Monday, January 04, 2010

Migration And Risk

Richard Herman keeps trying to encourage Northeast Ohio to embrace immigrant-fueled economic development. He links geographic mobility and productivity. Via Growthology, there is also an important positive correlation between migration and entrepreneurship:

One insistent question at the start of a new decade involves the lingering effects of the old: What scars will the Great Recession leave? We are already seeing some. Americans are moving less than at any time since World War II, reports demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution. People are tied to existing homes, can't get loans for new ones and won't move without job commitments, Frey says. Only 1.6 percent of Americans are now moving across state lines, half the rate of a decade ago. ...

... "Younger people . . . tend to be more innovative, more willing to take risks, more willing to do things differently," Stanford University economist Paul Romer says in an interview for the book "From Poverty to Prosperity" by Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz. As noted, today's turmoil could make even the young more risk-averse. Or older and middle-aged people could increasingly dominate corporate hierarchies and university research grants, as Romer worries. An aging society could become a stand-pat society, protective of the status quo and resistant to change.

I emphasized what I consider to be the key phrase. When young adults pick up and move to a cool city, they often just go and figure out the details later. I've cited many examples of this phenomenon. During my vagabond 20s, I never had a job waiting for me in Asheville, San Diego, Seattle, Minneapolis, and the other places that popped up on my radar. Eventually, one gets practiced at landing in a city where you don't know anyone and do a better job than the locals of prying open a tight labor market. Doing so demands considerable nerve, energy, and innovation. Singing daily for my soup sharpened my competitive edge.

Most Rust Belt cities lack a substantial number of these kind of migrants. Forget critical mass. Few, if any, are going to roll the dice and head to Pittsburgh without a serious job offer in hand. But lots of people leave Pittsburgh seeking sunshine and opportunity with little thought about how this scheme will work. This is brain drain of a different kind. These risk-takers aren't being replaced with similar in-migrants. The region continues to age, all the while getting more risk averse. The talent pond begins to stagnate.

Richard Herman evangelizes how immigrants can reinvigorate entrepreneurship in shrinking cities. Northeast Ohio would be wise to listen to him. (Via this Youngstown Renaissance blog post) Tyler and Jaci Clark represent another solution to this problem of growing risk-aversion:

Throughout the years that Tyler and Jaci Clark lived away from Youngstown, everything they talked about was here.

“All of our best friends, all of our best memories were here,” Jaci said in their home in the city’s historic district.

Jaci, 40, is originally from Youngstown and grew up not far from where they live, while Tyler, 34, grew up in Texas. They both went to Youngstown State University and met here, then lived in Washington, DC, and Tucson, Arizona, where Tyler worked as a software developer.

After Jaci came back three years ago to visit a sick friend, they talked about moving here.

“When I brought it up to Tyler I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Jaci said. “But he said ‘why don’t we just move there.’”

“This is a great place to raise kids and we’re very happy to be back,” she added.

Tyler has continued working for clients in Arizona from home and has become the Chief Imagination Officer at the Youngstown Business Incubator, which has focused on bringing in business-to-business software companies to this former steel town.

Since the steel mills here started closing down in the late 1970s, the city’s population has plummeted to below 73,000, from 170,000 at its peak in 1930. In the decades that followed, young people left the city in their droves to seek work elsewhere.

“We have been exporting our young for 30 years,” said U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan, whose district includes Youngstown.

But now, thanks in part to the incubator and a city plan to adapt to and embrace Youngtown’s new size, there are signs former residents are beginning to move back as they see new opportunities to work and live here.

The Clarks and their two children – son Boston aged 8 and daughter Ridley aged 6 – are a living example of that change.

“There is great legacy of hard work and entrepreneurship here,” Tyler said. “And now there is a new sense of ‘can do’ here. We have new, younger leaders and there is a renewed sense of community, a sense of purpose.”

Tyler said that other former residents have found his blog on Youngtown and have contacted him about coming back. The couple hosts a monthly pot luck meal and new returnees have turned up to network and find out who else has come back.

He said the city has limited resources to tackle the decay that still blights Youngstown – there are 4,500 vacant homes here – but thanks to that new sense of community, local residents are taking up the slack.

“It has to come from each one of us,” he said. “We’re coming together to create change.”

I pasted the entire unpublished post here out of fear of it disappearing. The Clark's story is one that can be further catalyzed in Youngstown and replicated elsewhere in the Rust Belt. This is an emerging pattern, not an isolated anecdote.

A few years back, urban revivalist Richard Florida came to Syracuse and left a report detailing what the city should do to attract a “creative class.” There were some good ideas in the report, ideas our city leaders should implement. But the whole exercise fell victim to the same mentality that has kept Syracuse down in the doldrums: that the solution to reverse our city’s decline is somewhere “out there.” The solution instead is for locals and expatriates alike to stop denigrating life in Syracuse and present it for what it is: an adventure, a challenge, a new frontier. ...

... I am hopeful, because an increasing number of my generation are returning home, taking up the challenge to build lives and families in a city with a proud history and, if they stay, a bright future. I think of my sister, who has returned to start a theater company and live on the North Side, where, almost a century ago, my family got its start in America.

There is an untapped to desire to return to the Rust Belt and reinvent our hometowns. Obviously, I'm a part of this latent movement. So are Peter Panepento at Global Erie and Gordon Young at Flint Expatriates. This migration merits further study. We can do better than the currently existing boomerang initiatives. It's a risk worth taking.

1 comment:

Mark Arsenal said...

"These risk-takers aren't being replaced with similar in-migrants. The region continues to age, all the while getting more risk averse. The talent pond begins to stagnate."

True. I have devastatingly irrational fear and loathing of all forms of risk. So I've chosen Pittsburgh as a relocation destination because utter and complete failure will still mean low cost of living...

So maybe artificially raising the cost of living will reduce the number of hyeropics that land in PGH? Hmm...