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Creating 'Cool' Cities a Hot Trend for States

The Nation

Michigan promotes revitalized Saugatuck in its efforts to stem the 'brain drain' of young people. Being hip is seen as an advantage.

September 19, 2004|Martha Irvine | Associated Press Writer

SAUGATUCK, Mich. — At 27, Kristin Gebben made a decision that cut against the flow: She packed up the life she'd started building in Seattle and moved back to her native Michigan.

The lure was Saugatuck, a quaint artists' haven near the shores of Lake Michigan, where she now takes early morning strolls with her yellow lab pup named Pete. It's one of a few cities that Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm is counting on to bring more young people to the state -- stopping up the brain drain that's a common worry throughout the country.

"I feel like people work all their lives to settle down in a place like this -- and I've done it now," says Gebben, who found work at an art gallery and recently bought it with the help of an East Coast business partner. "But I'm one of the lucky ones."

Between 1995 and 2000, Michigan lost an estimated 43,000 young college graduates, who left the state for everything from jobs to warmer year-round weather. It's a story mirrored in many other cities, from expensive New York to crowded Los Angeles, which both lost more 25- to 34-year-olds than they gained during those same years.

Now officials in some cities and states are looking to reverse the trend -- by marketing themselves as hip places to live and giving college graduates a reason to stay.

In Michigan, Granholm has launched the "Cool Cities" initiative, a grants program that she insists is more about economic development than just bringing "lattes and bookstores and nightclubs" to her state.

Saugatuck, where residents are renovating an old pie factory into a center for the arts, was among the first to receive one of the state's $100,000 grants. Already, the unfinished center houses the new Mason Street Warehouse theater, where 25-year-old Kelly Carey found a leading role in this summer's first musical.

"They not only created opportunities for us -- they're good opportunities," says Carey, who commutes to Saugatuck from Grand Rapids, another "Cool City" grant recipient. Gebben too says the arts center adds to Saugatuck's appeal -- making it a more "happening" place.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, is using a civic leadership and jobs program to try to persuade students who attend colleges and universities there to stay.

Attempting to build upon small but positive growth among 25- to 34-year-olds in the late '90s, Memphis has dubbed itself the "never-sleeping, funky, fast soul of the global economy," pushing everything from a citywide fiber optic network to its music scene.

And Cleveland, in partnership with Yale, Colgate and other universities, has a summer internship program in which students stay with host families who show them the finer points of Cleveland -- from a vibrant arts and political scene to a more reasonable cost of living.

"Most have never been to Cleveland in their lives. And most of what they heard was not particularly favorable," says Marianne Crosley, a Colgate alumna who is coordinator of the 10-week program known as "Summer on the Cuyahoga."

Although many of last summer's participants initially said their expectations for Cleveland were fairly low, after their summer in town 41% said they would "definitely" consider a job there.

Still, some experts who track population wonder if focusing on 20-somethings is the best tactic for plugging brain drain.

"They're like a revolving door. They move to one place -- and they move away," says Bill Frey, a demographer and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "So any city that thinks they can get a hold on this group is expecting too much."

In his research, he has found that cities with warmer climates and a relatively low cost of living were the biggest gainers of 25- to 34-year-olds from 1995 to 2000. They included Atlanta, Dallas, Phoenix and Denver.

Today, Frey says, many 20-somethings are attracted to "fun cities," such as San Diego and Austin, Texas.

That was the case for 24-year-old Callie Shockley, who moved to San Diego with four friends after graduating from the University of Georgia. She figures she'll end up in Atlanta, where she grew up -- but first, she wanted a little adventure.

"We knew our life paths would never lead us here unless we just planted ourselves here," says Shockley, who does marketing for a landscape architecture firm.

San Diego is hip without trying, she adds -- and a relatively easy place to find a job.

Carey, the Michigan actress, sees the flip side of that. Several of her teacher friends are having trouble getting work in Michigan.

And even if she wanted to live in Saugatuck -- already a magnet for wealthy retirees and families with second homes -- she says she couldn't afford it.

"It's definitely a beautiful place to live," Carey says. "It's also an expensive place to live."

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