I grew up in the kind of place people tend to leave. Almost from the time I was born back in the ’50s, the factories were closing, the population was stagnant and the kids who went away to college never came back. Much as I love my little upstate New York hometown, I couldn’t help but think that the best days were in the past.
The last few times I’ve been home, however, I’ve noticed more and more people coming back. And oddly enough, the ones who come back most often tend to be people who, like me, moved across the country to Los Angeles in search of wider opportunities. One couple bailed from the entertainment industry, moved back home and started a live theater downtown. Another couple left behind a small chain of high-end restaurants catering to the film industry -- and their parents, who retired in Southern California.
The boomerang effect is small but noticeable, and it’s helping Auburn, N.Y., at least a little, as it tries to pull out of a half century of stagnation. Countrywide, economically depressed regions are targeting the boomerang kids -- the locals who went away to college and may be interested in coming back if they can find the right job.
Perhaps the most aggressive boomerang campaign has been set up in Fresno, Calif., a city that’s growing fast in population but not in upward economic mobility. With a half-million people, Fresno is the fifth largest city in California and 36th largest in the nation (right behind Albuquerque, N.M., and Kansas City, Mo.). However, it’s stuck in the impoverished San Joaquin Valley -- 180 miles from San Francisco and 220 miles from L.A. It’s not only the center of an agricultural empire, but also the center of a low-end economy. Indeed, Fresno’s continued population growth is an eternal mystery to California demographers, given the general lack of upward opportunity.
That’s why Fresno’s leaders have been pushing the “Fresno boomerang” idea -- finding young professionals who have moved away but might want to come home. There’s even a website, fresnoboomerang.com, that tries to connect native Fresnans living elsewhere with high-end job opportunities back home.
Mike Dozier, director of the Office of Community and Economic Development at California State University, Fresno, says his region’s residents can be divided into three categories: pioneers, who moved there from somewhere else; legacies, who grew up and stayed; and boomerangers, who grew up, left and came back. Part of the problem, Dozier says, is that legacies often have what might be called a bad self-image -- they compare Fresno to the places they vacation (such as coastal California) and create a negative vibe for their kids who go away to college.
On the other hand, Dozier says, “Boomerangers have left, they know what it’s like outside of the valley, and they come back because they want to come back. And they tend to not be as negative about living in the valley as the legacies would have been.”
It can be tough sometimes to persuade those who have left to return. The Fresno Bee recently reported about a legacy Fresnan who’s working with the boomerang experts to try to get her 30-year-old son to move back from Chicago. The experts are working on finding him a job; she’s working on finding him a date. So far, no luck.
By contrast, Dozier points to a co-worker, Ismael Herrera from nearby Mendota, Calif., (population 9,700), who received degrees from the University of California, Irvine, and Harvard University, and then served in Sacramento, Calif., as a Polanco Fellow -- a program for emerging Latino public policy leaders -- before returning to Fresno.
Fresno is hardly the only city focusing on the boomerangers. Youngstown, Ohio -- as struggling a place as you’re likely to find anywhere -- has created the Greater Youngstown 2.0 website, aimed at what local leaders call the Greater Youngstown Diaspora Neighborhood. And every struggling city is on the hunt for its own Doug Burgum -- the Fargo, N.D., native who returned from Silicon Valley to start Great Plains Software, which he sold to Microsoft for $1 billion.
It’s not easy to bridge the divide between the have and have-not regions in America today. But maybe if a few more boomerang efforts succeed, the economic connections between the two will be stronger.