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Home is where you want it to be

January 13, 2013|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

A blog primarily dedicated to the mountain wilderness might seem an odd place for a debate about telecommuting, but on John Warren’s excellent Adirondack Almanack site, the issue has rubbed elbows with ice fishing and the virtues of winter camping.

The mountains of New York and the mountains of our Tri-State area share some similarities, most notably a distancing from the maddening crowds, which is good for scenery and somewhat bad for business.

Both spots are popular weekend/vacation spots, but have had trouble attracting industry beyond uninspiring service and warehousing work. The Adirondacks have a little better excuse than we do — the mountains are twice as high and the nearest cities are twice as far away.

But some recent posts by Pete Nelson suggest the possibility that the economic development world as we know it might soon be turned on its head. Central to this is broadband communication and some previously nonsensical sounding hardware, including 3D printers — it is now possible to click a mouse in some remote location and have a relatively inexpensive machine a thousand miles away spit out a working bicycle made of nylon.

The technology, Nelson writes, “is a game-changer. Imagine a world where anyone whose career allowed them to work remotely was able to easily choose to live in a beautiful place like the Adirondacks with no loss in their ability to do their job.”

Or a beautiful place like Western Maryland, Central Pennsylvania or the mountains of West Virginia.

The walls of commerce are coming down in the most literal of ways. We’ve been told that schools systems will depend less and less on bricks and mortar, and more and more on video. College coursework is already available on YouTube.

Like many writers, I traffic in books. Five years ago, I had to print — and ship by tractor-trailer and store — 2,000 to 3,000 copies to bring the price-per-book cost within reason. Today, there is no such thing as economies of scale. If a local bookstore needs 10 of my books, I click a couple of buttons on a computer screen and in three days the books have been printed and delivered to my door — for less money per book than it would have cost if I had ordered thousands at once.

Similarly, manufacturers with a new invention have always had to sell tens or hundreds of thousands of products in order to pay for the machinery, labor and overhead. Today, that business model is looking as antiquated as a Roman galley.

The upshot of all this is that to an increasingly large degree, people will be able to choose where they live without regard to the location of their company’s headquarters. What that means for local governments across the land is that instead of attracting industry, the goal will be to attract people. Communities that can entice several thousand professional people to move into their neighborhoods will be the winners.

Up at Cascade, Fort Ritchie has looked for that one, big player to move in and employ a number of people; the real answer, however, might be to go after the people first — people who might be working anywhere in the country, or overseas.

Economic incentives, such as tax breaks for new industries, won’t matter as much as incentives to attract people who earn good wages.

That’s why it matters when the County Commissioners pull the plug on a bicycle trail, or the City of Hagerstown fails to build a baseball stadium. Because these are the kind of incentives people will be looking for.

Views, water, air quality, parks and recreation will matter to these people more than the traditional government services such as schools, transportation and parking decks.

People will move to welcoming communities that feature a high quality of life. Of course, quality of life means different things to different people — some would shrivel and die outside of a city’s concrete canyons. But plenty of people who now feel chained to their jobs in nondescript business parks and their homes in nondescript subdivisions would jump at the chance to have some elbow room, maybe a few animals, and something to look at each morning a little more picturesque than parking lots and shopping centers.

Even as the world becomes more urbanized, this “rural rebound,” as it’s known, is about to become a significant demographic trend, and the winners in this societal sweepstakes will be the communities with 1). rural amenities, such as the Potomac River, Cowans Gap; the Appalachian Trail; Catoctin; South Mountain; Cacapon State Park; Antietam National Battlefield; the C&O Canal; Michaux State Forest; Sleepy Creek Wildlife Management Area; and the Western Maryland Rail Trail, and 2). the brains to put these rural resources to good use.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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