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Parents, civic leaders can’t deny value of locals who move away but later return

Sun., July 14, 2013

Sean McLaughlin moved back to Spokane last year. He remembers spending time in his youth fishing at Cannon Hill Park. (Dan Pelle)
Sean McLaughlin moved back to Spokane last year. He remembers spending time in his youth fishing at Cannon Hill Park. (Dan Pelle)

It’s summer in the Inland Northwest.

Hot days but low humidity. The water temperature in many of the region’s 50-plus lakes is bathtub warm. Flowers bloom in our parks. Sunlight hangs on until 9 and then says goodnight in glorious sunsets.

After dark, you can sit outside, look at stars and the bugs won’t bite too much.

This is the idyllic scene that children raised here remember after they’ve moved away to bigger cities where summer weather is ungodly humid, lakes and beaches are traffic jams away, neighborhood parks are spotty, and if you sit outside on a summer’s night, the bugs devour you.

Parents pining for their bigger-city adult children to return to live in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene can use these summer evenings to make their case.

The age group most likely to listen up: Men and women in their 30s. That decade is considered the settling-down decade with a focus on building careers and families.

Parents aren’t the only ones who’d like 30-somethings back, especially well-educated ones.

Civic leaders say young men and women who left the region to pursue advanced degrees and then landed good jobs are especially needed now, as the region awakens from its recession-induced slumber. And as the population grows older

“They bring back institutional knowledge and cultural awareness of other communities,” said Steve Wilson, president and CEO of the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce. “They bring back a solid appreciation of what we have here, and they can work to preserve it.”

So what arguments can parents use in their come-back bid? Some ideas:

No hurricanes or tornadoes

The New York Times recently published a list of the eight safest metro areas to live in to avoid a natural disaster. Spokane was sixth on the list.

Still a good place to raise a family

This cliché about Spokane and Coeur d’Alene belies the reality that children growing up here face many of the same challenges as kids in big cities, poverty being the worst.

That said, it’s true that public schools are still pretty good. Commutes still pretty short.

“If you live in Seattle, it might take you 45 minutes to commute,” said Rich Hadley, president and CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated. “Do you really want to spend your life in traffic or do you want to spend it with your kids?”

And you parents making the spiel? Promise to watch the grandkids.

“When they settle down and get married and start to have children, it’s almost like a homing instinct. They think: ‘I want my kids to grow up like I grew up,’ ” Hadley said.

It’s changed

The 30-something kids who left Spokane for college took off in the 1990s when downtown Spokane was a ghost town and when big music acts skipped Spokane for Seattle and when fine dining mostly meant real silverware at fast-food joints.

You’ll actually see people downtown on Fridays and Saturdays again. Casinos in the Spokane area and North Idaho attract bigger bands, and the Knitting Factory brings to town some of the acts 30-somethings grew up listening to.

Renaissance in the neighborhoods

The neighborhoods of Portland and Seattle, with their small cafes, trendy shops and nightclubs, outdoor markets and craft breweries are supported by adults in their 30s and 40s, some rebelling, perhaps, against the suburbs their baby boomer parents raised them in.

Spokane’s neighborhoods are coming back to vibrant life. Some examples: The Garland District, downtown Millwood and the South Perry District.

The parks are still cool

A hundred years ago, civic leaders brainstormed an ambitious park system for Spokane. Their goal was for every Spokane family to be within a 10-minute walk of a park. Voters passed a $1 million park bond in 1910 and neighborhood parks became the norm here. It’s not the case in every community, as those who move away quickly realize.

When we asked two of the “comeback kids” profiled here today to select their favorite childhood haunts for the interviews, both chose parks.

The great outdoors is still great

Tubbs Hill. The Spokane River. Lake Coeur d’Alene. Ski resorts all around. Hiking trails. Near nature everywhere.

But it’s not perfect

Challenges remain in the Inland Northwest. Comeback kids often miss the diversity of bigger cities. The job opportunities are not yet robust, especially for 30-somethings with jobs in technology or in professions that depend on quick and direct airline connections.

Funding for parks and recreation is always on the cutting block. School funding, especially in Idaho, is often in politicians’ crosshairs.

But ambitious 30-somethings who return to the Inland Northwest might tackle challenges in ways the older generation could not – or would not.

As Hadley pointed out: “They see things with new eyes.”

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