Today, we take on the media elite. Here, hold our coat. This may get rough.
Last week, the New York Times ran a story about a group of venture capitalists from Silicon Valley who were taking a bus tour of the Midwest, scouting potential locations for investment.
Called “The Comeback Cities Tour,” the investors stopped in on Detroit and Flint, Michigan; South Bend, Indiana, and the eventually Akron and Youngstown, Ohio.
“It was pitched as a kind of Rust Belt safari — a chance for Silicon Valley investors to meet local officials and look for promising start-ups in overlooked areas of the country,” the New York Times wrote.
The rationale was easy to explain: It’s become very expensive to do business in Silicon Valley. For workers, it’s the other way around: If you’re not making six figures, maybe you can’t really afford to live in Silicon Valley. In the last three months of 2017, San Francisco lost more residents to outmigration than any other city in the country, the Times said.
The “Comeback Cities Tour” was organized by Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who makes the case that the nation’s technology boom needs to be more evenly distributed across the country. He’s not alone in making that argument.
Over the past few years, America Online founder Steve Case has organized a similar tour called “The Rise of the Rest” that each year takes investors to cities not named Boston and Seattle to look at potential opportunities. In 2015, the tour came through Richmond, which inspired then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe to put together a similar Virginia-only tour. That “Virginia Velocity” tour in 2016 came through Roanoke and Blacksburg (but didn’t go further west).
It’s unclear what came out of that tour, but the basic idea is a sound one: Investment capital is concentrated in just a handful of places: 75 percent goes to just three states — California, Massachusetts and New York, with most of that in Silicon Valley alone. Even the Washington, D.C., area gets just 1.59 percent of the national total, so you can imagine what’s left for us out here.
This is one of the many problems with the economy: The rich really are getting richer and large swaths of the country are getting left behind. However, if there’s a feeling that Silicon Valley has maxed out, then perhaps there’s an opportunity for some of the rest of us, eh?
The New Republic magazine begs to differ. It took notice of the Comeback Cities Tour — with investors eating vegan donuts and sipping coal-infused kombucha — and dismissed it: “Can Silicon Valley save the Rust Belt?” the magazine asked, then went on to say:
“Everyone wants to be a savior. But it’s far from certain that Silicon Valley can play that role. The tech industry’s labor practices are notably poor; just talk to strike Lanetix workers or to those working under grinding conditions in Elon Musk’s Tesla factories. One way venture capitalists could help is to support higher taxes to fund an expansion of the social safety net, and to implement fair labor practices in their workplaces. And if they really want to hear from the working class, they’ll have to leave the luxury bus behind and talk to people outside of a managed setting. But one word of advice: Leave the coal-infused kombucha at home.”
We hate to interrupt, but as a publication actually in Appalachia — surely a sub-set of the Rust Belt, with an economy in transition — we have a few words to say.
First of all, what’s with the snarky “leave the coal-infused kombucha” at home? We have kombucha in Appalachia. There’s a kombucha maker in Floyd County. Buffalo Mountain Kombucha has at least 70 retail outlets from Washington, D.C., to Tennessee and North Carolina. We now have high school students in Roanoke making kombucha and selling it at Sweet Donkey Coffee House. One of the biggest economic development announcements we’ve had recently is that Humm Kombucha of Bend, Oregon, will be opening an East Coast plant in Roanoke.
The New Republic reporter tweeted: “I would love to see what happens if they try to bring coal-infused kombucha to Appalachia.” We have a prediction: It would be a big hit. Even better: Set up shop and make some here, and the governor himself will come to the company’s announcement and hand out a check from his economic development opportunity fund. That’s what McAuliffe did for Humm Kombucha. Come on; we’re not a bunch of rubes here. We’ll confess we have no idea what coal-infused kombucha is (there really is such a thing, though) but if somebody’s going to make it, why not make it here?
Secondly, poor labor practices? Grinding conditions in Musk’s factory? We’ve worked in factories. We’ve worked in coal mines. We’re not under any illusions that every business owner is a benevolent father figure who is doing us some favor, or that Silicon Valley is some kind of economic utopia, a veritable workers’ paradise.
But yes, we do think Silicon Valley could save Appalachia. OK, “save” is a strong word, so maybe that’s not the right one. “Help” is probably a safer choice. Tech companies often profess they believe in social justice. Great. How about this for some social justice: Put some of your operations in a part of the country that very much needs to build a new economy. Apple’s slogan used to be “think different.” All tech companies prize “innovation.” Here’s a perfect opportunity to put that into practice.
Granted, you won’t find a lot of software engineers hanging around in, say, Grundy — although if a tech company located there, you can bet the software engineers would follow — and the money they make and spend would help the local economy (and rebuild a population base that is seeing young adults flee). More realistically, Appalachia could be a location for data centers. Right now, Loudoun County has established itself as “data center alley.” There’s no reason, though, why all the data centers should be in Northern Virginia. They typically employ about 40 or so workers. Another 40 well-paid workers wouldn’t be noticed in Northern Virginia, but sure would be in Southwest Virginia.
Contrary to outside belief, we already have a small but lively technology community in some parts of Southwest Virginia. Growing a bigger one wouldn’t solve all our economic challenges, but would sure help.
So, yes, New Republic, if one of those Silicon Valley investors wanted to set up shop here, you can bet we’d be happy to celebrate their arrival with some of that coal-infused kombucha.