On November 30, 2018

What Amazon’s choice means for Vermonters

By Emerson Lynn

When Amazon announced last week that instead of building its second headquarters in one city, it would locate within the metropolitan areas of two of the largest cities on the East Coast — New York City and Washington, D.C. — it was telling us something. Both locations have neighborhoods with populations larger than Vermont.

As we watch, we also need to absorb what’s going on and figure out a way to respond. What’s going on is a significant exodus from rural America to the city. In the past decade, almost half of the nation’s job growth took place in the nation’s 20 largest metropolitan areas.

People left rural America for the jobs, which pay well and which spur a supporting infrastructure that makes living in the city even more attractive. These major metropolitan areas are now home to a third of the nation’s population, and are located largely along the nation’s coastlines. The phenomenon is being referred to as the great divide, or the hollowing our of the nation’s center and its rural areas.

Vermont is on the edges of that divide; we’re just close enough to Boston, Montreal and New York City to be reachable, but just far enough to miss out on the job growth.

We’ve long tried to content ourselves with the idea that technology would be our savior; that people would tire of the city and its crowds and retreat to the countryside where they could work from home.

The vision hasn’t materialized. Nor is it likely to. Companies are figuring out that they best way to run a business is to bring people together, allowing them to work off each other’s creativity. Not only is it more efficient, it produces better ideas. IBM figured this out several years ago and put a stop to most of its off-site employment.

Amazon has applied the same lesson. The company, and those with similar pursuits, has a single goal in mind — to get you what you want and get it to you quickly at a good price. The better they get, the greater the challenge for rural America to respond. We may be the site of warehouses, but it would be a challenge to ever be the place where significant numbers of employees gather to generate the ideas themselves.

Vermont’s generally accepted challenge is one of demographics; our population has flat-lined, our school population is in decline and we are aging quickly. Plus, we’re an expensive place to live. Given all that, the question is how we respond.

It’s also a question that’s been asked for the past quarter century, over and over. We’ve not made much progress.

Why?

It’s tremendously difficult for starters. Politically, economically and socially. We don’t have any of the natural advantages of our successful metropolitan counterparts. And, significantly, it’s not as if Vermonters are up in arms about their present circumstances. The decline has not been alarming; it’s more akin to death by a thousand lashers…

But this is a conversation Vermont must have. As technology spins forward at faster and faster speeds, we can expect more of the same disruption and we can expect it to make things ever more complicated for the vast majority of rural America.

Including Vermont.

We need to develop a leadership structure in Vermont that is at least partially free from the political forces that make us vulnerable to the inertia that governs us. That may be something devised at the local level, or the regional level, with the thought being to bring the best ideas to statewide consideration.

As for the political leadership that guides us — in both the executive and legislative branches — they must also exercise the sort of leadership that makes Vermonters aware of the sorts of challenges being raised by the Amazons of today and tomorrow.

We have a problem. We sit idly by at our own risk.

Emerson Lynn is the editor and publisher of the St. Albans Messenger, a sister publication to the Mountain Times.

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