Posted Nov 5, 2017 at 12:01

Galesburg has an opportunity to prosper, but it’s going to need to keep more of its talent local. Or draw it from elsewhere.

The Register-Mail’s eight-day series, Flourishing Elsewhere, put numbers behind the concept that rural communities lose their brightest graduates to metro areas. The newspaper’s survey of the top 5 percent of graduates of Galesburg High School (from 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010) showed that 86 percent left Galesburg with no plans to return.

The loss of youth, especially high academic achievers, has challenged small cities such as Galesburg for generations. It was less noticeable in recent decades, though, when factories provided good-paying jobs with benefits. But many of those jobs ended or left the area. The county has lost nearly 80 percent of its manufacturing jobs since 1994. With those jobs went plenty of payroll that circulated through our city.

The economy shifted and companies moved manufacturing outside the United States to take advantage of cheap labor, all the while using technology to replace more and more of those jobs. That shift was hard on this city. But that’s old news.

The Flourishing Elsewhere series identified some of the reasons top graduates left town. Some wanted better schools for themselves or for their children. Others wanted amenities, from restaurants to entertainment and cultural activities, and still others simply liked a more urban lifestyle. But the majority of top graduates interviewed moved away from Galesburg for jobs.

Technology could present a silver lining to small cities such as Galesburg. Cloud-based jobs (telecommuting) are a growing trend, allowing people to work for a company in Los Angeles, New York or Chicago and live anywhere. Why not Galesburg?

If people don’t have to live where they work, then suddenly the choice is based more on quality of life issues. And Galesburg can be competitive when it comes to quality of life.

The top graduates who left Galesburg moved to wealthier, more expensive, younger and more populated areas. But today there’s actually a movement of young people seeking a lifestyle with less stress, and, more importantly, less expense, which allows for fewer work hours and more time for family.

Zachary Mannheimer, who works with rural communities and small businesses in the Midwest, says big cities are expensive and stressful and young creative people are migrating to smaller cities and towns.

Mannheimer moved from New York City to Des Moines to create Des Moines Social Club, a nonprofit venue in a historic firehouse that provides a home for local artists and offers arts programming with a goal of community engagement.

Since then Mannheimer has worked to develop smaller towns and is now a community planner for McClure Engineering in Clive, Iowa.

He says it makes sense to develop quality of life in small cities and towns to attract talent rather than chase large employers with expensive incentives. It’s economic development based on quality of life.

Some towns are having success with offering incentives to people. Many Galesburg residents will know of Newton, Iowa, because it was the headquarters for Maytag, which closed its factories and left thousands of people unemployed in Newton and Galesburg.

One of the strategies implemented by Newton, population 15,000, was to focus on its housing stock, which was old and unappealing.

The city sold $3.65 million in bonds to start a program it used to acquire the 54 most dilapidated properties in Newton, demolish the houses and make the lots available to buyers, according to economic development director Craig Armstrong. To anyone who wants to build a home of at least $60,000 or more, the city will give you $10,000 cash, a membership at the YMCA, season tickets to the Iowa Speedway and a lawnmower.

The city also provided incentives for the builders of speculative homes, which includes reimbursing all construction loan interest charges for one year for up to $10,000.

The result? Since its housing program was implemented in 2014 through today, 60 new homes were built. Before that, no new homes were being built. Armstrong said about half of the homes were people coming from outside Newton.

Newton’s success story has many facets, but its housing program is becoming a model for other towns.

Mannheimer’s company is developing a concept to bring teachers to town by creating modern apartments and then underwriting rent by $200 per month and paying down student loans by $1,000 per year. The teachers would have to commit to three years in the public schools and some community service. Mannheimer says they’re expanding the concept to other professions, including artists.

Galesburg is not resting on its heels, exactly. We’re encouraged by programs to develop local talent and infuse young people into the community. The new Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities program will plug high school students into the business community to develop business ideas. Recently added is a high school program to to teach high tech manufacturing. And Knox College’s KnoxCorps, launched in 2012, puts Knox students and graduates with local non-profit organizations in Galesburg.

Galesburg has an active, walkable downtown with stores operated by a growing number of young entrepreneurs.

Finally, we’re hopeful Galesburg’s Heart & Soul project will yield an action plan to propel the city forward.

But what about Galesburg’s most talented graduates? Sure, they may go out and see the world and make their way, but why not offer them a quality of life to which they might return? They likely already have family here. The benefits of having extended family are not lost on young parents.

And if we build the best quality of life in the region and provide enough incentives, we’ll draw the young, talented people, vital to thriving communities, whether they graduated from Galesburg High School or not.

We have much to build on in Galesburg, but much more work to do to have our small city stand out among the crowd.