Expatriate attraction: Economic development for ugly towns
Michelle Madden / January 10, 2013
Redevelop your waterfront. Beautify Main Street. Leverage your mountains, lakes, trails, parklands, architecture, climate. Develop your local music/arts/culture/culinary scene, etc. etc. etc. Do these things and your community will transform into a hotspot that will attract and retain young talent, bohemians, hipsters, and all other breeds of desirable residents. This advice is sound but what if your community is, frankly, ugly? Ok, the question is facetious but this blog post has noble intentions: what can a place with few assets and fewer resources do to boost economic development? Such places may get lost in the new wave of asset-based economic development.
Luckily for these places, assets are not just amenities and infrastructure: they also include people. This article continues the line of thinking started in my previous article on youth out migration; these youth “grow up” to become trained, skilled, and experienced expatriates who are, in my opinion, an under-tapped resource that every community can harness…particularly the ‘ugly’ ones. Old industrial centres and areas with depressed economies have an especially large stock of expatriates that migrated away for better opportunities but who may still have an affinity for the home they left behind. Take Newfoundland for example, a province with such notoriously high outmigration that a running joke on ‘The Rock’ is that Fort McMurray is the island’s third largest city. Yes they left, but few will assert that they never want to come back.
Many people have a lifelong affinity for the place they grew up, or any place they’ve called home. It is often nostalgia but more importantly, many still have family living in the area and want to return to be near them. In my research on business owners in rural Nova Scotia, I asked the owners with urban living experience why they left the city to live and work in a small village. The most common answer they gave me was that their family and friends lived there. For all but one, their locational choice had nothing to do with a business opportunity. Some were middle-aged and needed to come home to take care of their aging parents, others were young and wanted to come back to the familial support network of home, and the rest simply valued family. Some young people want great neighbourhoods near their families, but others will be okay with okay neighbourhoods near their families.
The great advantage of expatriates is that they are more likely to be attracted, and they are more likely to be retained. I am currently working with Tara Vinodrai and Josh Lepawsky on an academic paper examining industrial clustering in peripheral regions (data originally used by Dr. Lepawsky for a Harris Centre report available here, The St. John’s ocean technology cluster, like other isolated clusters, has difficulty attracting talent to its highly specialized firms and institutions. Even if they do attract a worker, the next hurdle is keeping them for more than a year. One member of the business community was frank about his preference for expatriate recruits; he found that they tend to stay because they already know Newfoundland’s challenges and they are happy to find good work close to home. The latter point should not be underestimated.
Some cities and states in the U.S. are recognizing the latent potential of expatriates and are actively campaigning to bring them home. Dakota Roots is a program that matches job seekers with work opportunities in South Dakota. Anyone can use their sleek website but the program targets expatriates by way of locals with an online family and friend referral form. Southwest Virginia’s Return to Roots program, which appears to be inactive now, used similar tactics with marketing efforts targeted at the region’s high school alumni. They launched a postcard campaign to inform an estimated 15,000 out-migrants about Southwest Virginia’s new and growing industries. This approach packed a double punch, bringing skilled expatriates home and matching them with hard-to-fill vacancies.
Ugly and charming communities alike should consider adding expatriate attraction to their economic development toolboxes. Relatively few resources are required but the approach also has flexibility in this regard. Go for a simple word-of-mouth marketing campaign or launch a major undertaking with social media, postcards, reunion events, and whatever other tactics you can think of. To really drive action, involve your local employers and small business support centres. Most of these expatriates moved away to pursue good jobs and many will come back if they realize there are jobs and/or business opportunities to come home to. Similarly, if they start new businesses they may be the part of the solution for dying towns in desperate need of diversification.