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Jon K. Rust

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian and co-president of Rust Communications.

Opinion

Missouri Tech Corporation picks a winner in 1st50k

The Marquette Tech District Foundation receiving $400,000 in funding to grow the 1st50K start-up competition is good news for Cape Girardeau and the area. Not only will these funds connect tech startups to downtown Cape Girardeau (and thus Missouri), but they enhance momentum around attracting creative talent to our area. Attracting such talent is vital to a community's economic prosperity.

As disclaimer, I'm nominally involved with 1st50k as a member of the competition committee, which judges the contestants. Travel schedule and/or conflict of interest have kept me from participating much since the first year. My focus in this column is less on the competition, though, than on an increasingly worrisome stratification taking place in America between rural and urban areas. Only by being intentional about combating this stratification through smart economic development will areas like Southeast Missouri be able to thrive.

Cape Girardeau is blessed to have innovative thinkers at places like codefi, the Marquette Tech District, Southeast Missouri State University, the Cape Chamber and throughout the local business community (including rustmedia, the Southeast Missourian and Rust Communications), who are focused on building new business models, recruiting and growing talent, and doing it locally. This most recent announcement is boosted by a $200,000 grant from the Missouri Technology Corporation (MTC), a public-private partnership created by the Missouri General Assembly to promote entrepreneurship and foster the growth of new and emerging high-tech companies. MTC's grant is being matched by private, local money dollar-for-dollar.

Whether any specific 1st50k recipients are going to go onto mega-success is unknown at this point, but their odds are better going through this program with the entrepreneurial assistance and mentorships made available to them via 1st50k and codefi than without. The program, though, lifts all round it, not just the recipients. And that is what brings me to the worrisome condition of rural America, and why MTC's support of the Cape-based 1st50k is so vital -- and appreciated.

For anyone paying attention to demographics, rural America is struggling. According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, in comparison to urban markets, there is almost no trend line -- in aggregate -- that favors rural America over metros. As recently as the early 1990s, life in rural or small-town America was statistically better. Today, urban centers are healthier in categories like: births per 1,000 teen women (there are more in rural areas); share of those 16-and-older who are divorced (higher in rural areas); median age (rural areas are older -- and collectively, are facing a future of more deaths than births); adults with a college degree (much lower in rural areas); males 16-and-older with jobs (worse in rural areas); cancer mortality per 1,000; maternal death rate, age adjusted; and the list goes on.

Meanwhile, one of the biggest rural attractions, a "safety premium" for people to move from urban areas has been virtually eliminated. Violent crimes per 1,000 people age 12 and older is now roughly the same in rural and small town America as in cities and suburbs. We still have a slight safety advantage, but not much. And that weakens the motivation of some families with children to move here.

Compounding these trends is that most small towns in America are not attracting (or retaining) the kind of creative talent integral to future growth. Last week, I read a column by William A. Galston in the Wall Street Journal titled "Why Cities Boom While Towns Struggle," which recounted his read of Berkeley economist Enrico Moretti's analysis of "The New Geography of Jobs."

Galston writes: "The emerging knowledge economy, Mr. Moretti argues, depends on constant innovation, which turns out to be a social process. To succeed, cities need a critical mass of highly educated workers engaged in the regular, often informal, exchange of ideas. Once this critical mass comes into being, it feeds on itself: Innovation hubs attract new innovators in a self-reinforcing process, while areas lacking this critical mass fall further behind.

"In the early stage of the information revolution, it was fashionable to argue that new technologies would eliminate distance. People could do creative work in rural Colorado and communicate their ideas anywhere on Earth with the flick of a finger.

"This thesis rested on an excessively individualistic understanding of creativity. In fact, remote exchanges of ideas are no substitute for the elemental human process of face-to-face communication. Innovators don't do their work in isolation; they stimulate one another.

"The transition from mass production to the knowledge economy has transformed the geography of opportunity. Not only do skilled workers earn between two and three times as much in innovation centers as they do in less-successful areas, but also their earnings have a powerful multiplier effect on the jobs and wages of less-skilled workers in their communities."

In winning the 1st50k start-up competition, entrepreneurs (who may come from anywhere in the world) commit to locating in Cape Girardeau for at least 12 months, amidst other entrepreneurs (by definition: local) who make their offices in downtown Cape Girardeau at the Marquette Tech District or nearby. In return, they receive a bundle of benefits, including free money. But Cape Girardeau receives something incredibly valuable, too, a growing concentration of creative thinkers, informally exchanging ideas and stimulating each other -- and creating a future pathway for talent and innovation.

Cape is a unique place, thanks partly to luck. The hard truth is that in contrast to much of Southeast Missouri, Cape Girardeau County is an island of prosperity in a sea of economic and social duress. But there is a proud legacy of innovation and entrepreneurialism here that is also not about luck. A program like 1st50k, with support from the Missouri Technology Corporation, is an example. It will take luck for any one company to be a mega-success. In the meantime, a community is being created that benefits many more than those directly involved in tech innovation. We should all be rooting for their success.

Jon K. Rust is publisher of the Southeast Missourian.

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