Geography can be unfair

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Getting things done is easier in bigger cities

By Harold Morgan

Recently I had an opportunity to visit with a gentleman from Catron County. The topic was what is happening in his part of the world.
“Some ranching,” my informant said. The saw mills are gone, thanks to the spotted owl and the environmentalists.
Subdivisions are the other development, he said. Some attract older people. Subdivisions are fine, he said, but he wonders about an older person building a Catron County home. Health care availability is modest, a problem he knows well, being equipped with a small oxygen tank.
Size and place matter. Catron County’s measures are people and acreage. The 2009 population was about 3,450, third smallest in the state. With 4.4 million acres, Catron is our largest county, with 1,275 acres for every person.
Geography, like life, isn’t fair. Catron County hosts most of the Plains of San Agustin, but the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (the VLA) is on the Plains’ eastern end and in Socorro County.
Small places have less room to absorb change. The post office in Boles Acres, near Alamogordo, closed recently. On the grander scale, this matters not at all, except for Boles Acres. A bigger change for small communities came years ago when environmental rules forced gas stations in small communities to close.
When it comes to doing things, the economics stack the deck against small places, though with some exceptions.
Hosts of strong reasons draw people to cities. One is the excitement gained from being around other people.
David Fettig considers these issues in the December 2010 issue of The Region, a publication of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Fettig’s essay is a review of “The Wealth and Poverty of Regions.”
Agglomeration favors cities, Fettig says. Agglomeration basically means that getting things done is easier in larger places. More specialists exist, including medical specialists. Cities offer scale of production and transportation. More advantages exist from proximity, being near diverse services and markets.
Parts of New Mexico gain from the exceptions. Mineral resources don’t come to people; people have to go to resources, such as oil, gas, copper, potash, trees and concrete. The latter resource refers to the runways at the Roswell International Air Center. Cheese production plants are best located near dairies.
Spiritual communities, where holiness becomes an export product, are another exception. A few are called “serene retreats.
”The March-April issue of New Mexico Journey, the magazine for AAA members, described the Lama Foundation near San Cristobal and mentioned others. Publicizing a serene retreat in a travel magazine seems a be-careful-what-you-wish-for situation. What if everyone goes to Lama?
Information technology offsets the disadvantages of small places to some degree. UPS has been everywhere for decades. UPS delivers our Eight O’Clock brand French roast coffee ordered on line, a choice made in response to Smith’s erratic stocking.
I had a recent discussion of places large and small with Jim Rounds, an economist from Phoenix and a senior vice president with Elliott D. Pollack & Company. He talks regularly with economic developers in Arizona.
For companies, Rounds said, transportation is the first location factor, followed by workforce skills. Small communities have little workforce. Most of that workforce is produced by local schools, a double whammy. Except for the exceptions, small places have a problem.
The remaining location factors, according to Rounds’ reading of Site Selection magazine, are taxes, utility infrastructure, land and buildings, regulations and permitting, incentives, higher education and the state economic development strategy.
One month into the Martinez administration, Rounds said the state’s economic development efforts were “decent,” but that the state needed to be more aggressive and more responsive to site selectors.
Involving Rounds in New Mexico’s economic development conversation might be a good idea.

 Harold Morgan
NM News Services