November 10, 2013

Vibrant community key to success

Paul Grasso Just Sayin'

---- — The “brain drain.”

It’s a topic raised in almost any discussion about our region’s future. “We have to stop the brain drain; we can’t afford to keep losing our young people.”

While I understand the sentiment, I just don’t agree with it completely.

Research newspaper archives from any region, urban or rural, and you will find articles lamenting the out migration of its young people. I’ve seen articles on the brain drain in newspapers from Boston to Miami and from Virginia to California. I recently read an article from a newspaper in Taiwan stating that the majority of Taiwanese students who do graduate work in the United States don’t return to Taiwan.

Would it be great if more young people chose to remain here? Probably, but not necessarily. There’s something to be said for “going out into the world” and seeing what it has to offer.

The question is where are young people going when they leave and why are they going there. With so many regions concerned about the brain drain, you might wonder if there’s one place to which all young people are moving.

A millennial nirvana, if you will.

Alas, I doubt such a place exists.

I don’t think young people leaving the region is the problem; quite to the contrary as a matter of fact. I think the problem is many of the out-migration communities are missing the mark on what attracts young people in the first place.

This includes both the large metro areas as well as the small towns, communities like Madison, Wisc., Missoula, Mont., Omaha, Neb., and Yellow Springs, Ohio (isn’t that where I.P. Daley lives?).

There are names for these magnet-like communities. They’re called “cool communities” and “intelligent communities.” It’s gotten to the point that there are rankings for these communities and definitions of attributes that they share. The Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) has created indicators “to provide a rural community a standard framework” to create a “Rural Intelligent Community.”

The ICF defines an intelligent community as a “city or region that uses information and communication technologies to build prosperous economies, solve social problems and enrich their cultures in the 21st Century.”

And for young people, technology and “being connected” is a big part of choosing a place to live.

But let’s get real. We shouldn’t try fooling ourselves into thinking we can compete with “cool” urban areas like Boston, Los Angeles or South Beach.

But we can compete with smaller communities. Compete and win.

What we need to do is to be authentic and true to who and what we are. We have to redefine “cool” as it relates what we can actually accomplish.

I’m sorry, but there’s no way we’re going to have year-round outdoor dining.

Fortunately, there are a number of organizations and a lot of people dedicating a lot of time to help our region become a place where young people want to move and, perhaps, our young people will want to stay. Organizations like Vision2Action, First Weekends and The North Country Center for the Arts, just to name a few.

They are working hard to create a region that is aspirational, a region with a vibrant economy and an appealing quality of life where people and businesses will move. They are working to create intriguing spaces for people to gather with vitality measured by a broad range of art, cultural and recreational events.

The momentum is palpable. You can sense the energy building around revitalizing downtown Plattsburgh.

Beyond simply being “cool,” young people are becoming more and more attracted to what some are calling “authentic” communities. Authentic communities are those that have “real buildings and real history.”

Authentic communities aren’t dominated by strip malls, chain stores and chain restaurants. They do have restored downtowns with networks of small-block streets.

Essentially, young people are looking for an experience that isn’t like “everywhere else.”

As a region, we need to continue to think outside the box of traditional economic and community development. We need to foster a culture of creativity, and we need to make a commitment to authenticity.

There’s a natural connection between young people struggling to start careers in a difficult post-recession economy and rural communities in need of creative economic-development strategies. Young people are attracted to those communities.

We need to attract as many young people and young families as we can to help create, grow and maintain a strong economy that is culturally vibrant.

Paul Grasso is the president & CEO of The Development Corporation of Plattsburgh.