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Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011 05:59 am

Boomerangers

Enticing trained brains back to Springfield

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The Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce is talking industrial parks as the way to make Greater Springfield – which I prefer to think of as Bigger Springfield – a Great Place to Do Business. Springfield’s economic development plans aim to import companies or expand one already in the city. Alas, attracting a successful firm is hard to do when all a city has to offer is cheap land and low taxes, these being only minor factors in corporate location decisions.

Rather than import an economy, the go-getter city builds its own, and to do that you need brains. That’s what’s been happening in Champaign-Urbana, which has been out-creating Springfield when it comes to jobs; C-U is the only place in central Illinois where high school graduates know how to spell “entrepreneur,” thanks to startups spun off from university research projects.

A competitive assessment of Springfield done last year for the Chamber by an Atlanta consultancy noted that between 2003 and 2008, this metropolitan area experienced a net out-migration of nearly 1,300 people to places outside Illinois. In that same period, more people than that moved to Bigger Springfield from places such as Chicagoland, Decatur, Danville and Champaign-Urbana. As a result, by 2008 the area was gaining more new residents overall than it lost old ones.

However, it is not only how many more people move into a city than leave it that determines its long-term health. The quality of those people matters too. A relatively large share of Bigger Springfield’s population are pre-geezers between the ages of 45 and 64. To rebuild it into an Oz of the 21st century you need youngish subprofessionals in the advanced trades such as health care and programming. As the sages of Atlanta summed it up, “Retention and attraction of college graduates and young professionals will be critical to the region’s future and long-term economic competitiveness.”

Attracting credentialed young people is not easy for any smallish city in the provincial Midwest whose main appeal is cheap parking. All the more important, therefore, to persuade more of those Bigger Springfield kids who go away to school to return home after graduation. As a group they are an economic development asset for reasons that urbanist Aaron Ren has explained in a 2009 blog post. “The act of moving away from home unmoors us from the limits of our origins...[and] opens a world of possibility in our eyes,“ he wrote. That experience leaves the exile more open to things beyond the status quo, and thus more likely to shake things up, to kick up some dust.

That experience also persuades most of them to never come back home. In 1979 I noted in this paper that roughly 80 percent of the class officers, academic achievers, senior student council members, football co-captains, homecoming king and queen, indeed all the bright young things of my high school graduating class of 1966 had left the Springfield area for good. Not much had changed a generation later. The kids my Springfield friends raised in Springfield are now in their 30s and beyond. Of the dozen or so of these youngsters I know best, not one came back to live in Springfield after college.

However, of late I sense a change. Some youngish people who grew up here do come back, to raise their kids among people of familiar values or to tend to aging family members or, of late, to await the start of deferred adulthoods. Also among them are people who found it easier to make good money in the big city than to make a good life or who, having seen the wider world, perceive markets in the things Springfield lacks. (Restaurateur Jimmy Oh is one of these.)

Ren argues that these “boomerang” migrants have a larger social role in making Springfield attractive to others like them. Their role is to “start the early stages of the change process, to fertilize the soil, to create the conditions for those without a connection to come in, to pave the runway for them. A critical mass of boomerang migrants might be a necessary first stage to attracting others.”

What might boosters do to entice more of these youngsters back to Springfield? “Homecomers Only” lanes on Lawrence? Paint their portraits into a mural at the Presidential museum? Give them a key to the city of Chatham, as soon as it is one? Finding ways to do this would make another useful Chamber study.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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