Tuesday, May 26, 2009

When Natives Come Home

Why do people return home, particularly after leaving in search of economic opportunity? The answer varies, but typically boils down to passion for place. Consider the boomerang migration of Shane Thompson:

Shane Thompson, 39, moved back to the Ohio Valley in 2005 with wife Amber from Washington, D.C.

A native of Loomis, which is a small town near Barkcamp State Park, Thompson and his wife now live in St. Clairsville and have a new baby, 8-month-old Alex.

They enjoyed living in Georgetown, but it was a pricey neighborhood, he said. And though the local culture is different compared to Washington, Thompson's quality of life is better because he has more expendable income.

For example, he takes some business trips, but his main office is his home. He uses the Internet and conference calls while working as vice president of business development and strategies for Kinsbursky.com, a company that owns Toxco battery recycling plants in Lancaster, Ohio, and Baltimore, Ohio.

"I bought a home here for less than what I was paying for rent in Georgetown," he noted.

Re-adjusting to smaller-town life was a little tough for Thompson, as the selection of restaurants, culture and the arts is less varied than in Washington, he said.

"It's been stagnant here for such a period of time. ... People don't realize how vibrant other places are. We had a long run when we were blessed with manufacturing," he said.

Thompson, who ran unsuccessfully for a state representative seat in 2006, said his company is looking to possibly open a new lithium battery plant in Lancaster if federal stimulus money comes through.

"Batteries are the new mining," Thompson said, noting batteries contain a variety of metals.

He hopes his company can create more new jobs in the state of Ohio.

"I hope I can help in some small way," he said.

Thompson is the prototypical pioneer of Rust Belt revitalization. Telecommuting allows him to take advantage of geographic arbitrage opportunities. Youngstown has similar migration tales and value propositions. But the most important motivation is the sense of home and what it might mean for raising your own family.

Eventually, outsiders will appreciate what shrinking cities have to offer. Until then, it is up to folks such as Jessica Trybus to lead the way:

The 28-year-old Trybus embodies the Pittsburgh "boomeranger" the region is hoping to lure back.

After growing up in North Park, Ms. Trybys left for college at Cornell in the late 1990s and after graduation, moved to the West Coast to satisfy her life-long acting bug.

But Ms. Trybus soon discovered she loved the business side of the entertainment industry, and after jobs at Drew Barrymore's production company Flower Films and at Alta Vista, she and her now-husband, fellow entrepreneur and Pittsburgh-native Anthony Lacenere, returned in 2002 in search of a "better quality of life."

Ms. Trybus, who earned a Masters of Entertainment Technology at CMU in 2004, doesn't fit the bill of your typical "gamer" who designs or plays video games, said ETC director Don Marinelli. Most, he said, are "testosterone-enriched males," whereas Trybus is "wholesome and polite," though she does "bleed black and gold.''

Ms. Trybus is determined to help Pittsburgh stake a claim the booming interactive video gaming industry by focusing on "edutainment," which Mr. Marinelli describes as using animation and video gaming technology for education and training purposes. As CMU's "edutainment director," she lobbied the state's Department of Community and Economic Development around initiatives to help the university spin off companies in the field.

With her staff of 10 at Downtown-based Etcetera, Ms. Trybus creates interactive animated training and simulation programs for local employers such as UPMC.

Her hands are full juggling promoting Pittsburgh as the mecca for education-focused gaming while simultaneously trying to expand Etcetera's customer base. But Ms. Trybus said it's her calling to be a "catalyst," not just for her firm's benefit, but for Pittsburgh's.

"I'm motivated by all the great things this region has to offer," she said. "We see a ton of potential."

Part of that region is Youngstown and the Steel Valley. If you see the same potential, then please get in touch and we'll help you move back.

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