Saturday, September 26, 2009

Burgh Boomerang Tales

An AP story about a Pittsburgh native who left home and then returned is making the rounds. I put it in the back of the blog queue until I finished digesting all the G-20 hype. The narrative is rich with a number of important themes, but the most actionable is the following:

Twenty years passed. Then I realized, as so many Pittsburghers do, that I had unfinished business to transact. What I didn't realize was how many people felt the same way. Everywhere you go in Pittsburgh these days - in bars, in stores, at ballgames - you hear refrains of the same tale: I grew up here. I left. I never thought I'd come back. But I did.

I'd bet that the boomerang trend is bigger than most people realize. There seems to be a homing instinct among Gen X Rust Belt refugees. I think this energy should be tapped for economic redevelopment.

Instead of fumbling around in the dark in hopes of keeping young talent from leaving, enlist motivated expatriates. How to do this? I've grappled with this question over the last year. My focus on those currently dislocated was a step in the wrong direction. At least, it put the cart before the horse.

Easier, and more effective, is networking the locals who have returned. This idea occurred to me while reading about the renaissance in Scranton:

There's a distinctly white-collar movement behind Scranton's comeback. A return of college-educated natives from cities like New York and Philadelphia is fueling a population rise and a civic makeover. Bringing them back are the very small-town qualities many once wanted to escape: the likelihood of meeting acquaintances and relatives on the streets. The embrace here of modest ambition. The deeply held belief -- only heightened by ridicule from the outside world -- that Scranton matters. ...

... Precisely how many natives have heeded the call isn't known. But many returnees seem to orbit in a large circle of other returnees, as the case of Ms. Dempsey illustrates. At her firm she employs an architect who moved back to Scranton from New York City, and a designer who moved here with his boyfriend -- a Scranton native who has started a wine bar in town. One of Ms. Dempsey's siblings, a fashion designer, quit a job at Burberry Group PLC in New York City to join a Scranton-area technology firm, while a brother-in-law left a Wall Street investment bank for a Scranton software startup.

This is textbook chain migration and it could be enhanced with the resources currently getting flushed down the brain drain. In Youngstown, we're formulating just such an initiative. We've studied what is going on in Scranton and other places seeking to entice expatriates to come home. We've identified the missing pieces and devised the best brain gain practice out there. Our territory includes the entire Tech Belt, so the effort concerns Cleveland and Pittsburgh. I look forward to reading more stories like the one from the Associated Press.

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