Cost of 'Place Prejudice': Misunderstood Hometowns

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New York City is crawling with street crime. Las Vegas is sin city. And Orlando depends on Disney World for its economy.

What you've heard is true, right?

Wrong.

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New York has one of the lowest street crime rates of any major US metropolis. Las Vegas has more churches per capita than any other US city. And there are more advanced technology workers in Orlando than in all of its entertainment parks combined.

The problem is "place prejudice." And the cumulative cost of this bigotry is probably in the hundreds of billions of dollars as tourists, investors, workers, and retirees stereotype cities, states, regions, and countries.

I'm not talking about uneducated people. I'm talking about some of America's smartest and most powerful.

Take Alabama. Every few years 200 top US CEOs are asked their impressions of the state as a location for new plants or other facilities.

The response: unskilled labor, poor schools, bad race relations, and hillbilly image.

This is pretty funny when you consider that in 1997, Alabama produced America's "Truck of the Year."-- Mercedes' new M-Class. And much of NASA's sophisticated hard and software is produced in Alabama by workers that are anything but dumb, uneducated, or backward.

Perhaps even more ominous, 50 percent of those executive decision makers said they would "tend to throw away" without review any descriptive material on Alabama that came their way.

Translation: Places like Alabama often have two strikes against them before they step to the plate.

Take the Mercedes Benz factory that located here four years ago. Alabama wasn't even in the running for the site at first, and only a series of happy coincidences permitted us to join the nationwide competition in time to win.

And the press adds fuel to the fire. Every four years the presidential caucus is held in Des Moines, Iowa. A chamber of commerce representative from that city told me that the first photographs many visiting press people want is a candidate picking corn or milking a cow, even though there are no cornfields in Des Moines and there are more insurance companies than cows within the city.

Back to Alabama. A couple of years ago a series of black church fires made headlines across the nation, and the burning of the Alabama Little Zion Baptist Church was used by much of the press to symbolize racial hatred throughout the deep South.

And it's only a short step from the printing press to the Internet. Floating around the Web is a site titled "What state mottos should be."

Here are a few: "Alabama: At least we're not Mississippi;" "Georgia: We put the 'fun' in fundamentalist extremism;" "Kentucky: 5 million people, 15 last names;" and "Tennessee: The educashun state."

I'm not calling for federal, state, or local legislation against place discrimination, but I'm asking you as a potential tourist, investor, relocating worker, or retiree simply to get the facts.

* Neal Wade is president of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama.

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