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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

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What would be the difference between Flint 50 years from now and a gold rush era ghost town in Nevada?

You mentioned Muncie two or three times...you do realize it has one of Indiana's three big state universities?

Muncie may have the third largest state university, but that's about all it has. I know, I graduated from Ball State in 2004. the problem is, Ball State and Muncie don't have much to do with each other, and both seem to like it that way. rather than leveraging the presence of a big state institution, the city seems to resent having "all those damn kids" hanging around. the students resent having to spend any time in such an abandoned place as Muncie, generally preferring to go home or to Indy or Ft. Wayne for the weekends. BSU does not have the biomedical or engineering programs which attract the R&D dollars and professionals that IU and PU have. BSU has traditionally been a teacher's college, and while it has many other strong programs, notably telecommunications and architecture, they aren't the areas that easily attract spin-off industries.

i think at this point BSU is the only thing keeping the city alive at all, alive, but just barely. the Ball Corporation for which the university was named left the city more than a decade ago. the city recently announced that they could no longer afford the electric bill to keep the street lights on. just the latest slip down the long slippery slope of decline. all that said, it's unlikely the state will disinvest in BSU any time soon, so Muncie is likely to limp on for the foreseeable future. but the mere presence of that institution will not be enough to keep the rest of the town alive indefinitely, let alone jumpstart a functioning economy.

Nick is right, that Ball State is not the economic engine for Muncie that it should be. Along with the Ball Memorial Hospital, it's the town's biggest employer and sits at the heart of the city. But I found it a strange place, isolated from the city, regarded with outright hostility by much of the town. Some people at Ball State are trying to break down these walls, but it's an uphill battle. As Nick points out, Muncie needs all the help it can get. Ball State should make it its mission to reach out to the city and work together to reinvent its economy.

The fact is that Ball State is all too typical of Midwestern colleges and universities. Too many Midwestern cities surround first-class colleges and universities that have virtually nothing to do with the towns around them. As these towns crumble, the schools hold themselves aloof, almost a caricature of the ivory tower. This is more true of private schools: unlike Ball State, most state universities make more of an effort to be involved in their communities.

It's difficult to imagine these smaller industrial cities disappearing any time soon. I can see them shrinking but eventually reaching some sort of population equilibrium. I recall looking at some information on Butte, Montana and how large it was. Butte was single-industry town built around mining. Yet it still survives, albeit at considerably smaller population. Perhaps a similar story for places like Srcanton and Wilkes-Barre PA. Perhaps once a place reaches a certain population threshold there is a certain inertia and drag mitigating demographic collapse and catastrophic "gold rush ghost town" depopulation is delayed by decades.

“Brain drain” is a term that has been popularized by the talking heads of the region to explain the loss of talent we’ve seen in Ohio. The approach is simple, since Ohio is lagging behind in terms of the high tech, “thinking” types of jobs; individuals leave the region to find these opportunities. While this seems like a logical conclusion, I think there is a more straightforward and painful reality, a reality that cuts to the very core of our human condition. Perhaps our problem is not so much brain drain, but “valued drain”.

People have a fundamental need to feel appreciated and valued for their contributions. Whether it’s in a family, a business, a school or a community. People want to know their thoughts count and matter, that their ideas are not dismissed at trivial or fool hearty. If someone does not feel like they matter, they can choose several alternatives; not getting involved, becoming apathetic, loosing interest and, eventually perhaps, leaving to find a place where they do feel valued.

What have we done to value people in Ohio? Specifically what have we done to engage the people between the ages of 18 and 50? I focus on this age range, as this is the core of Generation X and also Generation Y (and my age range, the upper end, wink). What steps have our leadership taken to really listen to what these people want? Do they even understand this generation? I am not sure they do.

Within the current conundrum of our regions struggle to redefine itself in this global era, there is, by and large, a propensity to remain at the status quo. A “this is the way it’s been done…” mentality…when someone does step up and say, “lets try this…” they are often looked upon as foolish and quickly dismissed as uninformed or too radical.

I hear elected officials such as county commissioners and town council members say, “get involved to make change”, sure, I’d buy that IF they would really allow the change to occur and not simply give it lip service. I know this personally as I HAVE gotten involved, I’ve TRIED to voice my opinion, give insight, even point people to data sources and regional resources. In return, I see…well, you likely know the answer to this.

What is causing this fear to change? Is it simply fear of the unknown? Is it fear of failure? The reality is that we have stigmatized failure on all fronts of our lives. If we do not have the perfect job, love life, social life, etc…we’ve obviously done something wrong. We run our schools, government and our businesses this way. Failure is evil…period. Sir Ken Robinson, a thinker in term of education and change said, "If you are not prepared to be wrong, you'll never produce anything original." We have forgotten this positive approach to being agents of change.

There are a lot of people who have great ideas within our own communities (and even our own homes). They desperately want to be heard and valued. Their voices are being ignored, obliterated in the windstorm of negativity, pessimism and fear. It’s time to hand over the mic and listen.

I see some light shining through the ruins of the Midwest. There is some freedom involved in living in a place that the rest of world no longer cares about. When you are given a grim prognosis by your doctor, you start to think big. You begin to do the things that you were once afraid to do. This doesn't mean you get another 50 years to live, but it means that you make the most of the time you've got, and I'm beginning to see this attitude here. I tell my friends from the Sun Belt that hard work is an export of the Midwest, it's in our DNA to roll up our sleeves, lace up our boots and get stuff done. I think for some of us who are still here, we have come to the acceptance stage of the grieving process and it's strangely liberating.

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