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Creating Opportunity in America’s Heartland

September 6, 2018
The region's communities are a storehouse of potential

When I moved with my family from Boston to Northwest Arkansas two years ago, it was in many ways a return home – from the East Coast, where I lived for 15 years, back to the heartland.

I grew up in Columbus, Ohio; my wife in Milwaukee. My family still owns a century-old farm in Wisconsin.

While we have traveled all over the world, the Midwest – its geography, people and way of life – is where we are rooted. We wanted our son to grow up in a place of cultural and political diversity and, yes, of opportunity.

That may surprise some folks, who view America’s heartland as a region in decline – an area where people get stuck, or a pit stop on the road to somewhere else.

Like the millions of other heartland Americans, my family and I see something different. Creative communities where social and economic crises are, by necessity, driving innovation and homegrown solutions. Big cities and small towns where entrepreneurs and artists, academics and philanthropists, government officials and educators are drawing from a wellspring of ideas for the heartland’s revival.

Make no mistake: America’s heartland today faces a multitude of serious challenges. Gaps in education, health, income and skills have left far too many of its residents behind.

Executive director Kyle Peterson, at the Brightwater culinary institute in Bentonville, Ark.

Many of the areas that fueled the country’s growth in the 20ththcentury are scrambling to keep up with the pace of change as the country transitions toward a post-industrial economy.

We know some of the consequences: a loss of population and hope and, in many places, epidemics of opioid addiction, obesity and widening economic inequality. These impacts have been felt most acutely in rural and micropolitan areas across America’s heartland. Southeastern Ohio, for example, has the highest concentration of opioid addiction in the country. We see the pernicious effects here in Arkansas.

The heartland is a region with emerging competitive advantages over the coasts that make it ripe for growth and investment.

But past doesn’t have to be prologue. Despite the problems confronting the American heartland, its future is much brighter than conventional wisdom, or our current political discourse, would suggest. A new wave of optimistic research and writing is recording this ’Heartland rebirth,’ notably by Ross DeVol, a Walton Family Foundation fellow, and James Fallows. These welcome additions to the narrative about the heartland are capturing the hard work of creative people and effective, committed institutions over decades that has too long flown under the radar.

The heartland is a region with emerging competitive advantages over the coasts – affordability and cities built to livable scale, lower cost to launch and test innovations – that make it ripe for growth and investment.

Pedestrians stroll the town square in Fayetteville, Ark.

Many of its universities and research institutions lead the country in innovation. And communities can build on what makes them unique – their history, culture and sense of place.

Whether it’s in Detroit or Duluth or Dayton – or in dozens of other proud communities working hard to recover from periods of economic decline – we know that one of the most important investments we can make is in people, so they are able to realize their full potential.

No one sector alone can spark a sustainable turnaround for economically troubled heartland communities – it takes collaboration among business, government, universities, philanthropy and other nonprofits.

We see signs of success across the heartland.

Nashville is one example of how smart planning and economic diversification can drive growth.

While it is best known as the nation’s country music capital, the city’s professional, scientific and technical services, industry and administration and support services have been a boon for residents.

The city added 8,000 high-paying jobs from 2015 to 2016, making it a national leader in job creation and wage gains for its residents.

Nashville has become a national leader in job creation and wage gains for its residents.

In Detroit, which for years symbolized heartland decline and went bankrupt five years ago, an economic revival is fueling optimism about the city’s future. The New Economy Initiative, for example, is fostering a culture of entrepreneurship in Detroit by helping women, people of color and immigrants gain access to risk capital to start new businesses.

In many of the heartland’s rebounding cities, foundations – and often family foundations – are playing catalytic roles in building prosperity. With their long-term outlook, risk tolerance, and deep commitment to place, foundations are well suited to the task of investing in the future of Heartland communities – and helping their people navigate change.

In Kansas City, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation has been a leader in supporting entrepreneurship and STEM education programs, while also investing in major cultural assets like the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Union Station and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

In Omaha and across Nebraska, the Peter Kiewit Foundation has focused on building a skilled workforce, one ready to compete in the new economy.

And in Tulsa, the George Kaiser Family Foundation is finding success developing a stronger community by investing in early childhood education, supporting arts and culture and healthy, livable neighborhoods with vibrant public spaces.

For those who only see the heartland’s future through the rearview mirror, we have a message: never count us out.

Likewise, at the Walton Family Foundation, we have learned that the strongest results often come when the philanthropic, private and government sectors work together to put their good ideas into action.

The foundation’s investments, in our home region for example, have focused on making Northwest Arkansas a place where people want to live – through funding for education, entrepreneurship, the arts and recreation.

The success of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which opened seven years ago in Bentonville, has sparked the development of a robust and growing cultural scene.

In Northwest Arkansas, the climate and topography of the Ozarks make the region a great place to play outdoors – an asset that has created enormous economic value. Over the past 10 years, our foundation has invested heavily – as have local governments – in construction of natural-surface trails that have helped make it a world-class destination for mountain biking. Last year, cycling generated $137 million for the local economy.

Some of the lessons we’ve learned in Northwest Arkansas can apply to towns and cities elsewhere in the heartland. Tight networks, an openness to new ideas, multi-sector collaboration and a strong dose of mid-country humility are factors that seem to underpin the transformations that are seen in the heartland.

For those who only see the heartland’s future through the rearview mirror, we have a message: never count us out. Even through tough times, our communities remain a storehouse of American potential.

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