This piece was written and reported by ThoughtMatter Account Manager Katie Williams and Cultural Strategist Shivani Gorle.
Lately we’ve been hearing, reading and talking a lot about Middle America. The Silent Majority, the Rust Belt, the Bible Belt and more: A sizable population of an entire country has come to earn nicknames galore. Improving the economy in these areas and bringing wealth to those who live there is a constant ambition for political leaders and social activists, but rarely comes to fruition with lasting results. For decades the engines have been stuttering, with towns, smaller cities and their suburbs relegated to the sidelines both economically and culturally.
Middle America suffers from middle child syndrome because it is the United States’ neglected birth order. The Northeast with its mighty metropolises is like the first child, while the Sun Belt with its sudden growth spurt and the West Coast with its free-spirited attitude behave like the country’s youngest and most favorite. This makes everything and everyone in between the unfortunate Middle, with no clear role in the family.
In this light, two of us at ThoughtMatter decided to examine the phenomenon of Middle America and how, just like middle children, its people are often overlooked and misunderstood. Middle America needs new ideas on how to turn the phrase on its head and make it work for itself. What worries it? What redeems it? Could a brand find a way to revive and celebrate it?
We’ve looked at consequences and opportunities for the Middle from two perspectives: From the Inside Out, on how towns and cities in the Middle can use their resources to bring big brands to them; and From the Outside In, on how outside brands can bring their resources to the Middle. Through examples, anecdotes and arguments, here’s some of what we think can be done to provoke a rebirth of the Middle.
I went to college at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where I had the best four years of my life. Propped atop a meticulously landscaped hill, Denison offered a safe haven from the rest of the world. There, you could focus on college life with state of the art facilities and teachers, incredible scholarship and financial aid options from its seemingly endless endowment. The choice to go to Denison was an obvious one for me, even if it meant living in a not-so-exciting place. But when May of my senior year rolled around I was itching to leave – I’d already applied to jobs in New York City and would find one back home in Chicago if the Big Apple didn’t pan out.
While Granville was the quintessential “hometown USA,” with a modest church on every street corner and a main street with local food and gift shops, it had never crossed my mind to stay and live and work there. After four years in Ohio with the exception of a semester traveling abroad, I knew I wanted “bigger and better” for my post-grad life.
But in hindsight, I wondered, what’s so wrong with Granville? What could other small cities nearby, like Dayton, less than a two-hour drive from Granville, offer me that could convince me to stay in the Buckeye state?
Though perfect for a four-year education, many colleges around the country create a “brain-drain” from the very towns that provided their students an education. So these days, many college towns aren’t worried about getting students to come, but how to get them to stay.
Let’s break it down. Towns and cities need a sustainable economy to grow. Meanwhile, colleges and universities are a great economic resource because they provide jobs to locals. Plus, a bustling student population boosts local businesses. But that’s still not enough to sustain a city’s economy, or those of neighboring towns that may be suffering. There is a need for higher-paying jobs, which means higher-level work, which means higher-educated people.
Where do you get higher-educated people? Colleges and universities. Recent graduates are hungry for good jobs they can apply their four years of studying to, and they want to work somewhere that will set them up for career success the rest of their professional lives.
Enter big brands and companies looking for growth and innovation. Averse to paying up for mid-level job experience, corporations want smart, competent workers at a lower cost, especially if they want to operate in an area that’s convenient and where taxes are inexpensive.
Thus, college towns have the opportunity to bridge the gap by expanding resources to boost the economy, accessibility and sustainability of America’s “Middle” by partnering with brands that seek innovation and growth.
We’re already seeing this movement starting to unfold. Here are two examples:
1. Tulsa, Oklahoma – Once the “Oil Capital of the World,” Tulsa enjoyed great economic growth, but that has waned since the early ’90s. Nevertheless, the University of Tulsa has always been a resource to the city, especially its world-renowned Spartan School of Aeronautics, established in 1928. It’s why American Airlines chose to base its largest maintenance facility in the world there. And Lufthansa followed suit, opening The Center of Excellence for Production in Tulsa.
