It’s easy to think of the Great Plains states in the cinematic sweep of a John Ford film, a black-and-white world of stark prairies and wind-worn landscapes. Well, throw out those stereotypes. The Plains States have written an entirely new narrative.
The Plains, that vast swath of flatland 2,000 miles long and 500 miles wide that runs from Canada to Mexico, includes parts or all of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
We all know the story of Texas, the job-generating juggernaut that, in retail parlance, is a category killer in virtually every segment of the economy, from manufacturing to aerospace to life sciences, information technology and, of course, energy.
But the Great Plains are much more than Texas. Demographer Joel Kotkin notes that the population of the Plains is up more than 14 percent since 2000 and the positive net migration experience by the region is making boomtowns of places such as Oklahoma City, Omaha and Fort Worth.
A look at some national rankings shows the Plains shouldn’t be dismissed as flyover country. Among the :
* CNBC’s 2012 Best States for Business lists two Great Plains states – Texas and North Dakota – in its top five
* Five Plains States – Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas and Oklahoma – are on the Pollina Corporate Top 10 Pro-Business States for 2012
* Area Development’s 2012 Top States for Business includes Texas and Oklahoma in the top 10 (Texas is No. 1 on the list)
* Plains states occupied five of the top 10 spots in percentage job growth between August 2011 and August 2012, including No. 1 North Dakota (6.75%), No. 2 Oklahoma (2.9%) and No. 3 Texas (2.5%). Between the start of 2008 and the start of 2012, North Dakota’s job growth is up more than 14 percent.
Energy is helping to fuel the growth spurt, to be sure. The three top states for natural gas production are Plains States – Texas, Wyoming and Oklahoma. North Dakota ranks behind only Texas in crude oil production, passing Alaska in March of this year. Three of the country’s top states for installed wind energy capacity are in the Plains.
Wyoming, which accounts for 40 percent of the nation’s coal production, is also a leader not only in fossil fuels, but also in clean energy. The state is a major wind energy producer and also is making headway in biofuels. A major demonstration project in Upton between Petrobras America Inc., a subsidiary of Brazil’s state-run oil company, and KL Energy Corp., an innovator in biofuel processing, is developing technology to make ethanol from sugarcane bagasse.
In Kansas, the state has married its deep agricultural heritage to new energy technology, and it is one of the top five states for biofuels production. The state’s producers turn out some 440 million gallons of ethanol a year.
But the emergence of the Plains isn’t being powered by energy alone. Kotkin notes the region’s vast agricultural production that runs the gamut from beef to wheat to corn to cotton and virtually every other commodity. Ag commodities have become a key export segment as demand rises in expanding economies around the world.
And with their lower overall business costs and labor costs, Plains States are also generating new jobs in manufacturing and technology. Workers classified as in the Professional, Scientific and Technical category by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics rose in every Plains state except Colorado and Kansas in the decade between 2001 and 2011 – and by eye-opening rates of 31 percent in North Dakota, 26 percent in Wyoming and 14 percent in Montana, New Mexico and Texas.
George Carlin once joked about walling off one of the “square states that no one uses” f0r a prison farm. The economic momentum of the Great Plains is no joke and no fad. The square states are getting the last laugh.