The New Boom Towns


The steep hike in gas and energy prices has created a national debate about the future of American metropolitan areas -- mostly about the reputed decline of suburbs and edge cities dependent on cars. But with all this focus on the troubles of traditional suburbs, one big story is overlooked: the rapid rise of America’s energy-producing metropolitan areas.

In many of the nation’s strongest regional economies, $5 a gallon gas is less a threat than a boon. From Houston and Midland in Texas, to a score of cities across the Great Plains, today’s energy crisis is creating new wealth and new jobs in a way not seen since, well, the energy crisis of the 1970s.

This reflects a global trend that is turning once out-of-the-way places, like Dubai and Alma Alty, into glittering high-rise cities. Other energy- and commodity-rich places are undergoing a similar boom -- from Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia, to Calgary and Edmonton in Canada and Perth in Australia.

What all these places have going for them is control of what Kent Briggs, former chief of staff for Utah’s late Gov. Scott Matheson, once called “the testicles of the universe.” These cities base their wealth not on clever financial technology, cultural attributes or university-honed skills but on their position as centers of the global commodities boom.

In the process, there has been a shift in the balance of economic power away from financial and information centers like New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. These cities are deeply vulnerable to the national financial and mortage crises. New York, according to David Shulman, former Lehman Brothers managing director, faces upward of 30,000 to 40,000 layoffs in its financial sector. San Francisco in the last quarter gave away a Transamerica Pyramid’s worth of office space.

In contrast, things have never looked better for cities now riding the energy and commodity boom. By far the biggest winner is Houston, whose breakneck growth has been fueled by its role as the world’s premier energy city. As with Dubai, this is less a function of the city's proximity of actual deposits (though the Gulf of Mexico represents one of the most promising energy finds in North America), than to its premier role as the technical, trading and administrative center of the worldwide industry.

This prominence is, in historic terms, relatively recent. As late as the 1980s “oil bust," notes historian Joe Feagin, Houston’s energy sector remained “a colony of New York,” where many of key industry corporate and financial decision-makers still lived.

Yet, today, Houston’s national, even global dominance, of the energy business is palpable. With the lure of low-cost office space and housing stock, as well as myriad personal ties among executives and leading engineers, Houston managed to consolidate its position as the predominant center of the oil and gas industry. In 1960, Houston had barely one of the nation’s large energy firms, ranking well behind New York, Los Angeles and even Tulsa; today it has 16, more than all those cities combined.

High wages offered by energy firms -- annual salaries for geologists average $132,000 or more; while blue-collar workers make roughly $60,000 -- have attracted a new generation of skilled executives and technicians to the region, which also enjoys a far lower cost a living than many other major cities. Areas like River Oaks, Galleria and Energy Corridor are home to well-educated, upwardly mobile workers in their late 20s and 30s. The area is growing at a time when these workers are, according to recent census numbers, leaving places like San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Boston.

“People from other areas say that you guys don’t make much down there,“ said Houston executive recruiter Chris Schoettelkotte. “[But] the guys from L.A. make the same amount of money in the same field here. We pull them from Wharton, the Ivy League and Stanford and they get paid through the nose… Houston can get the talent.”

Houston’s status as energy capital is also propelling it into the ranks of first-tier cities. Today, Houston has the third largest representation of consular offices. It ranks behind only Los Angeles and New York, and has outstripped traditional commercial centers like San Francisco and Chicago.

It’s energy, along with the port and growing airport, that makes the Texas city a world capital. “When I go overseas people put Houston with New York and L.A.," said Houston salvage entrepreneur Charlie Wilson. “In many cases, Houston is considered to be at the top of the world class because of oil. If you’re in China, you’re looking at Houston because of the oil.”

But Houston is not alone in benefiting from the rising price of energy and other commodities. According to the new Inc./ job growth rankings other energy cities include Dallas -- home of Exxon Mobil –- as well as smaller Texas burgs like Midland, Odessa and Longview.

This is a dramatic turnaround for places like Midland. Until recently, said Midland oilman Mike Bradford, wildcatters had held back from drilling, because they feared the high oil prices would not last. Now they are convinced that the energy market has broken free of OPEC control and prices will remain high. "We think high [oil and gas] prices are for real — and we're going nuts," said Bradford, who also sits on the Midland County Commission.

But you don’t have to be in Texas to be part of an energy boomtown. Bakersfield, Calif., oil capital, is also thriving, despite the hard times throughout the Golden State because of the mortgage crisis. Alaskans, who now receive more than $1,600 per capita from the state’s Permanent Fund Dividend, twice what they received in 2005, are likely to see their wealth increase. If there’s an expansion of drilling there, look for Anchorage and other Alaskan cities to enjoy even flusher times.

Another hot spot is in the Great Plains. Energy production and high commodity prices are pacing the economies of regional centers like Des Moines; Billings, Mont.; Cheyenne, Wy., and Sioux Falls, S.D. In Bismarck, Grand Forks and Fargo, N.D., where incomes are surging, there’s a sense that these are the best of times. One sure sign: The energy boom -- coal, oil, wind as well as biofuels -- has produced a a billion-dollar state surplus for North Dakota.

The energy and commodity boom is changing the face of these small cities in key ways. Fargo, the butt of sophisticated jokes with the Coen Brothers’ movie, now boasts a first-class arena, fine restaurants, a luxurious boutique hotel and a thriving arts scene.

Grand Forks has a growing condo market. Scores of smaller cities -- like Bismarck and Dickinson – are also showing signs of a new quasi-urban sophistication. After decades of demographic stagnation, some of these towns are seeing healthy population gains.

Rising unemployment is not a problem here; a looming labor shortage is. In some markets, there are signing bonuses and $12-an-hour wages at fast-food business.

If energy prices hold firm, and particularly if the nation begins to ramp up energy production, we can see the boomtimes extend to energy-rich Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Louisiana. These can mean more growth in already healthy economies like Albuquerque, Salt Lake City and Denver; but also for long hard-pressed New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities.

Finally there’s another group of potential winners: areas that have been selected to produce the energy-efficient vehicles of the future. Even as Detroit, Flint and Ft. Wayne, Ind.,-- producers of SUVs and trucks -- suffer, many cities in the mid-South, like Nashville, Huntsville and Chattanooga, Tenn., seem certain to gain as Nissan, Toyota, Volkswagen and other foreign producers ramp up production.

Perhaps the ultimate example of “world turned upside down” by energy prices may end up being Mississippi, long a perennial loser in the economic sweepstakes. But this week, Toyota announced it would start building its popular hybrid Prius in Blue Springs, Miss., in late 2010. That’s just outside Tupelo, Elvis’ birthplace.

We may not see a reappearance of the King --- but for many people this resurgence is just as stunning.

None of this, however, suggests that San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York are about to be eclipsed by Houston -- much less Fargo or Tupelo. But if the history of cities tells us anything, places well-positioned for growth industries tend to emerge as ever more serious players.

It worked for industrial cities like Chicago, which emerged from obscurity in the late 19th Century; or later for high-tech centers like San Jose, Austin and Boston. If energy and commodity prices stay high for another decade, we may have to get used to a shift in the power of places across the American landscape.

Joel Kotkin is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and the author of "The City: A Global History." He is executive editor of the website This article first appeared at The Washington Independent.