“If we could only be more like Seattle . . .”

How often have you heard that comment from city leaders, Chamber of commerce spokesmen and other economic development officials? They conjure up images of highly paid millennials living in expensive downtown condos and freely spending their disposable income at all sorts of retail establishments.

The problem is always the same: How do we attract these millennials here? The proponents of this have a list. First, let’s build expensive downtown housing and retail spaces, at taxpayer expense of course. Second, let’s advertise a millennial-attractive lifestyle, meaning hiding or eliminating our Midwestern family values that might offend the target audience. Third, let’s brag about all the great creative-class jobs we have to offer.

Oops. It seems Indiana doesn’t have an extensive listing of these jobs. So off we go to recruit the requisite employers to our cities and towns. Except they always ask if we have an adequately qualified workforce they can access. Which sends us right back to “Go” without collecting the $200.

Much of the blame can be laid at the doorstep of political scientist Richard Florida whose “The Rise of the Creative Class” started a stampede to achieve urban nirvana by remaking cities in his idealized image. It’s now 17 years later and Florida is offering a mea culpa for failing to take into account that for the city center to function even high-salaried creative class jobs need to be supported by a host of blue-collar, manual-labor and, yes, low-paying jobs. Not that he’s backing down on his main thesis, in spite of a formidable array of nay-sayers attacking him from both the right and the left.

For those of us here in flyover country, the problem is much more basic than filling our central cities with twenty-somethings. Go back to the second item on the game plan above. To be successful at remaking ourselves as Seattle, we have to fundamentally alter what we are. Traditional family values, strong religious identification and socially conservative life choices are all assumed to be anathema to the millennials. Yet several million Hoosiers apparently like this culture enough to move and/or stay here.

I recall a marketing exercise in graduate business school that was designed to teach us that changing a product mix in response to concerns from non-customers may have the net effect of removing what current customers like. The business brings in a few new customers but risks losing many old ones. Does the old saw about a baby and the bathwater come to mind?

This is the concern being debated in Indiana’s DeKalb County, one of the most heavily industrialized counties in the nation, with 41 percent of county jobs in the manufacturing category. This is certainly a strength since manufacturing has the highest average wage by broad employment sector. The danger is that manufacturing is quite susceptible to the economic cycle. In other words, while DeKalb has an effectively negative unemployment rate right now, it runs the risk of that rate rising well above the national average in the event of recession.

A healthy debate is occurring in DeKalb about this: Some believe that the solution is to increase the educational level of the population, especially in skilled trades, so as to maintain a pipeline of prospective employees for its many industrial firms. Others argue for economic diversification such as tourism promotion and high-tech business attraction to reduce recession risk. And there are a few who think societal and cultural changes are needed to attract more young people, somewhat along the lines of Richard Florida’s hypothesis.

These discussions are intensifying right now with several initiatives underway, including a comprehensive one sponsored by the Community Foundation of DeKalb County. It appears to be an honest, open process, at least to an outsider like me who has attended a number of community meetings as an observer. It’s as close to a grassroots movement that I have seen in a long time. I don’t know if it will be successful, but the effort is impressive.

And how are things working out in Seattle? It’s getting a lot of bad press these days about homelessness, drug addiction and crime rates well in excess of other large cities. Amazon announced it would not build its new headquarters in Seattle, and Boeing has moved out.

Maybe we really don’t want to be like Seattle after all.

Mark Franke, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review, is formerly an associate vice chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

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