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Jewish World Review July 20, 1999 /7 Av, 5759

Ben Wattenberg

Ben Wattenberg
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Is the rest of the West best? -- COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. -- With good reason, much of what they talk about here at a skull session put on by the Center for the New West concerns "The West versus the Rest." It's been quite a time for the Marlboro Men and the Cappuccino Cowboys, as geographer John Cromartie puts it.

In 1900, the West made up just 5 percent of the total American population. Today that rate is 23 percent, and climbing. And it's not just California.

Nine of the top 11 states, as ranked by growth rates from 1990-1998, are in the so-called "Interior West" or "Inter-Mountain West," which includes Washington (No. 7), Oregon (No. 9) and Texas (No. 8). (The only non-Western states to crack the top 11 were Georgia, No. 6, and Florida, No. 10. California was No. 19.) The fastest growth state has been Nevada, up 43 percent. Las Vegas grew by 52 percent, the fastest growing metro area in America.

Demographer William Fry of the Milken Institute maintains that growth will continue. Gone is the boom 'n' bust cycle with ghost towns, former ghost towns and future ghost towns. There was a certain logic to that, says Fry. When the West was principally an area of extractive industry, the bust came when that which was extracted suddenly became worth less or became less available in the West: gold, silver, oil and copper, to name a few.

But now growth comes in more stable forms. High tech firms locate in the Interior West because its communities are loaded with "amenities." Nor are the amenities running out. The view of the Rockies will remain for retirees seeking a new start. The ski slopes aren't leaving. The desert scenery will stay put, and air conditioning lets folks live where they couldn't before.

Tourists will keep coming. And as long as Southern California and non-Western urban areas have higher crime rates and worse education, the Interior West will be seen as "a good place to raise kids."

These days the jobs follow the people. Earlier upscale population growth brings in middle-class workers in the service industries. This has been called "white flight," but Phil Burgess, senior fellow and president of the Center for the New West, more accurately calls it "middle-class flight." Indeed, middle-class Asian and Hispanic American populations are growing in the area.

Of course, there can be too much of a good thing. So sayeth not only Western environmentalists, but other folks, in traffic jams. The fear of "Californication" and "sprawl" is apparent among newcomers and natives. Theoretically, that could stop growth.

Cromartie, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, thinks it unlikely. A "rural renaissance" is in motion. Non-metro areas in the West are growing more than twice as fast as non-metro areas elsewhere. They'd be growing even faster (statistically) if the Census Bureau didn't reclassify areas that hit 50,000 souls as "metro." Since 1993, six places passed through that threshold. Hattiesburg, Miss., is one. The others are in the Inter-Mountain West: Flagstaff, Ariz.; Grand Junction, Colo.; Pocatello, Idaho; Missoula, Mont.; and Corvallis, Ore.

Cromartie says the open land area of the West is still vast. If sprawl gets too bad it only sets in motion the establishment of "leap-frog" communities that skip urban contiguity and start over afresh. There's still a frontier out there, and in the era of e-mail, faxes, telecommuting and scheduled small jets flying into smaller communities, it's more livable than ever. Being out-of-touch has lost its place.

Plausibly a happy tale, except environmentalists say there's not enough water. Not to worry says Burgess. "Water flows uphill to money," he says. That is, developers will pay farmers for their water allocations.

Ah yes, but what about the politics? How will all these newcomers vote? The line in the media has been that newcomers bring political values with them: pro-green, pro-regulation and generally liberal. Burgess, who is a conservative and prone not to worry, says not to worry. So far the Interior West remains a conservative bastion. He notes, too, that the IW has more electoral votes than California and can be reached with televised ads at about one-eighth of the per capita cost of California media, making it a big political prize at bargain rates.

Anyway, he not-worries, the California vs. Interior West love-hate relationship has no reason to be. Among other things the great California ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Francisco provide the principal ramp for Interior West exports to the fastest growing part of the world, newly-recovering Asia.

The area is becoming more important than ever. There's no reason to think it's going to stop as long as Americans keep thinking the rest of the West is best.

JWR contributor Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may reach him by clicking here. Daniel Wattenberg, who wrote this week's column, is a contributing editor for and George.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate