Can your downtown make a difference in bringing youth home?

Main Street illustration by Mars Manderico
Illustration by Mars Manderico

I didn’t think about how a vibrant downtown could make a big difference to our current students. I know that involving youth in community activities like building benches, having their ideas used for events, hearing what they want, and helping them try their idea out makes a difference.

Rik Adamski, the President of ASH+LIME shared this story about what it takes to bring our youth back to our small towns.

I was working in a community of under 50,000 people. While this is larger than most of your target clients, it’s small enough to suffer from many of those “brain drain” issues.

What is the problem?

Downtown was pleasant to visit, but it was almost completely dead by 5 PM, even on Saturdays.

We held a meeting with their eight top High School Senior honors students. All eight were slated to go to 3 different Texas Universities. Seven were planning to never move back. One was reluctantly planning to return, largely because she wanted to have children and would need family support.

On a hunch, I asked, “How many of you would be more likely to move back here if Downtown were hopping?” To my astonishment, eight hands shot up. I started asking questions.

They wanted to move back but …

It turned out that they valued the ties they had to their family and the community…but they felt that the lack of a more vibrant downtown greatly limited their social and recreational options. That made sense to me. What young person wants to spend several years in an exciting place with other young people, then return to a town with little to do?

One student told me something even more unexpected. He said that a more lively downtown would attract a wider variety of visitors, which would in turn make it possible to maintain professional networks and connect to the world at large. An interesting insight that I wasn’t expecting from a high school student!

The big takeaway

Even as people switch to more remote work and can move anywhere they want; they often still value random connections. And they can get it in a smaller community if it has many visitors.

I’ve asked that question many times since then, in towns that were losing their young people. I’ve gotten similar answers each time. And it’s often helped us make a case for downtown revitalization, even to people who otherwise didn’t value it.