Winging It

Hype makes right at the center for the new west.

Nine million Lone Eagles? "We looked at all the people who had computers, who were in certain income categories, employed in corporate staffs, and started subtracting out, and that's how we arrived at that number," Burgess says. But in his early columns on the trend, he cited an article in Inc. magazine as his source for the magic 9 million. That article uses the figure in reference to the total number of self-employed people in the country--a group that includes plumbers, contractors, taxi drivers and many others.

But surely, even if we don't know how many there are, these birds are soaring to the wide open spaces of the West?

"From my point of view, the Lone Eagle thing is vastly exaggerated," says Joel Kotkin, a "founding" senior fellow at the center who departed a few months ago to work more closely with the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and the Pacific Research Institute. "If you take a look at where the big concentrations of Lone Eagles are, it's in cities. The kind of skills that urban people have--writing, entertainment, design--need to be in an urban economy. The rural areas don't have a need for those skills. The ones that go there are burnout cases."

A former Washington Post reporter, Kotkin says his own research on Lone Eagles in Utah revealed that "they were mostly people in their forties and fifties who'd already had successful careers and had leveraged their lives so they could live in Park City. I'd never recommend it for people in their twenties."

Kotkin prefers the term "Valhalla Syndrome" to describe the rush to the hinterlands, and he sees the trend as being driven less by positive economic and social forces than by negative ones such as "white flight" from troubled big cities. "It's really a flight from diversity," he says. "They want to go places where they can find people more like them."

But what about those six-figure incomes? Those economic development opportunities? The center's own writings on the Lone Eagle phenomenon make passing reference to the fact that many "freelance professionals" are actually victims of corporate downsizing, shorn of health insurance and pensions and struggling to work out of their homes. Resort towns like Aspen and Telluride have had some success building high-tech enclaves, but their "Trustfunders" are hardly typical. Recently the Colorado Advanced Technology Institute invested $1.7 million in public and private funds into developing new telecommunications applications in ten rural communities; the project managed to create a total of forty new jobs, with an average salary of $25,000.

Burgess is now writing a book about Lone Eagles, trolling for success stories on the center's Web page. He dismisses questions about the validity of his research as just haggling over details. What matters, he says, is not how many Lone Eagles there are or even where they are but the case studies he's compiled. "If you have five or six Lone Eagles move into a small community, it can make a big difference," he insists.

But even the anecdotal evidence isn't always what it seems. Major stories in the Denver Post and the Los Angeles Times featured a Hillrose, Colorado, health-care consultant named Jeff Bauer as a sterling example of Lone Eagledom. Neither article mentioned that Bauer is one of Burgess's earliest discoveries--and a senior fellow at the Center for the New West.

A cynic might conclude that the Lone Eagle project was nothing more than an attempt to persuade rural officials to upgrade their outmoded phone services in a misguided effort to attract well-heeled professionals. Burgess hotly disputes that notion. "We're not advocating anything," he says. "The idea that [the project] is a stalking horse for US West is just wrong."

Former center manager Andy Bane agrees. "Lone Eagles will cause more headaches than opportunities for telecom companies," he says. "They're the ones demanding the services. If anything, we identified problems US West needed to fix."

But consumer advocate Ron Binz isn't so sure. "It's probably a mistake to imagine that a telecommunications infrastructure in an area is automatically a magnet for economic development," he says. "If that kind of infrastructure is put in to serve a tiny minority of customers, everybody's going to pay for it. The center is pushing the envelope on that, and I think it's significant that it's to US West's indirect benefit that the position is pushed."

Two years ago, not long after Burgess moved his family to Maryland, an article in Forbes ASAP portrayed him as the consummate Lone Eagle. The writer described him at home in Annapolis, surrounded by computer hardware in his basement office, looking out at "his 37-foot Tartan sloop, Happy Days III, moored in its slip at Wild Duck Cove." Burgess calls himself a "payroller"--a Lone Eagle who draws a corporate paycheck but lives where he pleases.

Unfortunately, his home office doesn't see as much of him these days. "Working out of my home just got to be overwhelming," he says. "I'd be traveling for five or six days and come back and have 150 pages of faxes. One day my wife said to me, 'I married you for better or worse, but I didn't marry you for lunch.'"

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