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Brain Gain 

by TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & e heard from an old friend the other day. Nick Heil, former arts editor of The Inlander, sent his regards to the world -- from Mount Everest. He wasn't just climbing Everest; he was climbing it and blogging about it. As a contributing editor for Outside magazine, it was all in a day's work.





I'd been thinking about Nick a few weeks earlier as we were working on a story about a local effort to keep young people in Spokane. That same topic was a favorite of ours -- Nick and I called it the "brain drain." It's that frustrating local tradition of educating bright young people here, sending them off to college and then watching them help build the future of cities like Portland or Seattle where they would settle after landing a job.





As young people ourselves, we wanted to somehow break through the cycle and get young people to move here -- and stay. In the mid-1990s, that was a tall order.





We've written about this subject repeatedly over the years, but Nick wrote the seminal entry in the genre for our Aug. 30, 1995 issue. Entitled "Welcome to Loserville," Nick argued that Spokane was -- surprise! -- a great place to live.





"Spokane held the promise of both independence and opportunity," Nick wrote of his first days here after moving from Seattle, "a place where you could make things happen for yourself... I arrived with the same feeling that investors must get when they know they've picked a good stock."





He liked the city's potential, but he was hard on its reality, especially the lack of cultural options -- a must for keeping young people. Nick concluded that Winnervilles don't happen by accident -- they are designed for the people who live there. Rather than just building something, Spokane needs to build something better -- something that will attract people. (Ironically, the one downtown block of hip, local businesses Nick profiled as a sign of hope was bulldozed earlier this year.)





"Sometimes," Nick wrote, "I sit and throw pennies into Riverfront Park's big red wagon, wishing with varying degrees of desperation that 10,000 young people would march into downtown and erect a sign: 'We Have Come. Will You Build It?'"





But where do we get those 10,000 young people? Spokane has come a very long way since Nick's penny-pitching vigils. National stories on Spokane's livability, along with the rise of Gonzaga University and the resuscitation of downtown Spokane, with new restaurants and more entertainment options, have put us on the map. We are more poised than ever to greet newcomers, but there's still work to do in keeping dynamic young people.





As local kids graduate from high schools this month, and many make plans to leave for college, moms and dads are left to wonder if their kids will ever live in the Inland Northwest again.





Even Nick Heil left for New Mexico.





& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & hat's where Mark Mays and John Bury come in. These local attorneys are worried about the brain drain, too, and they have a plan. They call it BRIGHT (Bring Regional Improvement and Growth through Higher Education and Training), and it's kind of a twist on the Homestead Act that brought settlers out West in the first place. You build a city by giving people a stake in life to start out with -- in BRIGHT's case, tuition money for local high schoolers, funded by local benefactors. The catch? The student must agree to stay in Spokane for three years after graduation. Mays and Bury calculate that $12 million could fund 1,000 students per year.





I love this impulse, but I have to quibble with their methods. It seems to me we should be encouraging our young people to leave the area, see the world (or at least one unfamiliar corner of it) and then return home. And we all benefit when dynamic people from different parts of the country move here with new ideas, so why restrict it to only local kids? (Walt Worthy and Ron Wells, for example, are both expatriates of the South.) Also under the BRIGHT plan, there is no guarantee of a job at the end of college, making this seem too much like welfare.





As Bill Clinton used to say, his favorite welfare program was a job, so let's make this a post-graduation effort. Moms and dads have gotten used to paying for college; it's landing that first job that gives everybody heartburn. So how about this: Set up a strategic set of well-paid, year-long internships (in high-tech, creative-class professions that could turn into full-time jobs), funded in part by the companies and in part by that $12 million. Then add in some kind of housing stipend to make it comparatively attractive, and start posting signs on college campuses around graduation time. Give priority to local kids, but open the program to others, too -- all smart, artistic types are welcome. Also include a social dimension -- parties for members of the program, tours of venues and outdoor amenities, free tickets to shows. Let's help these young people plant some roots here, and maybe we'll have our own 21st century Homestead Act.





That's my two cents, but I'd just like to see continued discussion on Mays' and Bury's BRIGHT idea. This is just the kind of thinking we need as competition for people increases. Other cities are realizing that business -- and prosperity -- follows creative, entrepreneurial people, and they are making plans accordingly. The competition is on.





"It's building infrastructure," is how Bury characterizes the effort. "Just like you build a bridge -- these people are infrastructure."
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