For most of the nation’s history, the Atlantic region — primarily New York City — has dominated the nation’s trade. In the last few decades of the 20th Century, the Pacific, led by Los Angeles and Long Beach, gained prominence. Now we may be about to see the ascendancy of a third coast: the Gulf, led primarily by Houston but including New Orleans and a host of smaller ports across the regions.
The 600,000 square mile Gulf region has long been derided for its humid climate, conservative political traditions and vulnerability to natural disasters. Yet despite these factors, the Gulf is destined to emerge as the most economically vibrant of our three coasts. In our rankings of the fastest-growing job markets in the country, six Gulf cities made the top 50: Houston, Corpus Christi and Brownsville, in Texas; New Orleans; and Gulfport-Biloxi and Pascagoula, in Mississippi. In contrast, just one Pacific port, Anchorage, Alaska, and one small Atlantic port, Portsmouth, N.H., made the cut.
This reflects a long-term shift of money, power and jobs away from both the North Atlantic and the Pacific to the cities of the Gulf. The Port of Houston, for example, enjoyed a 28.1% jump in foreign trade this year, and trade at Louisiana’s main ports also reached records levels.
This growth stems from a host of factors ranging from politics, demographics and energy to emerging trade patterns and new technologies. One potential game-changer is the scheduled 2014 $5.25 billion widening of the Panama Canal, which will allow the passage to accommodate ships carrying twice as much cargo as they are able to carry currently. This will open the Gulf to megaships from Pacific Basin ports such as Singapore, Shanghai, Pusan and Kaohsiung, which have mostly sent their cargos to West Coast ports such as Los Angeles and Long Beach. Some analysts predict that more than 25% of this traffic could shift to Gulf and South Atlantic ports. “More of Asia will be heading to this part of the world,” says Jimmy Lyons, CEO of the Alabama State Port Authority.
The area also is getting a big jolt from ascendant Latin America, the Gulf’s historic leading trade partner. Bill Gilmer, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, notes that Latin America is home to many of the world’s fastest-growing economies, with overall growth rates last year exceeding 6.1%. Since 2002 about 56 million people in the region have risen out of poverty, according to the World Bank.
Trade with Latin American partners — including Mexico — is ramping up growth in Houston as well as other Gulf ports. Brazil, for instance, has risen to become Mobile, Ala.’s leading trade partner. Latin immigration to virtually all the Gulf cities, including New Orleans, can only strengthen these economic ties.
The energy industry represents another critical force in the Gulf’s resurgence. It employs at least 55,000 workers in the Gulf, which produces roughly one-quarter of the nation’s natural gas and one-eighth of its oil. Although Houston seems assured of its spot as the focal point of the world fossil fuel industry, oil and gas also boosts numerous economies throughout the region, notably in Corpus Christi and various ports across Southern Louisiana.
Though the Obama administration puts its bets on subsidizing “green jobs,” traditional energy jobs may prove, in the short and medium term, far more important. There is even widespread talk about the Gulf emerging as a center for the export of natural gas. Over $ 6 billion in new investments are already being proposed for export facilities, notes David Dismukes, associate director of the Louisiana State University Center for Energy Studies.
The energy-related economy produces high-wage jobs that range from geology and engineering to the muscle work on the oil rigs, which provide well above average wages for blue collar workers. Such growth is particularly critical to regions such as New Orleans, long dependent on generally lower-wage industries like hospitality and personal services. The energy business also will help accelerate the expansion of business services such as law, accounting, architecture and advertising.
The shift to the Gulf includes some rapid industrial expansion, particularly for energy intensive industries. Huge natural gas supplies are creating enormous opportunities for expanding petrochemical industries. The German firm Thyssen Krupp opened a new $5 billion steel mill last year, and Nucor Steel announced a large new facility to be built just outside New Orleans. Like energy production, these facilities tend to pay above-average wages for blue collar workers, which will likely raise living standards for a region that has lagged historically.
At the same time, demographic trends suggest these areas will continue to become more attractive to international commerce. Despite a legacy of hurricanes and floods, Houston, with over 5 million people, has emerged as among the fastest-growing large metropolitan regions in the country. The region’s population is expected to double in the next 20 years. Most of the economies its port serves — Dallas-Fort Worth, San Antonio and Austin — also have experienced rapid growth. Recoveries are in place in many other hurricane-devastated areas, including greater New Orleans.
Overall the Gulf is expected to be home to 61.4 million people by 2025, a nearly 50% increase from its 1995 base. This expanding domestic market — along with the possibilities posed by the canal — have already persuaded two larger retailers, Wal-Mart and Home Depot, to establish modern new distribution centers in Houston.
Finally there is the matter of political will. Both the Northeast and the Pacific regions are increasingly dominated by environmental, labor, urban land and other interests often hostile to wide-ranging industrial expansion. A legacy of labor unrest, most notably a big strike of West Coast ports in 2002, convinced some shippers to diversify their operations elsewhere. Growing regulation in California, suggests economist John Husing, a leading expert on port-related issues, makes the prospects for growing warehouse, logistics and manufacturing jobs increasingly “impossible” there.
East Coast ports, subject to some of the same pressures, may be slow to make the “intense capital improvements” required to capture expanding trade. In contrast, the Gulf’s leaders in both parties support broad based economic growth. New Orleans’ Democratic Mayor Mitch Landrieu is no less friendly to industrial and port expansion than Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal. Houston Democratic mayors like Annise Parker, Bill White and Bob Lanier have been as strongly in favor of critical business and infrastructure investment as their Republican counterparts.
Such differences in attitude have driven power shifts throughout American economic history. In the 19th century New York through a combination of ruthless ambition and greater vision overcame aristocratic Boston and more established Philadelphia. Icy Chicago performed a similar coup over its then far more established and temperate rival, St. Louis, in the mid- and late 1800s.
In the last century, unfashionable Los Angeles, without a great natural port, overcame the grand Pacific dowager San Francisco, blessed by one of the world’s great natural harbors, as the economic center of the West Coast. Los Angeles built a vast new modern and largely artificial port to make up for what nature failed to provide, and also nurtured a host of industries from aerospace, oil and entertainment to garments.
Now history is about to repeat itself as Texas, Louisiana and other Gulf Cities seek to reorder the nation’s economic balance of power. Unless California and the Northeast awaken to the challenge, they will be increasingly supplanted by a region that seems more determined to expand their economic dominion.
This piece originally appeared at Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and an adjunct fellow of the Legatum Institute in London. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.
Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video