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Ohio's smaller communities innovate to retain and attract talent

Miami University Design Projects
Miami University Design Projects
A bohemian crowd gathers round a candle-lit stage for a multi-sensory performance by musicians and painters. Just another Friday night at a hot-spot in Lakewood, the Short North or Mount Adams?

Try Mansfield.  And this "nightclub" is an eclectic faith-based group that is unexpectedly helping attract and retain young talent in north central Ohio.

According to Census data processed through Economic Modeling Specialists Inc., between 2002-2012 Ohio lost nearly 28,000 persons age 20-34. Only 18 mostly suburban counties realized any gains. The biggest losers were smaller/rural counties, while the "winners" are often their larger Ohio neighbors as well as popular outmigration states such as Texas and North Carolina.

A 2009 Michigan State University study cited the difficulty of rural regions overcoming the perceptions of "few job prospects and economic advancement, little cultural activity, and generally a low quality of life." Consequently, they struggle to hold onto the young, educated workers critical to the development of local economies -- especially knowledge economies.

Despite these grim prospects and resource deficits, many of Ohio's smaller areas are finding unique strategies for talent retention and attraction.

Richland County has lost seven percent of young adults in the past decade, with some adjoining counties suffering double-digit percentage losses.  Area communities have launched admirable efforts to retain talent, but one of the more innovative strategies was neither launched by community leaders nor even intended for retention.

In 2010, several college-age individuals convened an effort, dubbed Awakening, to unite young adults from various area churches in a faith-based community. While individual churches in large metro areas often sponsor young adult ministries, Mansfield-area churches generally lack the individual young adult populations to sustain effective communities, described by one pastor as the "black hole" after high school youth group.

"The first meeting was basically 20 people who had never met," said David Yoder, a 24-year-old contract web/graphic designer and Awakening marketing lead. "We went from the experience of not knowing anyone to now knowing everyone two years later."

Now the group has formed into a nonprofit and holds multiple gatherings during the week, including bi-monthly worship nights at various church locations with an average attendance of 80. The often three-hour events feature social time, edgy music, painting and open testimonies.

At least ten Awakening leaders claim the group has driven their decision to remain or even move back to the region. Many pour their professional talents into the group, including web design, video production, graphic arts, communications, business, marketing and music education.

"This is an organization that empowers people to pursue both their faith and (professional) passion at the same time," said Yoder. "We become brothers and sisters in faith, best friends and collaborators on projects."

While Awakening has found a niche in helping meet the social/cultural needs of young adults, other smaller Ohio communities are creating and promoting recreational assets to drive young adult interest.

From 2000-2007, Springfield lost 46 percent of its manufacturing jobs, a higher percentage than any other metro area in Ohio. City and Clark County leaders subsequently re-launched a regional planning effort with a major focus on parks and green space. Despite the recession, community efforts have resulted in a new $3 million downtown park and an "eco-tourism" corridor featuring urban whitewater rafting and bouldering.

The free rafting park was the brainchild of two young adult brothers who had moved back from Colorado. The whitewater enthusiasts realized the potential for converting outdated low-head dams on the Buck Creek into a recreational asset, and spearheaded fundraising through a local nonprofit to construct multiple rafting sites along the creek.

"This is an incredible asset pulling people from multiple regions to play in Springfield on the weekends," said Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce President Michael McDorman. He added the community, with the help of a recently passed $1.25 million parks levy, will continue developing a six-mile stretch of the creek for kayaking, biking and other activities.

"We want to see businesses spring up out of this. We're moving on the curve of attracting a younger demographic," he said. And Census data on county migration patterns show the community may be seeing progress. While Franklin County is normally a young adult magnet, Clark County actually realized a net gain of 185 young adults from Franklin between 2006-2010.

Social fulfillment and regional assets mean little without the prospect of economic advancement.  Yet smaller communities do offer abundant opportunity -- often driven by a retiring workforce -- if they can find the talent to fill these positions. This is especially true for technical positions.

Miami University
has partnered with 10 community colleges around Ohio -- almost all in smaller areas -- to deliver degree completion in electro-mechanical engineering technology over live videoconference. The program now enrolls about 100 at the community college sites, of which an estimated 40 percent are "traditional-age" young adult students for the evening program. It is the only accredited distance program of its type in the country.

"Students can get a Miami degree while staying at their home school," said Gregg Gibbs, who coordinates the distance program. He added the unique transfer agreements allow students to apply up to three years of community-college coursework toward the degree, and that even the Miami tuition is reasonable because the program is housed at a Miami regional campus with reduced rates.

He said the distance enrollment has grown so large that seniors presented design projects to an industry judging committee both in person at Miami's campus and over videoconference from Mansfield's North Central State College. Miami distance students can even gain co-op experience with regional employers -- a key tool often leading to permanent employment.

Dakota Mcconahay, 19, takes Miami courses at the Zane State College campus in Zanesville after finishing his day job as an intern in the college's Information Technology Department. He graduated from Zane with a joint associate degree and high school diploma through an intensive dual credit program, after which he directly enrolled in the Miami distance program to stay local. By the time he graduates next year, he said he will have only spent $12,000 for tuition for all his higher education.

"You can't get a four-year degree around here in that kind of field without a program like this," said Mcconahay.

Despite early signs of success, all parties noted that talent retention/attraction in smaller areas is an uphill battle requiring significant planning, resources and patience. "One of the big things is to change the perception of the way outsiders think, and the way we think of ourselves," said McDorman. "This vision plan helps us tell our story, and now people come here and say 'Wow'."

Yoder admitted that he might find more opportunity for professional advancement in a large metro area, but noted his sense of community is "something that High Street can't replace ... Awakening is very much a 21st century model. It reminds people of what really matters, returns value immediately and economic realities fall to the wayside."

Tom Prendergast is a Mansfield-based freelance journalist. He has significant experience in public policy, higher education and economic development issues.
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