Niche cities are playing a key role in our nation’s economic development, according to the McKinsey Global Institute’s July 2019 report “The Future of Work in America.” Some of the cities, which the report’s authors call “small powerhouses,” are currently enjoying the fastest economic growth rates in the nation.
Inspired by this, we found 20 niche communities around the U.S. and outlined what it is that makes them special.
MATAGORDA COUNTY, TEXAS
For the past 120 years, rice has been a staple crop for Matagorda County, which is located in the coastal prairie region of Texas. So much so that the crop brings in $135 million every year to the county and surrounding area, according to the Matagorda County Economic Development Corporation. While drought in recent years has taken a toll on the farms, rice farmers have lately been diversifying with new enterprises and even niche marketing. Even with recent losses, the Texas Farm Bureau says Matagorda and nearby Colorado and Wharton counties account for 60 percent of the rice grown in the state.
Considered one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world, Tulare County sits atop old Tulare Lake, which accounts for the incredibly fertile soil. Farmers and agro-scientists have raved over the land for easily the last century. “The soil is known to contain in exact proportions the elements needed for the growth of citrus trees,” states the 1910 Report of the California State Agricultural Society. Today, the county grows a variety of citrus, stone fruits, nuts, berries and silage crops. Farm employment accounts for a quarter of all jobs in Tulare County, which has 45 crops worth more than $1 million in farm gate gross value, according to the Tulare County Farm Bureau.
CHESTER COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA
An astonishing half of all mushrooms grown in the U.S. comes from Chester County. Though mushrooms can grow anywhere (in fact, commercial mushrooms are typically grown indoors), since the late 1880s, farms started springing up in this part of Pennsylvania, according to a 2012 NPR report. Today, there are 60 farms here, producing a half-billion pounds of mushrooms every year. That’s about $400 million worth of Agaricus (also known as white button), Portobello, Cremini (also known as common), Shiitake and Oyster mushrooms every year. Agaricus mushrooms alone have 12.6 million square feet of growing space, according to the Chester County Agricultural Development Council.
Rockford calls itself the “Screw Capital of the World,” so you know it’s legit. Around the 1940s, when the city’s furniture-making industries began closing, the manufacturing of fasteners began to take off. By the 1960s, according to the Rockford Economic Development Council, the city was the fifth-largest fastener manufacturer in the nation. Though the city today is home to numerous automotive and aircraft manufacturing plants, it still produces many of the screws, bolts and fasteners we use.
Nearly 80 percent of all the gold mined in the U.S. comes from mines in and around Elko, which is located in northeastern Nevada. The more than a dozen mines there produced about 5.6 million troy ounces of gold in 2018, all worth about $7 billion. Though gold production has historically followed a pretty harsh boom and bust cycle, the geologist John Muntean told Elko Daily Free Press in July 2018 that the area has been experiencing a gold rush “for close to 50 years.”
Located in West Texas, Brownfield and surrounding Terry County have very dry air, which while great for grape production, was for a long time hindered by the local government’s prohibition-dry politics. But that relaxed a few years ago, and now wine is booming there, thanks to 3,000 acres of grape production. In fact, Brownfield grows most of the grapes in the entire state of Texas. “I think Texas loves vineyards because it’s Jesus’ first miracle,” Katy Jane Seaton, co-owner of Farmhouse Vineyards, told KCBD in 2018.
PLANT CITY, FLORIDA
Considered the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World, Plant City (and surrounding Hillsborough County) has about 8,000 acres in production, according to the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. Given the area’s mild subtropical climate and extremely fertile soil, this is easy to understand. The fields add up to Florida being the nation’s second-highest strawberry producing state, behind California. The Florida growing season runs from around Thanksgiving to the end of March, which is when they’re typically the most affordable at the supermarket.
For the last century, manufacturers in Wichita have produced more than a quarter million aircraft—more than any other city on Earth. In fact, Wichita business leaders dubbed it “Air Capital City” way back in 1929. Today, more than half of the world’s light civilian airplanes came from plants in Wichita—Bombardier Learjet, Cessna, Hawker Beechcraft and so forth. The list of aircraft types includes trainers, biplanes, racing planes, crop dusters, seaplanes, personal aircraft and business jets. Plants in Wichita also supply huge quantities of parts for other aircraft manufacturers.
HATCH, NEW MEXICO
Hatch is a tiny town (pop. 1,680) with a huge reputation. Chile peppers are a huge crop in New Mexico, and much of them are grown here. Hatch chiles are world famous, known for their earthy taste and slow-burning heat. When roasted, they’re almost buttery. Some say the soil in the Hatch Valley provides the key to the peppers, while others point to the area’s 4,000-foot altitude (the peppers need hot days and cool nights to grow). “Hatch is considered the Napa Valley of chile,” Chris Franzoy, owner of the Hatch Chile Factory, told The New York Times in December 2019.
Officials in the village of Morton, located just outside Peoria, consider their little hamlet the “Pumpkin Capital of the World” because an astonishing 85 percent of all canned pumpkin on the planet comes from the plant there constructed back in 1920. Nestle USA/Libby’s owns the plant now, and it covers 5,000 acres. “There are also pumpkin farms surrounding this whole area,” Village President Ronald Rainson told a CBS Chicago reporter back in 2014. Morton gets good sunlight, farmers say, and the soils are varied, allowing for both early and late planting.
