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Fresno's Brain Drain Has Left the Town Smarting

Young people with good educations are leaving the struggling southern San Joaquin Valley in a search for better prospects elsewhere.

November 20, 2005|Maria L. La Ganga | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — George Raney is a mix of pride and chagrin as he talks about his four grown children here in his cluttered office at the local university. Smart kids, one and all, they did everything a parent could ask: Earned good grades, graduated from college, found careers that make them happy.

They also broke their father's heart. The crime? Putting Fresno in the rearview mirror at the earliest possible moment and never looking back.

Carolyn, a 36-year-old teacher, lives close to the beach in San Clemente with her lawyer husband and two young sons. Louisa, a 34-year-old graphic artist, can't imagine being anywhere but La Jolla. Kevin, 31, is in the mortgage business in Huntington Beach. And Leanne? The 26-year-old actress is clawing her way to fame and fortune in Chicago, waiting tables to pay the rent.

But Raney, a linguistics professor at Cal State Fresno, has worries beyond his own parental predicament, for his children are not the only ones who've left the struggling southern San Joaquin Valley. The region suffers from a brain drain unlike any other in California. The loss of its best and brightest is felt from Fresno south to the Tehachapi Mountains.

When the area's most educated residents leave, "it takes away from the culture and intellectual life of the valley," said Raney, 67.

It also hamstrings the economy, strains the social fabric and puts a damper on the quality of life here in California's agricultural heartland.

Although the Fresno metropolitan area is growing as newcomers take advantage of comparatively low housing prices, the region lost one-sixth of its young, single college graduates between 1995 and 2000, according to a U.S. Census Bureau analysis released last year.

Nationally, the only places that lost more young graduates were either dying Rust Belt cities or college towns, whose job it is to export the educated. In comparison, the Greater Los Angeles area saw that same demographic grow by almost 10%, while it jumped nearly 20% in the San Francisco Bay Area.

But it's not just young people who are leaving. A 2004 report by the Public Policy Institute of California shows that the loss of educated residents in the southern San Joaquin Valley cuts across all ages. Of the adults leaving the five-county area for other parts of California, 24% had college degrees, according to the study, but only 15% of those entering the region from elsewhere in the state had the same education level. In addition, much of region's growth comes from immigration; many of those new residents have low education levels, which intensifies the brain drain's effect.

The situation here is not as dire as in places like Iowa or North Dakota, but there is increasing concern about the problems that an unskilled workforce only intensifies: low wages, unemployment, poverty and difficulty attracting new business.

So Fresno has been doing some serious civic soul-searching, and it doesn't like what it sees. Many local officials are starting to believe that the city's historic selling points have become its liabilities.

"If you're doing economic development in a place like Fresno, it's a tough call," said demographer Hans Johnson of the Public Policy Institute. Because the region has sold itself to businesses as a low-cost place to operate, "a brain drain is an almost natural consequence.... You have a population that's relatively less skilled. Wages are lower. Land costs are lower. Those are your competitive advantages."

The result of Fresno's recent introspection has been a plethora of efforts, both public and private, to reverse the brain drain by encouraging local innovation, spurring development in the city's poorer southern half, livening up the downtown and giving the area's erstwhile residents a reason to return home.

This city of nearly 458,000 is starting to show some signs of rejuvenation, although much of the evidence is still anecdotal. A 30-year-old artist and builder has returned to develop live-work space, studios and loft housing in the lackluster city center. A new networking group called Fresno's Leading Young Professionals attracted 400 members in nine months; many of them are what local officials refer to as "boomerangs": returnees giving Fresno a second chance.

Taking a page out of Richard Florida's book "The Rise of the Creative Class," Mayor Alan Autry has convened a Creative Economy Council to help find ways to attract so-called knowledge workers -- the kind of artistic, tech-savvy people every city wants to have -- to a place better known for crop reports than creativity.

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