology, broadband and search tools, people are finding that they can be as productive in smaller towns as they have been in
large urban areas. They don’t need to reside in or near big cities; they can be successful without the high cost of living in larger urban areas. With people
living longer and many people working longer as well, they will need to live where they can afford to live, be productive and still enjoy their lives. It is estimated that this phenomenon will continue over the next 20 years.
Economic restructuring can be painful. Learning about change and how it will likely occur gives many a fighting chance to adapt and benefit from these
developments. We are fortunate to be in Charlotte facing growth when many other communities are fading and failing. Adjusting to economic changes around the world will continue until some equilibrium is reached. In the meantime, we need
to apply our brainpower to continue our own growth and prosperity.
John Paul Galles is the publisher of Greater Charlotte Biz.