Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson have been to space (maybe). Elon Musk wants to go to Mars.
Another billionaire has more earthbound ideas. Marc Lore wants to build a new city, a $400 billion eco-friendly metropolis that makes use of all the latest technology and would be the “most open, most fair and most inclusive city in the world.”
He also might build it somewhere in Appalachia.
Now do I have your attention?
If you don’t know Lore’s name, it might be because he doesn’t have the same celebrity status as our other billionaires. It might also be because you’re not a sports fan. Earlier this year, he and former baseball star Alex Rodriguez purchased the National Basketball Association’s Minnesota Timberwolves.
However, if you’re ever ordered anything from Walmart online, then you know Lore’s work. He first founded Quidsi, which ran the popular Diapers.com website until it sold out to Amazon. Then he founded another e-commerce company, Jet.com, which sold out to Walmart, which made him president and CEO of Walmart U.S. e-commerce.
When he left Walmart earlier this year, he said one of his goals was to found “the city of the future.”
It must be nice to be a billionaire.
In any case, we now know a bit more about his plans – or at least his vision. I’m not sure we can call them “plans” just yet. Lore’s proposed new city would generate its own power through renewable energy – its central power would have a photovoltaic roof. It would grow at least some of its own food through aeroponic farms. It would be designed so that almost everything – work, school, amenities – would be no more than 15 minutes away. Much of that 15 minutes would be spent walking or biking; streets would be built to prioritize pedestrians, bicyclists and autonomous vehicles over fossil fuel-guzzling cars. The land would be owned by a private foundation, with residents and businesses leasing their property; the theory is that way people won’t get priced out as they often do when land values rise. Revenues from those leases would go to pay for social services. The theory, as stated on the proposed city’s website, is that “as the city does better, residents do better.”
Lore explained more to Forbes magazine: “One of the primary motivators here to do this was … testing a new model for society. What we’re calling ‘equitism,’ which is capitalism reimagined.” He disdains the use of the word “Utopia” to describe this new city, or other easy sci-fi adjectives. “It won’t look like The Jetsons,” he tells Forbes. It’ll look like a real city.”
Lore calls this proposed new city Telosa, the Greek word for “purpose.” That name emerged from a LinkedIn poll that offered three other options: Pangea, New West and Yusa.
Lore seems very serious about this – the city’s website says “our first residents will start moving in by 2030.” Of course, that seriousness should not be confused with others taking it seriously, although he certainly has serious people involved. He contracted with Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), a global architecture firm headquartered in Denmark. His preliminary announcement generated news coverage around the world. Then again, so do the Kardashians.
Here’s what catches my eye about this: Lore lists six potential locations for Telosa. Five are out west – Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Arizona and Texas are listed in that order on the website. Then there’s the sixth, the vague descriptor of “Appalachian Region.”
Virtually all the news coverage of Telosa described it as a desert oasis. “Former Walmart president reveals plan for $400 billion Utopian city in the US desert,” headlined USA Today. On CNN: “Plans for $400 billion new city in the American desert revealed.” And, sure enough, all the artists’ conceptions by the architectural firm show a desert backdrop with cacti and sagebrush. And yet … there’s still that sixth Appalachian option.
If you want to build a brand-new city from scratch, there are some obvious advantages to doing it out west in the desert – there’s not much there to start with. (Scientists who care about desert critters might disagree, but you know what I mean.) Still, I can’t help but wonder: Why not Appalachia?
Appalachia, unlike vast stretches of the Southwest desert, is already populated, but arguably underpopulated – most counties in Appalachia are losing population and have been for decades. Buchanan County is almost half the size it was four decades ago (37,989 in 1980; 20,355 now). There’s plenty of room for more people. Appalachia is also a big place. The Appalachia officially defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission runs from northern Mississippi to southern New York (some politics were involved in drawing those lines). I’m curious only about the 25 counties and eight cities in Virginia that are designated as Appalachian. (There were some politics involved in that, too. Years ago, Roanoke didn’t want to be designed as Appalachia because it considered that imprimatur to be pejorative. I, on the other hand, embrace the label proudly and write these words from an official Appalachian county.) So what about those Appalachian counties in Virginia – could Telosa wind up in any of them? And should it?
That last question is harder to answer; that’s a matter of values. Highland County may be quite happy being one of the least-populated counties east of the Mississippi. It may not want a city plopped down in its midst. Ditto for lots of others. A city of 50,000 would dwarf the existing population of most localities in Virginia’s Appalachian region; that wouldn’t just change the culture of a county, it would create a new one. Is that desirable? I can’t really answer that; I can only look at the requirements, which right now are few. Lore says he needs 150,000 acres for Telosa (and that $400 billion), although phase one is a more modest 1,500 acres and $25 billion – enough for 50,000 residents. For comparison purposes, that’s about the physical size of Stuart in Patrick County with the population of Danville at its height in 1990 (when it was 53,056). We’re talking density here, people. Emphasis on high-rises, not sprawl. Telosa’s website says the biggest challenges in picking a site are “water, climate, logistics and other features” – not to mention political support. Am I off-base in suggesting that if water is a criterion, maybe smack in the middle of the desert might not be the best place?
Logistics are going to be a challenge anywhere but especially in the mountainous terrain of Appalachia. Interstate 81 is pretty terrible already and it connects to a metro area of 250,000 or so in the Roanoke Valley. Who’s going to build an interstate to Telosa if it’s in, say, Dickenson County? On the other hand, maybe this is one way to get the long-talked-about Coalfield Expressway built? Or Interstate 73 if it wound up in Franklin or Henry counties. Wherever Telosa went, it would certainly be a way to reverse the population declines in Southwest Virginia. Given the politics of most American cities, we might also get to refer to some future politician as Senator So-and-So, D-Telosa.
There were some cities that say they saw economic development benefits by pitching themselves for Amazon’s HQ2 – and losing. Just the publicity was enough to put them in a new light. Will any localities in Appalachia see themselves the same way and make a play for Telosa simply as a way to raise their profile for future employers? See how tech-friendly we are?! It’s hard enough to get some local governments to focus on realistic goals; I doubt we’re going to see a land rush for local governments offering themselves up to Telosa, although there is a certain amount of opportunity to be had here. What better way to change the negative public perceptions that some people have about Appalachia than to pitch the place as home for this futuristic new city? Want scenic views? Want outdoor recreation? We’ve got all that.
Do I really think Telosa will happen? Probably not. On the other hand, I’m not worth $4 billion, as Lore supposedly is. And there is a history of planned cities – Washington, D.C., being one such example. Brazil’s capital of Brasilia is another. Who’s to say Telosa won’t be another? Here’s another way to measure this: Will Lore have people living in Telosa before Musk has people living on Mars?
If you think the answer is “yes,” then some enterprising board of supervisors might want to pass a resolution inviting Lore for a visit.