by Cara Gardner

Fiddling with her necklace and staring out the window, Jill Jarvis sits in a coffee shop on First Avenue, trying to explain why she'd never live in Spokane.

"My life is elsewhere," Jarvis says. "I guess diversity is a real issue; it takes work to find those community spaces for the progressive -- lively, artistic. I mean, Spokane has all that, but it's been hard to find."

Jarvis, who just returned from a year as a Fulbright Scholar studying gender and religion in Sri Lanka, has been back home in Spokane for three months and she already has her foot out the door. She plans to save enough money to move to New York City, leaving the Inland Northwest without looking back.

Jarvis is a lost cause for what the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce is calling the Homecoming Strategy, a series of initiatives designed to convince educated people, who have roots in the Inland Northwest but are living elsewhere, to come back to Spokane - and stay.

"We will be creating a database, working with the various universities and community colleges to capture people who have left the area," says Marty Dickinson, vice president of marketing with the Spokane Chamber of Commerce.

"There is an undercurrent that we are trying to reach," Dickinson says. The undercurrent: established professionals and entrepreneurs, movers and shakers who'd be willing to bring money and business back to the region.

Getting people to come - and to stay - in the Inland Northwest can be difficult. Graduates from colleges in this region are streaming into the work force every year, but just as often leaving because they can't find jobs here. The Homecoming Strategy seeks to reverse this brain drain, but it's going to be hard. The Department of Labor and Economics reported Spokane County's unemployment rate at 7.4 percent in January 2003, almost a three percent increase over the past five years.

"Despite poor economic times, the city and County are pushing forward and working on projects that can be good for the area [such as] the Fox convention, Mirabeau Point, the Downtown Revival," says Dickinson in response to unemployment rates.

Wanting to Come Home -- Homecoming trends, such as the Boonyack Comeback, a theory developed by Forbes magazine publisher Rich Karlgaard, show people returning to their roots. Karlgaard says people are migrating from bigger metropolises to mid-sized cities, because they are looking for affordable housing and good schools. It's possible, Karlgaard says, that smaller cities could soon economically out-perform larger ones.

So, if there are ex-Inland Northwesterners looking for short commute times, low real estate costs and smaller crowds, the Spokane Chamber plans to find them and help them journey home.

"Basically, we'll be focusing on marketing the area pretty aggressively," says Dickinson, adding that this includes promoting the area's strong suits, like access to great outdoors.

But can a marketing strategy really bring people back to a region they've left behind? Spokanite Joe Tombari thinks so. He says the Homecoming Strategy has legs to stand on. Tombari, a teacher at Gonzaga Preparatory School, was working in sunny California for Sun Microsystems. Tombari says it was the best company he's ever worked for - but he still moved home to Spokane.

"Due to cost of living - we had one child and one on the way - we were going to have to buy a house and drive a long ways, so we moved [back] up here," Tombari says. He then got a job with Key Tronic Corporation.

"I worked for Key Tronic for about five years and then got laid off. My job went to China or Mexico and I decided to become a teacher. I had to change my career in order to stay here," Tombari says, noting that he thinks others would be willing to do the same.

"Some of my classmates [from high school] would like to get back here but opportunities are limited," he says.

But to truly understand what's going to bring people back - and keep them here - the focus needs to be not only on what Spokane has to offer, but also on what the area is missing.

"If you're young and single," Tombari admits, "it's not such a great town. How do you meet people here in Spokane? It's a very difficult thing for a young person. We don't really have an exciting, fast-paced environment."

It's clear the toughest group to bring home will be the mid-twenties crowd. Some say this is a natural trend - the twenty-somethings leave for more urban, exciting landscapes, then return 10-20 years from now, with families. But socioeconomic trends show it's not just the thrill of fast-paced living that draws younger professionals to more urban environments; it's the diversity. Our cultural landscape is changing; more diversity means more opportunity.

Creative Class -- Jarvis may not be the ideal candidate for the Chamber's Homecoming Strategy, but she's a perfect example of what Carnegie Mellon University professor Richard Florida describes as the "Creative Class." In his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Florida describes a cross-generational group of motivated, educated high-achievers, who want more in life than to 'settle down' in an affordable house with nice parks. These people would rather struggle to pay rent in an exciting place than live luxuriously in a boring one. It's these people, Florida claims, who are often key innovators of economic development in any region.

Florida says that a city's economic success depends largely on how creative its workforce is. He shows that businesses thrive in places that can draw from large pools of diverse people with different skill sets.

The Creative Class theory has sparked nationwide interest and ignited a trend, with many economically struggling cities examining the creativity content of their populations. The Inlander attempted to do this in the cover story "Is Spokane Creative Enough?" last year, and found that the overwhelming consensus was 'no.'

Some question the true importance of a creative, diverse pool of people, but Grant Forsyth, professor of economics at Eastern Washington University, says it's important, especially in growing industries like biotechnology.

"These people are highly educated individuals," Forsyth says. "For lots of them, if they're younger, they're looking for an urban environment that's just not represented in Spokane."

His message is clear: If the Homecoming Strategy is going to encourage growth, it has to encourage the Creative Class. Dickinson says the Homecoming Strategy will target successful artists, activists and other alternative contributors who make a community a lively place.

"The ideal home-comer is someone who knows the value and quality of life our region has to offer," Dickinson says. "Someone wanting to establish roots with family and/or business and/or specialty - like a painter. Someone who wants to give back to the community."

Spokane Or Bust -- The Utne Reader rated Spokane the sixth most underrated city in America in 2001. It listed, "Classy neighborhoods, down-to-earth-pricing, Riverfront Park, green sanctuaries, incentives for historical preservation," and, of course, "the great outdoors," as reasons to live in Spokane. People who are from here can understand this.

Tombari believes the Northwest is filled with people who have chosen Spokane as opposed to bigger cities because of the lifestyle. While he admits there's no ethnic diversity, which greatly affects any city's creative pool -- Spokane County is 94 percent Caucasian -- he thinks this area already has plenty of creativity.

"I think this area is loaded with undervalued people," Tombari says, earnestly. "They are willing to stay here and do a little less of a job than what their abilities are -- you'll find a lot of people here like that. Money isn't the top item here. If you look deeper there are innovative things going on. There may not be jobs for everyone, but there's innovation. It's just not highlighted enough."

But others aren't as optimistic.

"Spokane is not a place I feel a desire to invest time and energy in," Jarvis explains. "The communities I know here are largely conservative. Those aren't communities I feel fulfilled living in."

Whether Spokane is creative enough to draw the real movers and shakers, and whether people will be willing to take a pay cut or start a new career to be home, is something we'll find out as the Chamber works to locate ex-locals.

"As this project takes on life we'll be looking for ways we can assist [home-comers] in whatever little niche they have; we'll want to help them in that area," Dickinson says.

The Homecoming Strategy, as it seeks to encourage ex-locals to rediscover their roots, may highlight all the underrated qualities of life in the Inland Northwest, but can it really jump-start a journey toward home? Often, homes are not the communities where we were born or lived in for many years; home is something we find along the way - a place, a community that represents the kind of people we are and the kind of life we lead.

"I hope that people would share the message," Dickinson says. "It doesn't have to be a canned message, but there are plenty of positives happening in our community. We need a lot of people - it needs to be bigger than the Chamber. It needs to be large."

For more information about how you can contribute to the Homecoming Strategy, call Marty Dickinson at the Chamber of Commerce at 624-1393.

Publication date: 03/27/03

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