Place strategy

Make the new center-south emerge as a place and culture in its own right

By default, we think of the United States in terms of sub-geographies – New England, Midwest, South. Although the exact delineation of these is a frequent source of debate, the categories themselves are largely given. They are often shaped by state borders, even though geographically, culturally and economically, individual states are very diverse.

Trying to think about geography in a new way can sometimes provide new insights and new ways of thinking about economic opportunity. One such thought experiment was created by my friend, branding consultant Carl Wohlt. He proposed a conceptual region which he called the “Mid-South” (a term already used in various other contexts, such as the Memphis area, but used in a new way here.) This Mid-South contains sections of the northern part of the South and the southern part of the Midwest. Nashville is the capital of this region, and the Bentonville/Northwest Arkansas region is its western center.

This region is strongly influenced by the south, but distinct from the Deep South. It has a romantic landscape with varying topography, including mountains in some parts. It is characterized by the convergence of several large rivers and numerous lakes. It has perhaps the four best weather-distinct seasons in America, avoiding the worst extremes of cold winters and hot summers. It has its own cultural icons — bourbon in Kentucky; music in Nashville and Memphis.

Consider Kentucky. It is generally considered a southern state. But it was never part of the Confederacy. And Louisville is a huge manufacturing city – think Ford, GE and DuPont – with powerful unions. Southern Illinois and Indiana, which are also part of the South Central, are very different from the stereotypes of their states. Rather than flat expanses of grassland and corn, there are hills and trees. The culture is southern. Tennessee and Arkansas are more truly southern, but still markedly different from Mississippi, Alabama or Georgia.

Aside from Nashville, Walmart-dominated Bentonville, and a few other places, population growth and economic success in the Mid-South have been defined more by the cities on its periphery than by the interior. Much of the region lacks high-level academic institutions vital to the knowledge economy of the 21st century.

Partly for this reason, the area tends to be overlooked, operating in the shadow of the other regions that various parts of it are commonly associated with. But the amenities offered by the south-central can be a major asset if the perception of the brand changes. Nashville is the best example of this, going from an overgrown backwater to a national hot spot in a relatively short period of time.

It shows the potential value of the Mid-South starting to think of and sell itself as a region, instead of just being part of the Midwest or the South. This would allow it to present itself in its best light and acquaint people with genuine conveniences that might otherwise be lost in the minds of the public.

For example, with towns across the West being taken over by coastal refugees at a staggering rate, real estate prices there are skyrocketing out of reach. By contrast, the Mid-South has some of the last physically beautiful land in the country that is still affordable and not burdened by extreme seasonal weather. It is still possible to buy land there at a reasonable price, and many towns remain to be discovered.

A new narrative for this region, which gives it a consistent reputation and image, would help attract new residents and stimulate new investment, which large parts of the region badly need.

This is not to say that simply creating a new map will evoke new residents and economic development. But for areas whose best assets are not properly taken into account in existing regional frameworks, repositioning themselves in a new regional construction is a viable solution. This applies to other US regions besides the Mid-South.

The idea could work on a smaller scale. Cities and towns along the Ohio River might be able to create a regional identity among themselves. There are many similarities between Louisville, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh (and St. Louis, even though it’s on the Mississippi a bit above the confluence with Ohio). The trick is to exploit them.

Trying to reconceptualize isn’t necessarily right for all places, but for areas whose existing regional definitions and narratives don’t accurately reflect their strengths or essence, it’s a strategy to consider. There is no reason to accept regional definitions as immutable data.

Governing opinion columns reflect the opinions of their authors and not necessarily those of the Governingeditors or management.