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McFeely: 'Megakota' would be huge, with powerful economy

A map compiled by Minnesota journalist David Montgomery of City Data, showing what a combined North and South Dakota would look like. The new state would be called Megakota, according to a joke online petition calling for the merger. Megakota would have a population of 1.62 million and would be the fourth-largest state by land area.1 / 2
A map produced by journalist David Montgomery showing the population density of Megakota, an imaginary state made by combining North and South Dakota. A joke online petition calls for President Donald Trump to merge the two states and Montgomery compiled data showing what the new state would look like.2 / 2

The idea of the Dakotas being something different than a North and a South is not entirely new.

There was the controversial idea in the 1980s of turning the Great Plains into the "Buffalo Commons," where bison could roam free because advocates said, well, some areas just aren't worth living in. There was once talk of dropping "North" from the state's name because, boosters argued, the word gave the uninviting connotation of wintry cold and bleakness. The nerve of that word.

Those propositions at least had the whiff of seriousness, even if they had as much chance of becoming reality as a low-rent conman TV star has of becoming president. The latest iteration of Let's Do Something to Spice Up the Dakotas is not nearly as weighty as removing "North" to fool vacationers into thinking they're coming to the Caribbean. A blip in the news cycle the other day revealed that a Fargo man had started an online petition urging the merging of North and South Dakota into a giant state named Megakota.

At last count about 2,500 people had "signed" the petition, enough to get attention but not quite enough to have the North Dakota Legislature ignore the wishes of the people and do its own thing. And that was that, we thought.

Except, fortunately, for one journalist who used to live in South Dakota and has a data-driven nerdy streak as wide as the Missouri River. He got a bug in his bow-tie and decided to put together the numbers — and a map — of what Megakota would look like in terms of economy, demographics and politics.

Thank you, David Montgomery.

Montgomery is a former newspaper reporter for three South Dakota dailies, including the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader. He is now a data journalist living in St. Paul, Minn. He plopped down behind his laptop one recent night and, as he openly admits is wont to do, went a little overboard on breaking down the potential of a combined Dakotas.

"In return for some sacrificed political power and a whole lot more driving, Megakotans would gain a larger, more diverse economy and a larger (but no more diverse) population — still small and rural, but through sheer scale, a more significant player on the national stage," Montgomery wrote on his blog,

Join Montgomery in letting this fantasy play out.

Megakota would be America's fourth-largest state by land area at 148,878 square miles, just bigger than Montana. Its population would be a still-modest 1.62 million, making it the 40th-largest state (Idaho is 39th). Economically, Megakota would have a gross domestic product of almost $102 billion. That would make it the 37th-largest state economy. Right now, North Dakota ranks 45th and South Dakota 47th in GDP.

"The new state would combine the tourism and financial services industries of South Dakota with the oil and gas revenues of North Dakota, along with both states' burgeoning agricultural sectors," Montgomery wrote. "With around $16 billion in combined 2017 agricultural revenue, Megakota would be the nation's sixth-biggest farm economy, just behind Minnesota."

If the idea wasn't fantastical enough already, politics would make it an impossibility. Combining into one state would mean the Dakotas would give up two U.S. Senators, both of whom will be Republican as far as the mind can imagine. Megakota would almost certainly remain as conservative politically as North and South Dakota are currently. President Donald Trump would've received 62.2 percent of the vote in the 2016 election in the combined state, Montgomery calculated, compared to 29.6 percent for Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton.

The new state would still have two U.S. House representatives, who are apportioned by population.

Megakota's largest city would be Sioux Falls with almost 177,000 people, while Fargo would check in with nearly 119,000. This would make almost everybody outside of Cass County happy, particularly those in western North Dakota and the northern Red River Valley, because the empire would get its comeuppance.

One thing would not change: The overwhelming whiteness of North and South Dakota. Montgomery figures Megakota would be 86.1 percent white. Native Americans (7 percent) and Hispanics (3.5 percent) would be the most populous minorities.

Montgomery goes down several other roads, including where Megakota might need to improve its roads and which city might be the capital. His work is excellent, the data fun to devour and debate.

About the only thing Montgomery doesn't address is the question that might be most critical around Fargo right now, given the fever surrounding North Dakota State football: What would become of the Dakota Marker Trophy, contested annually between the football teams at NDSU and South Dakota State?

With no more border, there could be no more battles over it.