Friday, January 29, 2010

Keep the kids in WNY

From the 01 February 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

(Editor’s note: This is the second part of a series, “4 Ways to Save WNY”)

The vibrancy and future of a region are directly determined by how many young adults have staked a claim on the area, choosing it as a home and a workplace that fits into their personal and professional plans. The metropolises that attract and keep the most people aged mid-20s to early-40s end up being the greatest economic engines in both the short term and the long term.

It’s obvious that Western New York is not among those places. We don’t have the jobs that would keep kids here nor do we have the economic system that would put them at ease regarding the future realization of their full potential. It’s because of that malaise that our youngest residents flee the region en masse: Whereas the US population grew by 8% from 2000 to 2008, the Niagara County population shrank by 2.4% and Erie County contracted by 4.3%.

They weren’t the only young folk who left us. Their peers from around the globe come to WNY for a world-class education. The region is a hotbed for high-quality academics, the far western counties being home to 25 colleges and universities with total enrollment in excess of 75,000. Despite the attractiveness of that intellectual environment there’s little to keep them here once their studies are done.

In order to change WNY for the better we must reverse those trends. We must make this a life-long home for those who were raised here and those who educated here. If we could keep them engaged and interested then we can assure the vitality of the region.

This can only be done in baby steps. There’s no magic cure, no silver bullet that will change this situation overnight. It will take a deliberate effort and little victories to begin a slow but consistent path to an ultimately younger community. By giving incentives to and utilizing the resources of the current crop of youth we can open the door for future generations.

First and foremost in this cause should be the emphasis of college communities as the epicenter for economic development. Some of the greatest minds in the world come to area colleges – especially the University at Buffalo – and it would be nice if they could have a chance to apply what they’ve learned locally (rather than Dallas or New Delhi) to make the next best consumer product or achievement in medical technology. The leaders in the public and private sectors of the locales that realize this benefit (California quickly comes to mind) do their best to give those youth the backing in resources and finances that they need. It would behoove WNY’s leadership to bring together businessmen of deep pockets who are willing to serve as the angel investors or venture capitalists for the graduates, giving them the start-up funds necessary for their enterprises. WNY really isn’t home to such individuals (Erie and Niagara Counties have only 663 millionaires) but some slick marketing to millionaires in Manhattan (who number 16,000) or similar wealth centers could easily find generous souls interested in the financial and social return on investing in fresh-faced geniuses.

At the same time we need the private sector to share more than just seed money, voluntary and involuntary. Every taxpayer – corporate or individual – “invests” thousands of dollars every year in elementary and high schools, community colleges, and SUNY campuses through their property and income taxes, yet very few taxpayers take what you would call a vested interest in the final product. We need everyone – especially businessmen and women - to share their intellect and experiences and dedicate themselves to the development of our youth (and therefore our region). If more companies opened their doors to internships or more business owners mentored students or spoke to classes on a regular basis we could make them better students (and better workers) and maybe permanent residents of WNY. Who knows, the attentive businessman might find that key employee and bright idea he’s always been looking for. This endeavor would best be achieved if Chambers of Commerce and other business groups joined forces with local colleges to create a clearinghouse or partnership that would team schools and professors with the industrialists and retailers who could help them reach their educational goals.

There are countless other tasks that could be undertaken – such low-cost, state-provided student loans that offer lower rates for those who stay in NY – but these are a start. Basically, the leadership of this region really needs to focus on connecting area students with employers and investors in hopes of tempering the migration of the young minds which should represent our greatest asset.

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