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Take Me Back to the Rust Belt City

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At the recent CEOs for Cities Spring National Meeting in Cincinnati, AOL co-founder and former CEO and Chairman Steve Case noted that the most important factor for a city to thrive is attracting and developing talent. Indeed, many speakers at the two day gathering focused on the importance of a skilled and educated workforce. And, for as long as I've lived and worked in Cleveland, there have been at least a dozen initiatives aimed at curbing the malaise that is Brain Drain. All of this got me thinking about why I am where I am and have been since graduating college in 2005.

For me, it had and has everything to do with my generation and its inherent me-ness. While this is not generally considered a positive trait, it is derived from wanting to continuously learn, be challenged and, most importantly, have an impact. Of course, this all has to be done in a place that is unique and quirky. In a city that has suffered some serious hardships throughout the course of the 20th century and has worked arduously to revitalize itself in the past couple of decades, the ability to have all those things abounds.

Over the past seven years, I've been fortunate to have worked for a nonprofit that helps mid-market companies grow in value; an art and technology festival; a collaboration of philanthropic organizations and individuals working to strengthen the economic competitiveness of a 16-county Northeast Ohio region; and, most recently, a startup initiative looking to reimagine democracy in the 21st century through online and offline tools that foster collective action. I'm on the board of a foundation dedicated to improving, maintaining and celebrating the vitality of regional freshwater resources and a partner in a philanthropic venture fund that supports nonprofit organizations in Cuyahoga County. Along the way, I've worked with and learned from top business consultants, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, journalists, academics and artists.

The amazing job and civic opportunities notwithstanding, the character and authenticity of the city are what keep me here. Classical music night at a local bar that serves hotdogs with 50 different toppings -- check. Best summer party at one of the top art museums in the world -- check. An old-fashioned bike ride with all participants dressed in tweed -- check. Homegrown celebrity chef Michael Symon professes his love for the aura; local illustrator Julia Kuo paints it in 100 illustrations; Dee Jay Doc raps about it in three minutes.

All, of course, is far from perfect. The latest census figures showed Cleveland's population at the lowest its been since 1900. In the greater metropolitan area, more than 30 percent of adults have attended some college or attained an associate degree (higher than the national average, but nothing to write home about). The public school system is working to reduce an overall $66 million deficit (down to $19 million as of mid-May). And, there is little hope that the Browns will win more than five games this season.

Despite all that, it appears that the adage "misery loves company" is taking on a new meaning. Recent articles in The Atlantic and Salon paint a picture of resurgence, as occupancy rates for apartments downtown reach nearly 100 percent capacity. It's likely that job opportunities and cheap home/rent prices are catalyzing this movement -- but certainly the bevy of urban community gardens and dance parties have a lot to do with it, as well. Even the Cleveland Flats, a once popular nightlife area turned "Scooby Doo ghost town," is seeing a $2 billion makeover.

At its core, the reason for me and increasingly many others to live and work in Cleveland or in other Rust Belt cities is really, as Rust Wire blogger Richey Piiparinen puts it, all about "Rust Belt Chic" -- "about home, or that perpetual inner fire of longing to be comfortable in one's own skin and one's community. Yet this longing is less about regressing to the past than it is finding a future through [one's] history." As many cities and their leaders develop strategies and tactics for luring the young and restless, it behooves them to think along these lines -- to dig deep and unearth ripe opportunities for this contingent to be a part of the renaissance and to promote the areas and activities that provide authentic experiences. For the place where I find meaning in my work and eat a pierogi while doing it is the place I call home.