When you see a big RV rolling down the road, there’s a very good chance it came from Northern Indiana. That region—and the town of Elkhart, especially—manufactures about 80 percent of all RVs found in the world. According to author Al Hesselbart, who documented Indiana’s manufacturing history in his book The Dumb Thing Sold… Just Like That, it all started in the 1930s when three guys decided to start making trailers in their Northern Indiana backyards. The area made sense, given that it’s located in the heart of America, making it easy for plants to ship their trailers around the county.
Somewhere between 50 million and 100 million years ago, massive quantities of aluminum silicate began washing down from the Piedmont Hills in Georgia. Eventually, these particles settled in a prehistoric sea that covered what is now Sandersville, located about halfway between Augusta and Macon. Known as kaolinite, this mineral is a vital ingredient in more than 100 modern products, including paper, ceramics, cosmetics, paint and even rocket nosecones. Every year, about 2.5 million tons of kaolinite is shipped out of Georgia, much of it from in and around Sandersville, where officials say the mining is an $800 million business and the Peach State’s largest volume export.
Three counties in Southern Illinois—Madison, Monroe and St. Clair—account for between 60 percent and 80 percent of all the horseradish grown in the nation. According to a 2018 article in St. Louis Magazine, there are three reasons for this. First, families that initially began farming horseradish back in the late 1880s have chosen to stay put. Second, much of the land is potash—extremely fertile soil that was once covered by the Mississippi River. And third (and most surprising): The sulfur pollutants released by the old steel mills in the area actually proved beneficial to the horseradish, actually giving the plant its characteristic heat, which is a product of its grating. In fact, the sulfur was so good to the horseradish that farmers today add it to the soil, making up for its loss from the closure of the steel mills.
Dalton makes wall-to-wall carpet. Since the 1890s, mills there have produced so much carpet that today it’s said that 90 percent of all wall-to-wall carpet in the world was made within 65 miles of Dalton, which is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains. In 2015, Atlas Obscura reported that the mills in and around Dalton produced a whopping 12.2 billion square feet of carpet every year—“enough to cover the entirety of Hong Kong in a thick, rich shag.” Built atop a mammoth bedspread industry that dated to 1895 in Dalton, the carpet mills benefitted from close proximity to dyeing and finishing firms.
Since 1872, people have grown apples in Wenatchee, located in north-central Washington. According to the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center, city boosters in the first decade of the 20th century pointed to the area’s volcanic soils, sunshine, abundant water, the absence of high winds and cold nighttime temperatures as reasons why apples thrived there. And they still do—today, there are more than 1,700 fruit growers in the area surrounding Wenatchee, producing more than half the fresh apples consumed in the country.
Though caviar has been raised in the Sacramento area (specifically, the tiny nearby town of Elverta) since the 1970s, it was only recently that the area won the distinction of producing the best fish eggs in the nation. Today, sturgeon are commercially raised in the Sacramento area (they have long thrived in the Sacramento River), thanks in great part to the poaching, over-fishing and pollution that damaged other caviar spots in the United States. In fact, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2013 that Sacramento sturgeon produce 70 to 80 percent of all American caviar produced every year.
HIGH POINT, NORTH CAROLINA
High Point, located between Greensboro and Winston-Salem in North Carolina, is the largest producer of furniture in the nation. The earlier furniture built there dates to the late 1700s, and access to nearby forests made it easy for furniture-makers to thrive. The industry really took off in the late 1800s, when the Southern Railway came to town, allowing for easy distribution. According to a May 2019 story in House Beautiful, the city today boasts 12 million square feet of showroom space, which is roughly the equivalent of 200 football fields, and it hosts the massive High Point Market showing off the industry’s latest designs every April and October.
According to the Bend Chamber of Commerce, there’s one brewery in Bend for every 4,500 residents in the state—the highest per capita rate in Oregon. There are breweries (and brew festivals) throughout Bend, which is located about three hours from Portland. Situated by the Deschutes River and the surrounding mountains and forests of Ponderosa Pine, Bend’s 20 or so breweries are legendary in the craft and microbrew scene. In fact, Deschutes Brewery is the eighth-largest craft brewery in the United States.
JAMESTOWN, NORTH DAKOTA
Bees are big business in this tiny North Dakota town, which is located near the middle of the state. Many of the state’s 350,000 hives are located in and around this town of 15,000 people, according to the American Bee Journal. Throughout the Peace Garden State, hives produce as much as 31 million pounds of honey, often leading the nation in production. The state’s wide-open prairies and low population make for a perfect habitat for bees, National Geographic reported in 2016, though many North Dakota farmers are increasingly converting their land to corn and soybean growing, diminishing the land available for bee production.
Thanks to Hong Kong-based The Apparel Group opening a 250,000-square-foot distribution center in Lewisville, one in six men’s shirts in the U.S. came from this town, located just north of Dallas. While the shirts are made in Asia, they’re designed in Lewisville, according to a 2017 Dallas Morning News story. The warehouse itself can hold a quarter-million shirts on hangers. The center opened in Lewisville to be close to the buying and distribution centers of Dillard’s and J.C. Penney, which are located in nearby Fort Worth.