Big 12 crisis should prod Lubbock to stake new future by looking West

For a few weeks now, the biggest question in Lubbock and West Texas is where Texas Tech’s sports teams will land – a question that could be answered soon or in a few years.

The bigger question is where should Lubbock and West Texas look for its future?

The answer is West, not East.

Let me explain.

Between what appears to be the collapse of the Big 12 Conference and the 2020 Census data release, the past few weeks have been a reckoning on the High Plains about our one-sided relationship with the “Texas Triangle,” the economic super region surrounded by the Dallas, Austin, and Houston metroplexes.

Just-released Census data showed while Lubbock had an 11.4 percent population increase in ten years, the vast majority of West Texas counties saw significant population declines. In that time, the entire state grew at 15.9 percent and the triangle was much faster than that. Four of America’s top-ten fastest-growing cities are in the triangle. Austin grew by 21.7 percent. Five of the 14 cities in the country gaining more than 100,000 people are in Texas’ so-called “population triangle” as though none of our state’s population lives outside those boundaries.

While Texas is set to receive additional congressional seats and increase its influence in our nation’s capital, West Texas is going to see decreases and consolidation in our representation with redistricting.

We’ve become an afterthought in our state, and nationally there is no other region like ours. What other state’s politicians could forget about the existence of a region the size of South Carolina where more than a million people live?

As a Lubbockite and a Red Raider, the kind of callous political bloodsport the University of Texas’s exodus required in Austin’s backrooms is something we’ve been on the receiving end all too frequently. The recent knife fight with A&M for opening a large-animal veterinary school in Amarillo comes to mind. We essentially paid for it with the resignation of our well-regarded chancellor and that was with all parties in agreement our state has a massive shortage of veterinarians.

So far, the news cycle on the 2020 Census hasn’t noticed our West Texas economy has serious challenges. Food, fiber, and fuel are what made our region economically strong in the 20th century. We’re proud of this fact, but the first two of those industries, food and fiber, are in decades-long contractions in employment with no end in sight as the Census data shows rural West Texas communities have been in an economic and population free fall. The last of our economic F’s, fuel, leaves ruined ghost towns when there’s nothing left to give.

Ask someone who lived through Amarillo’s boom and bust what it was like after the Panhandle Field, one of the greatest petroleum reserves ever found in Texas, started its decline.

The rest of the state is breathlessly celebrating Texas’ miraculous growth and the benefits that come with it. Just last week, Fort Worth revealed a $5 billion electric car-manufacturing facility project loaded with state-sanctioned tax incentives for startup Rivian to rival Tesla’s self-described “giga factory” in Austin.

By comparison, Lubbock, the largest city in the High Plains, a region slightly smaller than Virginia, has a total market value of taxable property of $20.66 billion.

To the rest of the state, four Rivian factories are worth about the same as Lubbock.

The reason we’re stuck in this decline is simple. The only infrastructure investments made in our region are entirely self-serving to the triangle. The roads, railways, and pipelines we have for that food, fiber, and fuel are so our goods and services can go in one direction – to feed that miraculous growth the rest of Texas has been experiencing.

There is a way out of this one-way relationship, but first it first requires a reality check for our largest city.

Lubbock never will be the “Dallas of the Plains.”

The triangle is the center of gravity in our state, there will always be a greater diversity of jobs available that will continue to take our top talent. Whether it be a Chris Beard or a passionate Eastside advocate like A.J. McLeod, we will lose them. If we continue to compete in the same markets as the triangle we will continue to lose and continue to see our region suffer.

If Lubbock can’t grow into the mantle of being the Capital of the Plains, then the High Plains communities relying on Lubbock’s economy, healthcare, and services could become footnotes of history.

The solution is to look West. Rather than being the most distant “exurb” of Dallas where they drain our talent and the only things they want from us are our resources, we need to become the western gateway into the state of Texas.

This brings us back to the collapse of the Big 12 and the financial damage Lubbock could experience. The decades of state neglect and underinvestment into our region have made our economy so brittle that our university changing to a different athletic conference is potentially catastrophic.

This is why the Senate Select Committee Hearing on the Future of College Sports in Texas earlier this month was so painful to watch.