2. Manhattan, Kansas – Home to Kansas State University, Manhattan is described by many as the classic college town. Known for its extensive research facilities, it boasts the acclaimed College of Veterinary Medicine. There’s also other impressive focused sciences like the College of Agriculture, College of Engineering and the College of Human Ecology. No surprise, then, that in 2022 the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will be opening the new National Bio and Agro-defense Facility (NBAF), adjacent to Kansas State’s Biosecurity Facility. NBAF will act as the country’s leading animal disease research facility.
The equation is obvious: college and university resources + big brand companies = economic prosperity.
Tulsa’s Spartan School of Aeronautics educates students in aircrafts + American Airlines and Lufthansa establishing facilities in Tulsa = job openings for recent graduates and companies hiring specially skilled employees.
KSU educates students in animal treatment + NBAF establishing its newest facility near the campus = recent graduates having access to facilities and jobs in Manhattan and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security hiring innovative employees.
Not every town or city has these advantages – yet. But the opportunities are all around if the colleges and brands both seek each other out and understand the mutual benefits. There is for instance, a terrific opportunity in Lubbock, Texas.
Despite being recognized for valuing education – it is home to top-ranked high schools and seven colleges – Lubbock has struggled with economic growth and quality of life for nearly 20 years. Among the problems are environmental issues like recycling and waste management and increasingly inclement weather. But new things are on the horizon. Texas Tech University, the biggest of Lubbock’s colleges, is expected to grow its student population from roughly 30,000 current students to 40,000 by 2020. This means Lubbock will soon see an increase in student activity and business, and that just a few years later there will be an influx of college graduates in the area.
With Texas Tech strong in epidemiology, pulsed power, nanophotonics, atmospheric sciences and wind energy, its students seem poised to aid Lubbock in tackling its environmental concerns. All that’s missing are the job opportunities to make this happen.
To get students to stay in Texas, and in Lubbock in particular, I looked at what Texas already uniquely offers that makes these studies applicable. Move over cowboys, country music and oil and gas – the latest thing Texas does better than any other state in the country is wind power. With more than 40 wind farms, the industry has created more than 24,000 jobs for local communities. And it keeps on growing. Two major wind farms are in close proximity to Lubbock: Brazos Wind Ranch in Borden County, just an hour away, and Horse Hollow in Taylor County, a two-hour drive. Lubbock’s growing student population and the growing wind power industry seem like a match made in Lone Star State heaven.
The plain fact is, you don’t need to live in a big city to have a big impact. Diversifying the skills in a town and bringing new opportunities will bring a widespread benefit not only to the town’s economy but to the quality of life for everyone.
As explorers navigated the New World during the Age of Discovery, they mapped most coastal areas and described inner parts of the continent as terra incognita, or unknown land. We now find ourselves in a comparable situation, where many of us are strangers to Middle America’s terrains and blind to its nuances. We find Middle America to be a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which one may draw infinite narratives.
A particular narrative shines above the rest in describing its essence: flyover country. American writer Thomas McGuane is said to have first used the term. Having written movie screenplays himself, he claims he learned it from the “movies, an industry that seemed to acknowledge only two places, New York and Los Angeles.” Many places in this flyover zone that enjoyed prosperity in the past have been hollowed out because original residents moved elsewhere, gravitating toward booming centers of globalization.
The result is, Middle American areas and entities now need to tackle a twofold issue:
1. Unwanted vacancies and a stuttering economy –A post-industrial economy has left unused and uninhabited warehouses, factories, office buildings and commercial spaces that once employed entire neighborhoods. The residents of these faded towns and cities also face a psychological challenge. The empty storefronts and desolate buildings remind them “of what once was, and may never be again.” Some soberly state that “the financial fabric of rural America is fraying.” Moreover, banks are packing up and leaving small towns in favor of booming cities where borrowers are better bets.
2. A lack of cultural representation – Flyover Americans suffer from a serious lack of representation in mainstream pop culture. The entire region is painted in broad strokes without a nuanced understanding of its opportunities and challenges. Television series with plots set there often are not filmed where they claim to be happening. Fargo is not shot in Fargo, North Dakota, but in Calgary, Canada. Ozark was shot on two lakes near Atlanta, Georgia, instead of on the original Lake of the Ozarks. When a place doesn’t get the economic benefits and cultural exposure as a result of a show’s production, one cannot help but wonder if in the portrayal of Middle America, Middle America itself is being shortchanged.
