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Can government play a role in stemming brain drain?

Boasting an 84 percent graduation rate, Hutchinson Technical High School sends the majority of its students to college. But how many stick around afterwards?
Daniel Robison
Boasting an 84 percent graduation rate, Hutchinson Technical High School sends the majority of its students to college. But how many stick around afterwards?

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?

The answer is tough to pin down.

Justin Thompson: I’ll stay, if Buffalo will have me

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," he says. "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’s feelings are not unique, says William Kresse, principal of City Honors, perennially 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 actually 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.

Government intervention

What would an effective retention and attraction-based public policy look like? For starters, government could lower taxes, making investment more alluring, which could bring some jobs and people. You could legislate investment 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,” says Sarah Szurpicki, founder of the Great Lakes Urban Exchange, a non-profit that examines how Rust Belt cities can plot a course forward after decades of decline.

Suzurpicki travels to cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Fort Wayne and Buffalo and asks young people what would keep them there. The answers are predictable: good paying jobs, safety, green space, decent weather, or 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.

Newell Nussbaumer: Cheerleader for hometown (no policy needed)

Twenty-five years ago, Newell Nussbaumer was looking for something to do after college.

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

Priced out of those locations, 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’s also founded multiple festivals and runs a popular blog that shows Buffalo’s bright side.

Now Nussbaumer’s the poster child for Buffalonians who invested their talents locally, instead of in more expensive and trendy places.

“There [is a] 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. 

WBFO/Western New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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