Most of you probably have never been to Omaha, where I sit in my hotel room before attending a conference, but bear with me. This is a story of redemption and recovery. I lived here in the late 1980s when I took a job managing the research department at Upland Industries, the land development subsidiary of Union Pacific. InterNorth had just pulled up stakes, moving to Houston where the company changed its name to… Enron. ConAgra, the food giant, was threatening to leave, and the rumor around UP was that a relocation to St. Louis was imminent. In short, the city was on the verge of becoming irrelevant.
Flash forward 25 years: ConAgra and UP have built new headquarters downtown as has Gallup, which has a dazzling riverfront campus that finally linked downtown with the Missouri River. Mutual of Omaha has built Midtown Crossing, a stunning mixed-use complex adjacent to its headquarters, and the University of Nebraska has dramatically expanded its medical campus, degree offerings and research activities in Omaha, with stunning new facilities to show for it. The level of redevelopment, revitalization, civic involvement and corporate commitment is mind-boggling for a former resident who had not kept up with the changes.
Which brings me to my broader point: there are plenty of similar success stories. Look no further than Pittsburgh, once the poster child for rust-belt decay and population flight. The city evolved into an educational, medical and technology hub and is now attracting energy companies seeking to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale that underlies a vast four-state region. Energy is also the story in Oklahoma City, largely stagnant for two decades following the energy bust of the mid-1980s. Devon Energy is now building a new 50-story headquarters downtown. New York, a magnet for institutional real estate capital, looked like it was down for the count when the city nearly declared bankruptcy in the mid-1970s. All of these metro areas were touched by the Great Recession and job losses, but all held up much better than the U.S. average and are on the way to recouping their loses.
Could Detroit someday become a turnaround story and a symbol for America’s capacity to reinvent itself? It may take several decades as it did in the cities profiled above, but I think it will happen.
Have a great weekend.