In 2008 we launched the Gogebic Range Next Generation Initiative to attract and retain young people in Iron and Gogebic Counties in order to help sustain the local economy and reverse the area’s decades-long population decline.
To kick off this effort, we brought in noted author Rebecca Ryan who told over 250 area residents that “Three out of four Americans under the age of 28 said a cool city is more important than a good job” and therefore we need to create the kind of community that today’s young people would like to live. This was a new way of thinking, but one that made sense. In response, we conducted a survey of 668 high school students, college students and young adults to better understand what they are looking for in a place to live. From these results, we identified four opportunities to better attract and retain young people and we created four work groups to address each of these opportunities:
Strengthen Our Niche: Utilizing key concepts of Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), we worked to build upon our strengths and not our weaknesses, working to attract and retain young people by doing what we are already good at, moving ourselves from good to great. The survey taught us that young people are moving to our area due to our “nature based outdoor recreation niche” and so this group worked to strengthen this niche. Notable results of this effort included the vision, design, funding and construction of a regional non-motorized trail connecting Montreal, Hurley, Ironwood, Bessemer and Wakefield. Well over a million dollars in grant money has been obtained for this project with construction to begin this summer.
Promote Our Strengths: This workgroup designed a promotional strategy to market the outdoor recreation and community-based strengths identified in the survey to the target market of young people seeking an adventure lifestyle. This strategy included the development of the popular and successful “Fe Live Life” website, Facebook page and bumper stickers. According to a survey of Facebook friends, 96% believe the website is an effective way to promote the area as a great place to live and 55%said that it has made them more likely to live (either more or stay) on the Gogebic Range. As a result of this promotional effort, awareness of our strengths has been built and connections have been made that resulted in young people moving to and now living in our community.
Build Social Capital: One survey finding of particular surprise was that many young people were moving to our area for our nature based outdoor recreation, but they were not finding friends and therefore were moving away or planning to move away soon. In response, this group created the “Go-In Forward” social networking group, which holds well-advertised monthly socials and seasonal outings. These opportunities have connected new people in the community with others and have successfully retained people in the community. According to a survey of participants:
- 87% are more aware of other young people in the community with similar interests
- 80% feel more “at home”
- 60% have met new friends
- 73% feel more connected to the community
- 87% are more likely to stay in the community
The above three work-groups have created structured and sustained change in the community, with measureable and objective outcomes towards achieving the desired goal of sustaining the local economy and population. The fourth work-group has struggled historically. This group was created to better connect our existing students who are growing up in the community to the assets of the community in an effort to increase the chances that they would stay – or return someday. This group, called the Connecting Our Students workgroup, conducted several efforts over the last few years, including nature photography classes and service learning opportunities in participating schools. However, no sustained effort has been realized for this group.
Therefore, the purpose of the multi-disciplinary approach discussed in this blog is to address the still vital, yet unrealized goal of better connecting our own young people to our assets. Through the various perspectives, connections and approaches from our four different program areas, we believe that we can better achieve this goal. And by coordinating and aligning these different approaches into a cohesive programming effort as described in this blog, we can better collaborate with each other and the broader community to grow and strengthen the Gogebic Range.
Will Andresen, Community Resource Development Agent