My son is a poster child for this new mentality. He has his masters degree and had a great job teaching at a community college in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was well established there and things were going very well. So, I was more than a little surprised when he called me one night about 10 years ago and told me he was moving to Estes Park, Colorado in just a few days. I am of the old school and my first question was: “Wow, what new opportunity came up in Estes Park?”. I nearly had apoplexy when I heard his response which was: “Oh, I don’t have a job or anything like that……but I was driving through Estes Park recently and it looked like a really nice place to live. I will figure out what to do when I get here.” And, you know what: he has done exactly that. He is a telecommuter who works from his cabin, editing a journal and writing about his alpine climbing adventures for various magazines.
Often missing from the dominant brain drain narrative is this kind of migration. Ironically, demanding that there must be jobs before a region attracts and retains talent misses the point. The people you want in your town are those who will do anything to live there. They are highly intrinsically motivated. They start businesses. Often, they are foreign-born. They are risk-takers and the lifeblood of any thriving area.
The above describes the prototypical boomerang migrant that Rust Belt cities should court. These are the people who can and will leverage the opportunities available in shrinking cities. Forget initiatives that purport to keep talent from leaving. Instead, focus on the demographic that will do whatever it takes to succeed where they most want to live. These are the natives most likely to leave and they are the most important to replace.
What's your region's plan to replace them?