Rural America counting on us
By Andrew McGinn
It depresses Christopher Nichols to go home.
“Over half of Main Street is deserted,” he said.
Nichols was talking about Belmond (pop. 2,376), up in Wright County, but he could have been referring to Grand Junction, Scranton or Churdan.
Jefferson at least has a corps of dedicated volunteers, Jefferson Matters: Main Street, that rose up and made the historic Square their Alamo.
But even they still find themselves chained to an unending game of Whac-A-Mole, dispatching window dressers to gussy up another vacant storefront.
“That’s the plight of a lot of small towns,” Nichols said.
A 1992 graduate of Belmond-Klemme High School who now does marketing for a Silicon Valley tech company (Integrated Archive Systems), Nichols accompanied his friend, Democratic California Congressman Ro Khanna, to Jefferson on Saturday, where Khanna and other tech leaders took turns envisioning rural Iowa as the next great hub of innovation.
Nichols wasn’t one of the night’s speakers, and if you were scouting the room at History Boy Theatre looking for who you thought might be one of the visiting titans of tech, you would have looked right past him.
Then again, you probably would have looked right past Kevin Scott, too, the chief technology officer at Microsoft, in his jeans and zip-up sweater.
As Benicio del Toro, playing a scruffy-looking master codebreaker in “The Last Jedi,” put it, “Don’t let the wrapper fool you.”
Nichols merely wanted to be part of what could one day be remembered as the night rural Iowa came back from the dead.
“Fingers crossed,” he said. “I’m very, very optimistic.”
The whole affair Saturday felt like the end of “Rudy,” when Sean Astin’s undersized Rudy Ruettiger, whose dream in life was to play for Notre Dame, finally is allowed to run onto the biggest field in all of college football and the stadium goes nuts.
I’ve seen “Rudy” probably a half-dozen times since I first saw it in the early ’90s at our own Sierra Theatre, and that end still gets me.
I don’t even really like football.
But every time Rudy hustles out onto that field, you just want to explode out of your seat.
As human beings, we must be biologically wired to root for the underdog, whether it’s David in the Old Testament or the Bad News Bears at the Astrodome.
At this exact moment in the 21st century global economy, Jefferson is the Rudy of small towns.
We’ve got our helmet on and the crowd is starting to chant our name.
You might be the most jaded of hipsters in Brooklyn, or someone in L.A. who still refers to the Midwest as “flyover country,” but just go ahead and allow yourself the pleasure of putting your hands together and joining in this slow clap.
No matter where you live, Jefferson’s effort to become something of a Silicon Prairie should be the feel-good story of the year.
But for those of us born and raised in rural Iowa, it’s personal.
That’s why Nichols wanted to be in attendance Saturday night.
“You’ve heard of Belmond?” he asked me, skeptically, after I must have made it sound like I had.
I didn’t need to.
I knew nothing and everything at the same time about this guy.
By virtue of having grown up in a place like rural Iowa, we share a bond.
Come to find out, we share a bond with more people than we think on the West Coast. As was noted Saturday night, few people are originally from Silicon Valley.
In fact, multiple speakers Saturday (including Microsoft’s CTO) touted their small-town bona fides. For one reason or another, opportunity called them West.
Saturday’s event is drawing national attention, if for no other reason than it’s unprecedented.
I had lunch that day with a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor who basically asked if we were scared of Jefferson becoming too big — too big to let our kids ride their bikes around town or wander off to the park unaccompanied.
That just isn’t realistic.
Jefferson simply isn’t a metro-in-waiting or even the next Waukee.
All we want is to replenish the people we’re losing. Each year, more people die in Greene County than are born.
In the weeks ahead, the cynics and naysayers will rear their heads. They always do. Some of them will even come from within.
Et tu, Brute?
They’ll say tech leaders are only looking for some good PR at a time when distrust in them and their products is rising.
They’ll say tech companies looking to mitigate the high cost of doing business in California are looking for lower-wage workers to exploit. (Who knew we’d come to see a day when rural Iowa is so down in the dumps that it’s pitched as the cheaper alternative to India?)
And you know what?
They wouldn’t be wrong.
But of all the situations we could find ourselves in, you gotta admit — this is pretty amazing.
Through determination and heart or fate or maybe even just luck, we’ve found ourselves standing on the sidelines of the world’s biggest game.
We’re the ultimate walk-on player.
Let’s give them something worth making a movie about.