March 6, 2008

Tompkins Lures Young Professionals to Settle

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While Ithaca may not at first glance seem like a bustling metropolis compared to the skylines of New York City or Los Angeles, for Upstate New York it is the pinnacle of excellence when it comes to the region’s dreaded “brain drain.”
As the young and educated throughout most of Upstate N.Y. jump ship looking for something different down south or out west, Tompkins County has actually gained many members of this demographic. In what has become known as Upstate N.Y.’s “brain drain,” many of the forward-thinking college graduates that are needed to get the region’s economy back on track are moving elsewhere.
So then what is so unique about Tompkins?
According to The New York Times, Tompkins County is the only one of 62 counties in the area to have increased its population of 25-to-34-year-olds from 1990 to 2004. But like other places in Upstate N.Y., residents still have to deal with large taxes, bad weather and few high-paying jobs. This leaves one aspect still to ponder — the area’s community life.
Mike Fuller, chairman of the Pipeline 4 Progress steering committee, said that Tompkins has something that other places in the region really don’t have — diversity. Pipeline 4 Progress is a think tank and public forum that tries to attract and retain “talented individuals to the Southern Tier of Upstate New York” according to its website.
“You have two great universities — Cornell and Ithaca College — as anchors that really attract people from around the world,” he said.
This kind of cultural diversity, he said, is what really makes a place great and draws people in. Cultural centers with plenty of entertainment, like art shows, restaurants and shopping, are the places that Americans are flocking to, Fuller explained.
With a wide variety of concert venues, theaters, trendy stores and ethnic eateries, Ithaca seems to fit right into this category.
“There’s so much to do in Ithaca,” said Chad Zimar, a local teacher and resident of Ithaca. “It’s a beautiful place to live and there’s always something going on.”
However, while Ithaca may offer plenty to do after work, for many fields the jobs are scarce. Long past the days of the Ithaca Gun Company and the city’s “Hollywood” era, Ithaca is now usually known for having only three employers — Cornell, Ithaca College and the tourism industry.
The technologies field is another promising area that has gained momentum in Tompkins over the past decade, though. According to Zach Shulman ’87, managing partner of Cayuga Venture Fund, with manufacturing jobs being outsourced overseas, high tech companies will be a big player in restoring the regional economy.
In Ithaca, CVF has helped bring Cornell-patented technologies to life, investing in companies that commercialize inventions developed by University professors and students.
Deb Mohlenhoff, a professor at Ithaca College, has also worked with other young professionals to create a social networking group called Ithaca Forward. The group holds social functions with a goal of connecting young professionals with each other for job opportunities.
While the city may not be quite up to par with Silicon Valley, Shulman, who is also the J.T. Clark Clark Professor of Entrepreneurship and Personal Enterprise at the Johnson School of Management, said, “there is certainly a lot of entrepreneurship in the area.” These new companies offer new work opportunities and if the jobs are here, “it’s not terribly hard to get people to come,” he said.
But despite the poor job market, many people still call Ithaca home. For a lot of young professionals, commuting has become part of the daily routine. Right after showering at 6 a.m., de-icing the car for 10 minutes and stopping at Dunkin’ Donuts for a jumbo coffee, it’s off to Elmira, Corning or even Syracuse as in Zimar’s case.
His wife, Heather, adjusted differently to Ithaca’s cramped job market, deciding to take a job in journalism and work from home.
While these choices may not be the traditional in-town office jobs many professionals are looking for, they have become popular alternatives. With this in mind, Fuller said, it is necessary to think of the region not just as a collection of city or county-based markets, but rather as a region-wide marketplace.
More places around Upstate N.Y. should concentrate on incorporating lessons from the County, said Fuller. To attract and retain talent as Tompkins has done so well, the rest of the regional marketplace should develop more engaging communities encouraging cultural diversity and recreational opportunity, he said.