The very existence of the committee is indisputably because of West Texas outrage over how the Big 12 Conference fallout is being handled in Austin. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick saw an opportunity to win some points before the Republican primary in the beating heart of Texas conservatism.

Whatever his intentions, the committee he created reeked of the dysfunctional politics we’ve been on the receiving end for so many times. With the majority of the politicians on the committee representing the Dallas metroplex, they used the opportunity to pick fights, boast and complain about all the “bigger issues” they should be involved in.

I’m sorry the long-term future of the High Plains, an area larger than many states and a hospital referral region with 1.2 million people is so beneath them. Several times during the hearing, politicians and representatives from private Texas Christian University made the audacious claim that TCU and Ft. Worth would be the most economically damaged from the end of the Big 12. They even touted an inappropriate economic analysis slapped together by the Waco-based Perryman Group.

Inappropriate because the hastily made analysis intentionally did not incorporate the major factor for why this issue is so important to our community – the decline of tourism dollars that will occur because of our poor connectivity to any new conference we join.

Lubbock’s Chamber of Commerce ballparks the stimulus to our economy from a single conference football home game to be around $10 million. Tech athletics is one of the major ways Lubbock experiences capital inflows from the outside world. These are dollars that never would have existed in our community otherwise.

The Senate’s hearing went on for six hours. Six hours of political whining by representatives of the state’s most prosperous and richest cities. The one standout moment was when Texas Tech’s President Schovanec took to the podium and gave courageous remarks on how the university and community will come out of this crisis stronger and better than before. He didn’t demand an increase in state research dollars to help with our eligibility into the American Association of Universities (AAU), an often-noted barrier to joining another conference, or beg for increases in state payments for enrollees like the private institutions in attendance.

There are no publicly scheduled additional hearings, meaning the rest of the negotiations will be behind closed doors.

Once again, our fate is going to be decided in Austin’s backrooms and likely a significant number of those decision makers can’t find Lubbock on a map. Some additional number can only find it on a map once every four years.

Whoever these individuals end up being there are a few things I’d like them to know.

Just like the roadways, rail, and pipelines that made food, fiber, and fuel thrive, West Texas needs 21st century infrastructure investments so we can participate in opportunities the new economy provides.

We need to get plugged into the U.S. knowledge economy that’s been the engine for the Texas triangle’s explosive growth this past decade. This will require a dense West Texas Internet broadband network and more flights to areas with the fastest-growing economies in the country.

The Census data shows the Sunbelt and Southwest are the fastest-growing and most dynamic regions in the 21st century. Phoenix was the fastest-growing large metro in the nation. Economies in those regions have room to grow and are projected to do so for many decades to come.

We’d have incredible advantages if we decided to shift our focus to the West away from the triangle. Many living in those regions may consider moving to West Texas for our values and the state’s low tax environment if it was easy to get here.

When it comes to Lubbock and the High Plains’ future, a flight to Salt Lake City, El Paso, or Albuquerque would be better than one to Austin. More flights to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Denver would be far more meaningful than to DFW or Love.

The economic benefits of better western connectivity should also inform the state when determining compensation for Tech’s future athletic conference ambitions. It’s clear that closer economic ties with cities in the Pac-12 is exactly what we need to become more than a satellite in Dallas’ orbit.

Whatever costs the state would have to incur to get Tech into the Pac-12, like increasing research dollars to help us reach AAU status or flight volume guarantees to airlines experimenting with flights to the West from Preston Smith International Airport, it will more than make up in additional revenues from a thriving West Texas economy.

Two of the country’s largest airlines, American and Southwest are both headquartered in Dallas. If Governor Abbott can spend years and tax dollars convincing Elon Musk to move to Austin, I’d hope he’d put at least that much vigor into engaging airline CEOs in how the state can help with the financial risks of new flights until we can see how big the supply-induced demand effect will be.

So far the state’s responses to our legitimate concerns about the Big 12 collapsing have played out like every other time our region suffers, we’re just collateral damage in Austin money games. It’s this callousness and neglect that turned an athletic conference shift into a full-blown economic crisis.

The 2020 Census is the canary in the coal mine for the High Plains. We can’t keep being an appendage to the rest of the state. If you’ve read how the “Giving Tree” ends, it feels like we’re at the part where the boy chops it down to make his pleasure boat.

Let’s do right by the region and its people that have given so much to making Texas what it is today.