Many of today’s corporate executives grew up in the “me” culture of the 1960s and reject out of hand the old standards of noblesse oblige. Often they seem willing to shift their headquarters closer to where they live and play, usually enclaves far removed from the city. “That’s always the big joke in the real estate business,” says Randy Strait of Houston’s Transwestern Property Company. “You try to find out where the chairman lives and show him a building nearby.”
In contrast to the decline of elites in cities like New York and Los Angeles, many smaller cities have developed effective leadership. A classic example is the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, where almost three decades ago a combination of local business, government, and academic planners set out to develop an eight-mile-long series of industrial parks within close range of Duke, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State.
To a New Yorker, Raleigh-Durham might seem duller than dull, and insufferably provincial. “Twenty years ago, you’d ask for lox here and people would tell you that the hardware store was down the street,” recalls John Kasarda, President of the Kenan Institute at the University of North Carolina. But for firms such as IBM, Burroughs Wellcome, and Northern Telecom, the Triangle’s planned environment has proven ideal for attracting skilled technical workers.
The ascendancy of once-peripheral areas will likely accelerate with advances in communications and transportation. Digital technology allows information to be transmitted from remote locations with ever greater ease. Mid-size cities such as Portland, Charlotte, and Orlando now boast direct flights to cities in Asia, Europe, or Latin America. Partly because of their scale, mid-size cities benefit from a more tight-knit leadership. “We have a great sense of common purpose that holds us together here” says Pat Davis, a Seattle port commissioner. “People here know each other. It’s easier to cooperate and not attack each other if you’ve been serving on committees together.”
Such a small-town sensibility links the fate of companies to their regions. The development of Microsoft’s highly centralized command structure in suburban Redmond reinforces previous decisions by Puget Sound companies to put their main facilities close to home, despite that region’s relatively high taxes and soaring property values. Job growth in the Seattle area has averaged nearly 3 percent a year for much of this decade.
The new crop of Seattle billionaires, represented by individuals like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, bankrolls not only a host of small technology firms but also the local football team, the Seattle Seahawks, and a $250 million restoration of downtown’s old Union Station. Eric Scigliano, senior editor of the alternative Seattle Weekly, adds that the “downtown establishment has done an excellent job of bringing the heretics from the media or smaller companies into their club.”
Elites in cities well below the top of the population rankings are often adept at regional boosterism. Brad Bertoch, president of the Wayne Brown Institute, a Salt Lake City organization that promotes the region’s high-tech industry, sees this as the product of consensus-building among local media, political, and business leaders. Successful local entrepreneurs are regularly lionized in the press and at local business conferences. In such an atmosphere, virtually the entire business community becomes an adjunct of the promotional machine. “The modus operandi here,” Bertoch admits, “is an ounce of perception is worth a pound of performance.”