Friday, March 01, 2013

Rust Belt Chic Concierge

While studying the talent geography of San Antonio for Graham Weston's 80/20 Foundation, Richey Piiparinen and I made an exciting discovery. College graduates were moving to, not away from, the metro. That's the brain gain that Mayor Julián Castro referenced earlier this week in his State of the City address. Richey and I were hired to look into San Antonio's brain drain problem. Everyone was overlooking the brain gain because return migrants and newcomers weren't connecting. Talent was lost in a sea of sprawl thanks to parochial bubbles and barriers. From Syracuse is one possible solution:

"The idea is that we customize them to the needs of the person the way -- for lack of a better term -- a cultural concierge would do," Heagerty explains. "What we really do is kind of show what's available because exploring is great, you're going to find some stuff, but you're not going to shake as many hands or meet as many connectors as you would with Christi and myself."

Christi Smith, who serves as Assistant Connection Officer for NOexcusesSYR, adds she moved here five and a half years ago from the Rochester area.

"It was really difficult for me especially being a transplant," Smith said. "I worked all the time and didn't know what was going on."

But Smith, a SUNY Brockport graduate, discovered many options for things to do and realized she would never want to leave. "I fell in love with [Syracuse]," she says with a smile.

In fact, the name NOexcusesSYR illustrates their goal: they don't want to see young professionals become "ex-Cuses" and leave the area, and they want to show that there really is "no excuse" to not see what the area has to offer.

Emphasis added. We heard the same thing in San Antonio from focus group participants. In fact, the session acted like a mixer. Return migrants and newcomers mingled. Contact information was exchanged. The sense of community was transformed, at least for those in the room.

You go where you know. Cities such as Syracuse and San Antonio are black boxes for prospective migrants. They don't have the brand power of Austin or Portland. Newcomers are economic accidents. Return migrants may know the lay of the land. But they typically feel alone and isolated (something I learned from focus groups in Cleveland). For a city looking to redevelop, a "cultural concierge" acts as a catalyst as well as urban psychotherapist. As a result, locals look less perplexed when you tell them you chose to move to the Rust Belt.

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