Home county faces bad news with big thinking
Like many of you who grew up in small town Texas, these hamlets of all sizes hold a special place in my heart and mind. Increasingly, though, small towns are being left behind by the draws of the bigger cities and challenged by the huge technology-based disruptions occurring in every industry.
On Oct. 13, my hometown received news that Luminant was closing its last two remaining power plants. After our Alcoa aluminum smelter closed in 2008, these were the last good industry jobs that remained in town. And so, another 450 men and women are now seeking other work.
This is the end of an era in my hometown. Alcoa boosted our cotton-farming burg when it announced the building of its smelter, bringing about 2,000 jobs to a town with about that much population. Families located there and soon the town population had tripled. When I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, this was a thriving small town.
All that production was fired by nearby lignite coal reserves. We can debate the good or bad of coal-fired anything, but fact is those jobs provided many families with solid middle-class jobs. Those families were the backbone of our local economy, located about an hour northeast of Austin. Alas, coal power is being gutted by market forces, along with regulation.
Since about the mid-1990s, though, the handwriting has been in the wall, as we read of globalization and cheaper labor and power costs overseas. “The Aluminum Company of America” changed its name to simply Alcoa, and it felt like there was little allegiance left to American production.
Small towns all around the nation will have even more concerns as artificial intelligence and robotic machines take over more and more duties throughout different industries.
An article from The Brookings Institute stated that the big are getting bigger thanks to agglomeration and technology, “which are powering growth and more growth in large metropolises at the expense of the drift of smaller, less educated, and techy places.”
The nation must do better, not naïvely insisting on helping every place, but putting in policies that offer a hand up to those willing to help themselves.
“Supporting progress towards “catch up” among the more vibrant of smaller places, especially by investing in their higher education institutions and digital skills, is one of the dozen ways ... to help some smaller places advance,” the article stated.
After digesting the latest bad news, last week, my home county received a ton of good publicity by its effort to woo Amazon.com.
It used Alcoa’s 33,000-acre reclaimed mine land as an enticement for the tech giant to start from scratch and build what it wants. The solicitation, which realistically may not stand much of a chance, garnered tons of publicity from newspapers and TV news stations all around Texas and beyond. Someone may take notice, if not the online retail giant.
Economic development entities in our rival towns of Rockdale and Cameron worked together to produce a slick video showcasing the rural attractions. That cooperation alone is worth celebrating. (Imagine Fredericksburg and Kerrville doing the same when their schools were still heated rivals.)
I admire my friends who are sticking it out, and I admire my high school friends who, after being laid off from power industry jobs, hung their shingle and started a restaurant or other small business. That takes guts and grit, determination and doggedness.
My home county and others are meeting these challenges of a changing, disrupting world head-on.
To scratch a living in rural Texas may harken us to those who came here in the mid-1800s to do the same in an untamed land. Rural Texans may try to plow jobs as they did new cotton fields, yet the threats will come from global changes instead of hostile natives or wild animals.