|Las Vegas’ physical growth, 1973-2006. Source: nasa.gov|
About fourteen years ago, while working as an urban planning consultant, I had a chance to work on a neighborhood plan in Las Vegas. My firm was contracted to do a plan for the West Las Vegas neighborhood, an area actually just northwest of downtown Vegas but in reality quite a world away. West Las Vegas developed as the African-American enclave of Las Vegas, and has suffered from social and economic isolation for much of its history.
At any rate, on one of our first trips there our planning team started to do our due diligence on the project and gain a keen understanding of the economic drivers of the neighborhood and of the entire Las Vegas area. We conducted interviews with City staff, neighborhood leaders, business leaders and the like, and collected barrels of data. Of course, everyone touted the explosive growth of the region. The story — people pouring in, mostly from California but from around the country; low-skilled but high-wage jobs to be had at the casinos; back-office operations relocating from the Golden State, in search of lower taxes; migrants attracted by massive amounts of new residential construction. The data we collected supported this.
But we encountered a problem in our analysis, unrelated to our specific work in West Las Vegas. How, we asked, was this economy actually working? We saw strong evidence that there were economic drivers propelling growth in the region. There were many jobs at the casinos. There were numerous businesses relocating offices. But there were more people in the region, we surmised, than what the growth was actually bringing in. Being a bunch of Rust Belters from Chicago, we were flabbergasted.
We assumed that people followed jobs. This was my first exposure to jobs following people.
Los Angeles used its fabulous and consistent weather as a means to attract parts of a budding film industry previously based on the East Coast. The growth of the film industry ultimately led to the growth of the media industry in Southern California, and voila – the economic underpinnings of a major metropolis are established. Like San Francisco, LA never relinquished those ties. (Side note: I don’t think you can understate the importance of the Rose Bowl in luring Midwesterners in particular to Southern California. The “Granddaddy of Them All”, started in 1902, annually brought the Big Ten’s best and brightest for a few weeks of sun and fun in winter. The strategy paid off.)
You could say this approach is what brought early residents to Florida, and fueled Florida’s first land boom and bust in the 1920s. Much of the rest of the Sun Belt followed suit — in sunny Arizona and Nevada, along the Gulf Coast, and in the Southeast. They made it big by selling dreams, and creating an economy after the fact.
Some readers might think this contradicts what I wrote just a couple weeks ago about Dixie’s lessons for the Rust Belt, but not exactly. The pattern of migration had been established by marketing the sunny weather to Rust Belt residents, and once that happened Sun Belt civic leaders got to work on building local economies.
So this jobs-following-people thing is something that’s been at work for a long time. It just looks crazy to those of us with a Rust Belt, people-follow-jobs background.