Small cities and young professionals need not be like oil and water

Small cities and young professionals need not be like oil and water
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After decades of population decline, many of the nation’s large older cities witnessed an unexpected change early in this millennium: Their populations started to grow.

What explains this dramatic reversal? In simplest terms, those cities are home to major medical centers, large research universities and vibrant financial services sectors. Those places are attracting recent college graduates. 

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For the most part, these are highly educated young people with degrees in the sciences or finance. What's more, this group also includes many who may lack advanced degrees but are entrepreneurial and inventive. They find fulfillment through participation in the arts or in music, or they wish to brew beer, distill liquor or refine their culinary skills. 

What about smaller cities that have no major university or health complex? Can they do anything to revive their economies and increase their populations, or are they destined to stagnate? 

First, smaller locations need to make sure they offer highly reliable, moderately priced internet connectivity.  Young graduates will require this in order to create and run businesses online. 

Many recent grads are employed in jobs that require them to only be in an office one day a week or a few days each month. In that case, a distant smaller city that offers several amenities, a vibrant social scene and moderately priced housing may be appealing.

Next, a smaller city needs to take an inventory of its assets, especially those that may appeal to younger professionals:

  • Are there environmental features that can be stressed, such as mountains for hiking or lakes for fishing?
  • Is the terrain suitable for someone who wishes to grow organic crops for niche markets in nearby cities? 
  • Are there architecturally significant homes that may be purchased at reasonable cost? 
  • Are there antiquated factories that may be converted into apartments, low-cost space for start-ups and ateliers for artists, aspiring musicians and couturiers?
  • Has the governor designated an "opportunity zone" in the city? If so, investors with unrealized capital gains might be lured in with the prospect of highly reduced capital-gains taxes.

Next, it would be ideal to publicize the location through activities that will appeal to younger workers, such as organized bicycle rides, canoeing events, ski races or a 5K run. 

It might also be possible to organize dynamic music festivals or a weekend focused around local culinary specialties. The goal would be to spread the message that the local area is dynamic and has much to offer young entrepreneurs. 

Many localities have established programs to encourage budding entrepreneurs. Perhaps civic leaders could work with local financial institutions to establish a program in which, each year, a dozen or more start-up loans will be granted to people who have solid ideas for starting a business.

The run-up of equity markets in recent years and the aging of our population contributes to the emergence of many new well-funded foundations. In quite a few cases, these foundations include in their mission statements something about improving the quality of life in the location where the funds originated or where the entrepreneur lived. 

It may be possible to develop a program in which a recent graduate who moves to an area and lives and works there for six years would have a fraction of his or her student debt paid off each year with a cap on the dollar amount.

The number of awards could be limited, and they could (or could not) be targeted toward graduates in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

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Consideration should also be given to attracting immigrants. We know much about the selectivity of international migration. It is the more highly skilled people, typically, who move from one country to another. And the process of legally entering the United States is a test of a person’s diligence and dedication. 

Most non-major cities have some distinct advantages that could be capitalized on to attract young professionals. 

The question is whether there are dedicated local political, financial and civic leaders who can organize themselves to acquire skilled and dedicated young people who now seek to begin their careers in locations where there are other young people, economic opportunities and attractive amenities.

Reynolds Farley is research professor emeritus at the Population Studies Center and professor emeritus at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy both at the University of Michigan.