Having lived in a lot of small places, I’ve seen a familiar blueprint. Communities across the country are littered with well-intentioned people adamant about “attracting investment” whatever the hell that means. This usually involves giving already rich people lots of tax breaks to trickle down jobs to plebes. The other thing these folks love to do, is build edifices that are supposed to be able to give people what they need to start a business. After all, the old model of businesses involved people having physical structures from which to make/sell/distribute their wares.
It’s almost 2017 and the landscape is different now. There are companies that do not have physical spaces, comprised of teams distributed around the globe proving themselves capable of developing and maintaining world-class products. Other firms inhabit spaces where a critical mass of talent converge to make cool things happen. I’ve lived in these spaces before and visited others. The thing that makes places like Boulder, Austin, Portland and Brooklyn cool has nothing to do with how many “tech parks” they have. It’s not even about the number of awesome bars, restaurants or shuffleboard bars that have cropped up. The difference is attitude.
People as they get older stay in places for a few reasons: perhaps they get a job, they partner with someone who doesn’t want to leave, they have family nearby and/or it’s a good place to raise kids. That’s about it. For people who have options, the choices are vast and the decisions are not much different than they were for people decades ago. You want to be someplace where cool things are happening. For this generation, many choose cities over the sameness of suburban life and that trend does not seem to abate.
So how do smaller cities — under 100k for this example — compete with bigger cities if they’re not a suburb of a larger one? Well, being unique helps. The other thing is giving young people the opportunity to compete at a level where a larger place not let them. You give them a seat at the table. The other thing you can do, is create a culture where standouts get utilized and a climate where contributors feel part of the puzzle. The hardest thing in any place — even when you have a partner — is making friends. People who have lots of family nearby never think about this, because their lives are preoccupied with the sorts of day-to-day things that having family around is comprised of. For people who make their family where they go, having a community where you can participate is vital and not in a superficial way.
When you have options, it gets harder to resist the siren sound of greater pastures. Even if the challenges are great, the annoyances more rampant, the opportunity to know you’re boxing in a higher weight class has value when you’re the sort of person who wants to know you’re actually challenging yourself, as opposed to settling for whatever you can get. At a certain point, it stops being worth it to remain moored to a port that’s too expensive to keep your boat and where you don’t feel like you’re truly welcome.