What to do, then? For starters, the vacancies need to be seen not as urban blight but as a breeding ground for new ventures, new ideas, new art. The lack of cultural representation demands the production of movies, music, television and video games about a Middle America that is treated intelligently and thoughtfully.
A multi-dimensional issue like this therefore demands a multi-pronged strategy. In a marketplace dominated by streaming heavyweights like Netflix, Hulu, HBO and Amazon Prime Video, we need a new, tabula rasa entertainment player. And as a mass media and entertainment conglomerate in need of original content for its upcoming streaming service, the Walt Disney Company presents a perfect candidate.
In the latest move of its all-out war with the online entertainment titans, Disney recently acquired 21st Century Fox and announced the end of its distribution deal with Netflix. It also expressed intentions to launch its own streaming service in 2019, showing a renewed strategic focus on online distribution. Disney is going to pull all its blockbusters from Netflix and Fox-owned Hulu to beef up its own streaming platform’s exclusive offerings. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Disney also plans to develop original programming and five films a year specifically for its new streaming service – built around blockbuster franchises like Star Wars, High School Musical, Monsters, Inc. and Marvel’s superhero films.
Making original content alone isn’t enough, though. It matters what the movies and TV shows are about. In light of the Disney-Fox merger, there’s already talk of disconnect between Fox’s gritty, adult-centered films and Disney’s family-focused productions. While Fox’s movie output would certainly add diversity to Disney’s relatively homogenous collection, to truly fuel subscriptions Disney needs new movies and TV series of its own.
Is there an opportunity for Disney to leverage Middle America’s unwanted vacancies and low cultural representation to strengthen its new streaming service?
1. Create cultural currency – Disney could change one-dimensional perceptions of Middle America by employing local talent to tell engaging, commercially viable stories about these unacknowledged places.
2. Villainize vacancies – Disney could repurpose Middle America’s vacant, under-utilized spaces and develop content around locales that are home to them.
Only one entertainment company is uniquely equipped to achieve this feat. Americana is baked into Disney’s DNA. Using Mickey Mouse to embody time-honored American values of strong work ethic and to evoke images of the “heartland,” Disney has been a lifestyle brand since 1923. A walk down any one of Disneyland’s Main Streets, U.S.A. – with their manicured lawns, happy buildings and small town charm – is a walk down America’s collective memory lane. In fact, Marceline, Missouri, a typical Middle American town where Walt Disney spent four years as a child served as a blueprint for Main Street U.S.A.
What these towns and cities need isn’t another Disneyesque rampage, but a symbiotic relationship with corporations that have the clout to “adopt an area.” It’s been done before. Tech titan Rita Cobb took the heartwarming hospitality of her birthplace Fogo Island, Newfoundland and Labrador, and turned it into a revenue-generating, locally run hotel. Chobani’s Hamdi Ulukaya revived upstate New York’s dairy industry by fighting factory shutdowns in South Edmeston, New York, with his own Greek yogurt plant. Austin Community College in Austin, Texas, took over an abandoned mall to convert a J.C. Penney into a school laboratory and its asphalt parking lots into student housing. A skater in a VICELAND documentary series showed how North America’s seaside ghost towns, empty schools and old malls can become beautiful playgrounds for a new generation. By hiring local talent to help manage entire productions of its new original content set in such locales, Disney has the opportunity to create mini-economies in otherwise neglected zones.
The big idea is to think small. Hollowed out as they may seem, these inner towns and cities are filled with hidden advantages, whether it’s affordable land, accessible labor or caring locals determined to rewrite history and make a real impact. Since the goal is to create cultural currency, a new generation of local scriptwriters, directors and actors could have the opportunity to take on more responsible roles than just filmmaking. They can help shape a future currently heavily influenced by corporations headquartered far away. The reward may well be more content creators interested in telling Middle American stories, as well as outsiders seeking to explore the places the stories are set in. If you build it, they really will come.
Like sibling rivalry, the oldest, middle and youngest children can always disagree on things, but they also can set aside their dysfunction to help each other out, because without one the others would be lost. Likewise with Middle America. Whether it’s the Middle looking for help from the urban elite, or wealthy businesses looking for new opportunities in the Middle, if they learn to see their differences as benefits and opportunities, rather than hindrances and nuisances, the family of the United States is bound to prosper.