Thursday, March 12, 2009

Brain Drain

Remember the Montreal Expos? Before moving to Washington, D.C. to become the Washington Nationals, the Expos had one of the best farm teams in baseball, grooming numerous players who would go on to become all-stars. The only problem was, once their prospects blossomed into all-stars, the Expos couldn't afford to keep them. Sometimes I worry that St. Louis is like a farm team that exports its brightest young people to other cities.

While shopping in a downtown store before Christmas, I overheard a group of women (in their early 60s, approximately my parents’ age) discussing their kids and their plans for the holidays. One woman’s son was in Chicago, her daughter in Portland. Another had kids in Dallas and Atlanta. New York, Boston and San Francisco were also mentioned as the topic of conversation revolved around how difficult it is to get everyone together around the holidays.
I didn’t hear any of the women mention having kids still living in St. Louis; it sounded like they had all decided to leave. While this was certainly not a scientific poll by any stretch of the imagination, it worried me a little to think of all these young people who could be living here and contributing their talents and skills to their hometown but aren’t.

What made them want to leave? Certainly simple wanderlust could have been a factor, but it’s clear that St. Louis is lacking something that other popular cities have – a thriving downtown - which young people find particularly appealing.

People who make the decisions as to the locations of their offices need to know that by choosing downtown, they're helping make St. Louis a more energetic, more fun place to live. A place where their children will want to live after they finish college.


RFJ8506 said...

This is not a problem that is exclusive to Saint Louis. The same type of problem is occurring in many other "second tier" and "third tier" cities. Some of these cities, including Milwaukee, Indianapolis, New Orleans, and Cincinnati, have all spent lots of money hiring consultants to explain to them why youth (and that's a relative term) are leaving, how to attract new youth (originally from outside the particular city), and how to retain the current youth.

A thriving downtown area would contribute to the attraction/retention of this "millenial" generation, as would any other condensed living (high-population density) neighborhood.

However, one of the biggest issues in StL and other similar cities is the notion (and to a great deal, the actuality) that it is not what you know, but who know and who you grew up with etc. Deny it or accept it, StL is a Midwestern form of a good ol' boys network of professionals. While some "outsiders" are able to break in to the network, the vast majority of individuals are left on the outside looking in.

The cities you named in the original posting (Chicago, Dallas, San Fran, Atlanta) are cities that more easily allow a non-local born individual access to entry in the culture (because so many other people are from outside the particular city) without having to be from the city.

Believe me, I know this firsthand. I grew up in Stl, went to school in a different second/third tier city, and now live in one of the five largest cities in the US. The appeal to these cities is the ability to actually become part of the city, and make yourself a part of something bigger.

Anonymous said...

A big problem is opportunity. I moved on because the graduate programs which interested me the most were not located in St. Louis and once I graduated, I found a job in the same areas where the school was located. While I am interested in moving back if an opportunity exists, there simply are not as many options for me in St. Louis as there are in many other places, such as Chicago, New York, or even small cities like Atlanta and Minneapolis.

Anonymous said...

I spent my 20s in StL, but moved away to spend my 30s some place more vibrant. I would like to return - I love the built environment and long history - but I feel like it may never bounce back in my lifetime.

Anonymous said...

I moved back to the area from Florida for several reasons: 1)Family 2)The sense of place and community and civic pride that St. Louis still has 3)Way cheaper housing prices and 4)Real neighborhoods and good urban form here in the City. All of this is to say that St. Louis has a lot to offer. The economy is not in good shape, but our community has excellent "bones." We need economic development to put more flesh on the bones.

Matt Kastner said...

A hit-or-miss Downtown is in some ways a symptom of the real cause for the exodus: jobs. I can't tell you how many people I know who moved away, solely for this issue. I just had a friend move to Maine (yes Maine), because that was the only place he could find the job the wanted here. We need to bring back the jobs to bring back the people. That environment will help create better Downtown. Of course, that is a simplification of the matter.

Anonymous said...

As a relatively young resident who lived in St. Louis city, moved to Chicago city, and has now moved back to St. Louis city, I think the best thing St. Louis can do is improve it's urban core. I lived in STL city from 2000-2003 right out of college and had an opportunity to take a job in Chicago. It was a tough decision, but I decided Chicago was a much more vibrant place for a 20-something to live. I would say that is true. Lots of young people live in the city and suburban people support the city and take pride in it even though they don't live in it.

My wife and I moved back to St. Louis largely because our family lives here and because the city has seen remarkable improvement since we left. Young people want to live in thriving urban areas with coffee shops, bars, restaurants, nightlife, architecture, and public transportation. Sadly, when we were moving to Chicago, it seems the "hot" spots were not in the city, but more so in St. Charles, Chesterfield, etc... We could see signs that the city here was improving but knew it would not improve while we were young.

So for now, the best thing St. Louis can do is continue putting incentives in place to improve the urban core and support re-use of existing buildings. The city needs to value public transportation and redevelop much of the auto-centric development that has occurred. So long as this continues, young highly-educated people will move into the urban core which will make the city much more appealing to corporations that supply the jobs.