Those of you who checked the paper Sunday will have noticed a GIGANTIC story about young leaders in the Grand Cities. Your City Beat was up to his ears producing that piece, which is partly why I’ve not blogged for a while.
I wrote the story because Tyrone and Becca Grandstrand were elected, respectively, to the Grand Forks City Council and Grand Forks School Board. That they won by pretty decent margins was surprising to me because the Grand Cities, even though we’re a college town, has long had a reputation as a place that’s not very friendly to the young. After the Grandstrands’ victory, I and many people thought there had been a real shift in community attitudes, that new possibilities had opened up.
Then I thought about it some more and had a face-palm moment. While these are pretty high profile positions and the Grandstrands are pretty young, there are actually a lot of young people that I personally know who are in leadership positions or who have effected change in the community. And I had to assume there were a lot of engaged young people that I didn’t know of. So I set out to find them and see what they were up to.
Why would this glorified “Who’s Who” merit a front-page story?
As many of you know, there is a widespread concern about the area’s demographics as Baby Boomers retire and younger generations leave the area for opportunities elsewhere, many never to return. If we were to become a greyer community, that would bring with it a whole complex of problems. We would have a smaller work force, which would lead to fewer employers, which would lead to a shrinkage of the economy. We would have lots of elderly folks who need medical care and fewer people in the work force to take care of them, an issue UND’s med school has been warning about. Ultimately, when the elderly pass on, we will have a smaller population spiralling downward. I’m not saying it’ll be a ghost town, but it would be a poorer, smaller town.
City leaders and economic development experts have long worried about this, and have tried to find out what it is that the city needs to keep young people from leaving and bringing in new young people. Conventional wisdom suggests that feeling rooted to the community is one of the secrets to retaining young people. One way to encourage roots is to have family in the area, but that’s a pretty limited thing to rely on. Another way is encourage people to be engaged and feel a stake in the community.
Some people will be inclined to say, well, it’s the jobs stupid — we don’t have a lot of jobs that pay wellÂ – and I think everyone recognizes that as a factor. But you’ll notice that, even though there is pretty high unemployment in a lot of places and pretty low unemployment in North Dakota, young people are not flocking here. On the other hand, there are North Dakotans who even now move out to places like Seattle, where job prospects suck.
A while ago, a consulting group called Next Generation Consulting was hired by the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. — using a part of a Knight Foundation grant — to study young people here, what they want in a community and what they have in Grand Forks.
I’ll reproduce an interesting table from Next Generation’s report here. Value is how important something is to the person surveyed. Perception is how well the Grand Forks region meets those needs. Those surveyed include young professionals here and out-of-town, including students and people that have move back:
|Seven Indexes of a Next City||Value||Perception||Difference|
|Cost of lifestyle: I want a community where I can afford to live, work and play.||95%||70%||-25%|
|Earning: I want a broad choice of places to work and an environment that is friendly to entrepreneurs.||90%||44%||-46%|
|Learning: I want to plug into a community that offers life-long learning and values being ‘smart.’||88%||79%||-9%|
|Vitality: I value a vibrant community where people are ‘out and about’ using public parks, trails and recreation areas, attending farmer’s markets and living in a healthy community.||87%||66%||-21%|
|Around town: I want to live in a community that’s easy to get around in; I don’t want long commute times.||83%||87%||4%|
|After hours: I want to be able to find authentic local places to have dinner, meet for coffee, hear live music, or just hang out. I want to be able to attend art openings, theatre, and cultural festivals||81%||49%||-32%|
|Social capital: I value living in a diverse community, where people are engaged and involved in community life.||70%||51%||-19%|
Money issues are obviously the biggest. But social capital, the engagement thing I was talking about, is pretty high up as well.
The question that isn’t often asked is: Are we really doing that bad retaining and attracting young people? In other words, is it really a problem?
I checked into that also.
What I did was compare the 25-to-34 demographics of the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks metropolitan statistical area, based on the 2000 Census, with demographics from a list of cities that Next Generation thinks are hot spots for young people. I used the Top 3 cities in each category and the bottom of the Top 20, meaning 18, 19 and 20, just to get a broad sampling. There’s no point to comparing ourselves onlyÂ to the best of the best.
Also, Next Generation used cities. I’m concerned with the total young adult population of a trade area because, in economic development, it’s usually better to think in terms of trade areas. People don’t only live and do business in one single city.
|Community||MSA||25-34 population||Total population||% of total|
|Grand Forks||Grand Forks-East Grand Forks||12,559||97,478||12.9%|
|1. Ft. Collins, Colo.||Fort Collins-Loveland||36,185||251,494||14.4%|
|2. Charleston, S.C.||Charleston-North Charleston-Summerville||80,723||549,033||14.7%|
|3. Eugene, Ore.||Eugene-Springfield||42,029||322,959||13.0%|
|18. Salt Lake City||Salt Lake City||155,438||968,858||16.0%|
|19. Richmond, Va.||Richmond||157,157||1,096,957||14.3%|
|20. Hampton, Va.||Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News||231,079||1,576,370||14.7%|
|1. Madison, Wis.||Madison||77,940||501,774||15.5%|
|2. Minneapolis [Note: St. Paul is No. 5]||Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington||477,154||3,137,703||15.2%|
|3. Colorado Springs, Colo.||Colorado Springs||79,190||537,484||14.7%|
|18. Norfolk, Va. [See Hampton, Va.]||Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News||–||–||–|
|19. St. Louis, Mo.||St. Louis||365,902||2,754,328||13.3%|
|20. Orlando, Fla.||Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford||247,736||1,644,561||15.1%|
|1. San Francisco||San Francisco-Oakland Fremont||1,120,919||6,783,760||16.5%|
|18. Los Angeles||Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana||2,048,046||12,365,627||16.6%|
|19. San Diego||San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos||443,360||2,813,833||15.8%|
|20. Houston||Houston-Sugar land-Baytown||749,277||4,715,407||15.9%|
There are two numbers that I think worth looking at:
- The percentage of population that’s young is interesting because the more young people the more young I think a place feels. It seems likeÂ we do have fewer young people as a percentage of the population than a lot of the cities thatÂ Next Generation thinks is attrative to young people, thoughÂ we’re notÂ very, very far off. The difference between 13 percent and 15 percent is still a pretty big. An area with a youth content of 13 percent like us has 15.4 percent fewer young people, proportionally, than an area with a youth content of 15 percent like Orlando.
- The total number of young people is interesting because it seems logical to think there’s a critical threshold at some point. A town of 1,000 with 20 percent youth content would still have only 200 young people who are probably all bored out of their mind. But is 13,000 enough? Will having 15,000 allow us to stop worrying about youth flight?
So, that’s the background of the young leaders story. I started with the youngÂ leaders that I knew of and called various people I thought are pretty well connected in town. Surprisingly, the few names that I got were already on my list and it turns out that my listÂ was much longer. It’s interesting that people talk so much about the importance ofÂ young and engaged people in the area, but nobody seems to pay attention to the ones that are engaged.
I turned to Google, looking at theÂ boards of various nonprofit groups and service clubs, calling churches that have younger congregations and askingÂ the young leaders I was already interviewing. That’s when I got more names that I hadn’t heard. Unfortunately, some of them came in too late to be included in the story. A service club president called back the day before the story ranÂ by whichÂ time weÂ already had 30 faces to fit on the graphics. A young pastor called back the day after the story ran because she’d been out of town when I called. It would’ve been greatÂ to have included people like them. I’m certain I could’ve gotten 50 or more faces had I the time and the space. And who knows how many other people are engaged but don’t have titles behind their names?