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I don't know of any public policies that are about attraction and retention.

Brain Drain 3: government's role in attracting youth

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Governments in upstate New York are painfully aware they continue to lose population relative to other states. But is there anything they can do about it? What role does the government play in trying to attract and retain educated young people to the region? As Daniel Robison reports in part three of the Innovation Trail's series on brain drain, the answer isn't simple.

Support for the Innovation Trail comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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Justin Thompson is going to college next year. The Hutchinson Technical High School senior knows he wants to study medicine and become a doctor. He's going to a local university but that doesn't necessarily mean he"ll stick around when it comes time for his first job.

"It's wherever the profession takes me. If it takes me all the way across the United States to California then that's where I'm going to go. If it keeps me here, then I'm going to stay here," Thompson said.

Thompson's feelings are not unique, says William Kresse, principal of City Honors, ranked as one of the best public high schools in the country. While Kresse is a Buffalo booster, he knows his students will likely find more job opportunities elsewhere.

"I say to parents, 'Let [students] go now.' There is a chance they may settle down somewhere else. If they do those sorts of things in their younger years. It leaves an opening that they may come back to Buffalo and settle down here," Kresse says.

Upstate doesn't have a problem with losing educated people, just attracting more people here. That's according to a 2007 study from the New York Fed authored by Richard Deitz. He says when politicians promise to use the power of their offices to retain the educated and attract more here, the resulting policies are often a frustratingly small piece of the equation.

"They're not likely to result in Buffalo growing at a more rapid rate than it is now. That's not say you shouldn't pursue policies that promote economic growth," Deitz says.

What would an effective retention and attraction-based public policy look like? For starters, it can lower taxes making investment more alluring, which could bring some jobs and people—or invest in public transportation, which appeals to young people, or create entertainment districts with good bar scenes. But adopting these policies as a group would require a tax base most of upstate just doesn't have.

"The reasons people don't stay are often the reasons people don't come," Szurpicki says.

Sarah Szurpicki knows this because she studies the topic on behalf of her non-profit the Great Lakes Urban Exchange. Suzurpicki travels to Rust Belt cities and asks young people what would keep them there. The answers are predictable: good paying jobs, safety, green space, decent weather, a hip scene. Along the way, Szurpicki hasn't seen government figuring out how to be an effective force in bringing these qualities to life.

"I don't know of any public policies that are about attraction and retention," Szurpicki says.

And that rings true for Buffalo businessman Newell Nussbaumer. Twenty-five years ago he was looking for something to do after college.

"I was looking at Boston, New York, I was looking at a variety of other places," Nussbaumer says.

Priced out of those places, Nussbaumer started a small business that's been a catalyst for what's now one of the most successful and busiest streets in Buffalo. He founded multiple festivals and runs a popular blog that shows Buffalo's bright side. Now Nussbaumer's known as the poster child for Buffalonians who invested their talents locally instead of in more expensive and trendy places.

"There are a lot of the younger generation of Buffalonians that have seen the light," Nussbaumer says.

But Nussbaumer acknowledges most footloose young people aren't like him—the type that will take the risk to start business in a down and out place.

"It always comes down to, "Can I get a job?" And will I be happy in my job? And will it be a job that I can utilize my education? And will I get paid enough to be happy?" Nussbaumer says.

And the answer to those questions in upstate New York, Nussbaumer admits, is still mostly no.

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