Thursday, July 31, 2008

The New Boomtowns

Joel Kotkin has a recent piece out on the new energy and commodity boomtowns, and of course Houston gets prominent placement:
...there has been a shift in the balance of economic power away from financial and information centers like New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. These cities are deeply vulnerable to the national financial and mortgage crises. New York, according to David Shulman, former Lehman Brothers managing director, faces upward of 30,000 to 40,000 layoffs in its financial sector. San Francisco in the last quarter gave away a Transamerica Pyramid’s worth of office space.

In contrast, things have never looked better for cities now riding the energy and commodity boom. By far the biggest winner is Houston, whose breakneck growth has been fueled by its role as the world’s premier energy city. As with Dubai, this is less a function of the city's proximity of actual deposits (though the Gulf of Mexico represents one of the most promising energy finds in North America), than to its premier role as the technical, trading and administrative center of the worldwide industry.

This prominence is, in historic terms, relatively recent. As late as the 1980s “oil bust," notes historian Joe Feagin, Houston’s energy sector remained “a colony of New York,” where many of key industry corporate and financial decision-makers still lived.

Yet, today, Houston’s national, even global dominance, of the energy business is palpable. With the lure of low-cost office space and housing stock, as well as myriad personal ties among executives and leading engineers, Houston managed to consolidate its position as the predominant center of the oil and gas industry. In 1960, Houston had barely one of the nation’s large energy firms, ranking well behind New York, Los Angeles and even Tulsa; today it has 16, more than all those cities combined.

High wages offered by energy firms -- annual salaries for geologists average $132,000 or more; while blue-collar workers make roughly $60,000 -- have attracted a new generation of skilled executives and technicians to the region, which also enjoys a far lower cost a living than many other major cities. Areas like River Oaks, Galleria and Energy Corridor are home to well-educated, upwardly mobile workers in their late 20s and 30s. The area is growing at a time when these workers are, according to recent census numbers, leaving places like San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Boston.

“People from other areas say that you guys don’t make much down there,“ said Houston executive recruiter Chris Schoettelkotte. “[But] the guys from L.A. make the same amount of money in the same field here. We pull them from Wharton, the Ivy League and Stanford and they get paid through the nose… Houston can get the talent.”

Houston’s status as energy capital is also propelling it into the ranks of first-tier cities. Today, Houston has the third largest representation of consular offices. It ranks behind only Los Angeles and New York, and has outstripped traditional commercial centers like San Francisco and Chicago.

It’s energy, along with the port and growing airport, that makes the Texas city a world capital. “When I go overseas people put Houston with New York and L.A.," said Houston salvage entrepreneur Charlie Wilson. “In many cases, Houston is considered to be at the top of the world class because of oil. If you’re in China, you’re looking at Houston because of the oil.”
None of this, however, suggests that San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York are about to be eclipsed by Houston -- much less Fargo or Tupelo. But if the history of cities tells us anything, places well-positioned for growth industries tend to emerge as ever more serious players.

It worked for industrial cities like Chicago, which emerged from obscurity in the late 19th Century; or later for high-tech centers like San Jose, Austin and Boston. If energy and commodity prices stay high for another decade, we may have to get used to a shift in the power of places across the American landscape.

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At 11:43 AM, August 01, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

River Oaks is home to upwardly mobile people? How much farther up is there to go?


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