The Next Generation

Rust Belt? No way. Boring? Get real. Depressed economy? Think entrepreneurial opportunities. For Ben Sio of the organization 40 Below in Syracuse, and Mike Fuller of Pipeline 4 Progress (P4P) based in Corning, none of the tired, clichéd laments about Upstate New York make any sense. They love the area, see it brimming with opportunities, and head up organizations that are passing their enthusiasm on to young professionals.

This past August, a New York Times online article by Roberta Gratz featured an imaginative housing rehab initiative taking place in Syracuse. The project is designed to attract young professionals to the city. The story of one entrepreneur, Rick Destito, was highlighted as a model for how such efforts are drawing a much needed type of city dweller – talented, skilled and motivated – back to the area.

Midway through the article, Gratz wrote that “recently, in numbers not yet statistically measurable but clearly evident at the ground level, they’ve (young adults) been coming back … first as a trickle, and now by the hundreds. In some ways it’s a part of the natural ebb and flow of urban demographics. But it is also the result of a new attitude among the city’s leadership …”

To Ben and Mike, this statement affirms the efforts of 40 Below and P4P. They spend much of their professional and personal time promoting the virtues of living, working and playing in the Finger Lakes Region. Their enthusiastic message resonates with adults of all ages but it’s particularly targeted to talented people below the age of 40.

Whether the metropolis is Portland, Oregon, or Poughkeepsie, New York, community leaders everywhere are keenly interested in attracting people between the ages of 22 and 40 to settle in their respective vicinity. Across the country, mostly in urban settings, groups like 40 Below and Pipeline 4Progress have taken hold in support of the effort.

Origins of a Movement
For the past two decades, a growing number of people have watched the “talent drain” in the Finger Lakes region with alarm. It’s understandable. Without a resident workforce that is educated, skilled, and reasonably youthful, attracting new business ventures to the area is more than challenging, it’s almost impossible. And the consequences of a stagnant economy could be seen everywhere – from loss of population to deteriorating downtowns. But there were also optimistic voices emerging during this same time period that suggested it was too early to sound the death knell for locales such as Syracuse and others in the Finger Lakes Region.

Urban experts like Richard Florida, acclaimed author of Rise of the Creative Class, suggested it was time for those in Upstate New York to get serious about attracting smart, creative people as a strategy for economic revitalization. According to Florida, “This ‘creative class’ is found in a variety of fields, from engineering to theater, biotech to education, architecture to small business. Their choices have already had a huge economic impact. In the future, they will determine … what companies will prosper or go bankrupt, and even which cities will thrive or wither.”

Florida’s ideas of what revitalization can look like were fresh and exciting. His work captured the imagination of area leaders struggling to find new directions for their communities. In Syracuse, dozens of individuals and organizations decided to collaborate on convening a summit to explore the issues raised by Florida and other researchers.

On the afternoon of November 12, 2004, more than 630 young professionals, artists, entrepreneurs and citizens came together with political leaders for what became the largest young professionals summit in the nation’s history. They were joined by a host of leaders from all over interested in listening to what this segment of the population had to say about improving the quality of life in the region. The 2004 summit produced more than 5,000 individual ideas and the group, 40 Below.

In attendance at this landmark summit was the CEO of Three Rivers Development Corporation in Corning, Jack Benjamin. He was intrigued by the outcomes of the summit and got in touch with Mike Fuller, at that time president of Twin Tiers Young Professionals, a social networking group in the Corning-Elmira area. Mike was excited about the idea of holding a summit in the Southern Tier, similar to the one in Syracuse.

In January of 2006, 350 participants attended just such a meeting. Once again, in addition to producing a cornucopia of ideas for improving the quality of life in the region, a group known as the Pipeline 4 Progress was initiated.

And Now
Since their inception, 40 Below and P4P have been concerned with being the “voice” for the under 40 population of the region. As far as outreach activities, early on there was an emphasis on trying to “bring back” young people who had left, and hold on to young people already here. Both organizations soon realized this approach was long on labor and short on visible results. Today, rather than spending a great deal of time trying to persuade individuals to stay or return by handing out brochures in airports, the focus has shifted to working with other community and government organizations. They work on policy, housing initiatives and economic development projects that foster the kind of entrepreneurial, social and cultural environment attractive to young professionals.

There is no one answer or sure formula for why young people seem drawn to one community over another, though they do find certain aspects of the Finger Lakes appealing. They like being close to their families; experiencing the four seasons; enjoying the beautiful natural surroundings and the developed recreation areas; the opportunity to attend the area’s good schools, colleges and universities; and taking advantage of the quality health care facilities here.

An Unlikely Ally
In a turn of events unforeseen in 2004 and 2006, the economic recession that started in 2008 has proven to be a boon in the drive to attract young adults to the region. Professionals who had moved to large cities for the social possibilities and high-paying jobs in the banking, real estate and financial fields found themselves laid-off, in debt, and living in expensive housing markets. For many, it was time to return home and take stock. What they found in the Finger Lakes was a lifestyle they could afford that offered many of the amenities they enjoyed.

But the success of establishing this part of New York as a magnet for talented young adults can’t rest on high national unemployment and a slow economy. In fact, according to David Brown, associate director of the Cornell Population Program and co-director of the Cornell Community and Rural Development Institute, becoming a Mecca for “young creatives” is not as easy as it may sound.

Brown suggests there’s a complex interplay of factors that have to do with an individual’s perceptions and expectations of a community that influence the decision to settle in a particular locale. Family connections, jobs, diverse economic activity, developed physical and social infrastructure and a high level of civic engagement all play a part in the charm a community holds for a young adult.

Failure is Impossible
Yet with all the challenges inherent in revitalizing a neighborhood, much less a region, members of 40 Below and P4P are optimistic, and with good reason. As Rick Destito noted, “People are beginning to appreciate what’s happening and new people are coming in.” The determined attitude that seems to fuel the optimism is expressed in the words found on the 40 Below website. “We are committed. We are passionate. We will prevail … Together, we will leave this region better than we found it … We will address our region’s shortcomings and infuse our vision into the public debate. We will put our time, energy and resources into our dreams. We will shape the reality of our own future, starting today.”

In March 2011, a conference bringing together young adults, business leaders and politicians from across the region will be held in Ithaca. For more information on We Live NY and other happenings, check out these websites:

Pipeline 4 Progress

40 Below

More about economic initiatives and research focused on attracting young talent to the region can be found at:
New York State U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration (EDA) University Center sponsored through Cornell University’s Community & Regional Development Institute;

by Jan Bridgeford-Smith

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