Boomerangs

I suppose this is Part V of “Tucson after the Coronavirus” … although I was talking about “boomerangs” long before the virus.


Back in the Before Times, when I used to leave the house every day, I took Uber and Lyft a lot. (We are a one-car family, and a bicycle won’t get me everywhere.) And, channeling Thomas Friedman, I always liked to strike up conversations with my drivers. 

One thing I noticed from this random sampling of Tucsonans was how many of them were “boomerangs” — they were raised in or around Tucson, but couldn’t wait to get away after high school or college. Many went to California (it’s right next door); others went to Texas, or Chicago, or even overseas.

But, after a period of years, they came back.

These are the boomerangers. And we need more of them.

More Than Site Selection

The site-selection industry is built around targeting companies: identifying possible corporate relocations or expansions, matching them with the right real estate, workforce, and financial incentives, and competing with other cities trying to do the same thing. Tucson has had reasonable success playing that game, and it has potential for more — in a recent survey, we ranked at the very top among a handful of cities highlighted by the Site Selectors Guild. These are the consultants that companies hire to help them find the location of their next factory, research facility, or headquarters.

https://biztucson.com/2020/07/21/tucson-ranks-in-top-11-u-s-cities-for-corporate-site-selectors/

But not all important site-selection decisions are made by companies. Individuals make personal “site selection” decisions all the time. In the hypermobile America of the past few  decades, individuals and families relocate across state or across the country for all sorts of reasons: better jobs, bigger houses, better education, better weather, or to be closer to family. 

I always asked my Lyft drivers why they came back. “Family reasons” would be at the top of the list. Or they got tired of shoveling snow. Or California mortgage prices. Or they wanted to raise their kids where they grew up. Or, it just felt like home.

The specific reasons don’t matter. What matters is that this is a neglected part of Tucson’s narrative, and an underutilized asset for the region. 

There is a well-documented diaspora of Tucson talent that disappears in their late teens and early twenties — the “brain drain” that causes city and county leaders to despair. There are tens of thousands of Tucson natives who have scattered across the U.S. in search of better jobs, better education, cooler summers, or just to find something different. They’ve learned a lot from new experiences, and built networks of friends and co-workers in all corners of the country. They’re smarter and better connected than they were when they left Tucson. They’re worth more. And, right now, most of them are contributing to the economic growth of others cities and states.

Bring them home.

The existing boomerangers have shown the way. After being part of the “brain drain,” they’ve individually taken part of a “brain regain” as these individuals move back to take the next steps in their careers, or their family relationships, or just putting down roots.

These individuals already know what summers are like in Tucson—but they also know how glorious the weather is during the rest of the year. They know that Tucson is a welcoming, supportive community. And many will have family and friends here, and (for the graduates of local colleges) an alumni network that can help them quickly integrate into cultural, social, religious, and professional groups. 

Economic development organizations are traditionally not good at marketing to individuals. (A notable exception is Austin, Texas, in the late 1990s and early 2000s: They started with job-recruiting trips targeting individuals in Boston and the West Coast, continued with national print advertising in consumer publications, and culminated in the decidedly non-corporate “Keep Austin Weird” campaign.) Companies and site-selectors are easier to target. And if you’re contemplating a national advertising campaign aimed at raising Tucson’s profile among the creative class, it’d be easy to spend a lot of money spreading one’s efforts too thin, with no results. 

boomerang image

But a targeted “boomerang” strategy can be cost-effective and highly productive. Based on high-school and college graduation data, we could maintain a constant low level of direct contact with former Tucson residents for years—keeping them apprised of new companies, new amenities, new social initiatives, and new housing opportunities. (Just mailing Tucson’s real estate listings to former residents now in California would be eye-opening!) The idea isn’t one big marketing push — rather, it’s “drip irrigation,” always making sure that there’s a recent contact whenever an individual reaches the point of considering moving to another town. Job change, marriage, kids, pandemic — whatever the trigger, we want them to consider “You know, maybe it’s time to go back to Tucson.”

If Tucson’s high schools, colleges, and universities don’t maintain appropriate contact data for their graduates, then: “The best time for planting a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.” Task them with starting to maintain that data now, and fill in the gaps as best we can. But the goal is to have repeated low-cost contact with the targeted individuals over a period of years.

Once we’ve identified former Tucsonans who could be interested in returning, we need to put services in place to make the move easy. 

Plug them in.

In particular, in targeting individuals rather than companies, the region will need to develop new programming and new events. Boomerangers will need to be integrated into the community with invitations to Tucson’s wide array of cultural events, sports, festivals, seminars, continuing education, and more. Perhaps we could identify existing members of the business community to act as one-on-one “Boomerang Buddies” for the first year, making sure that the boomerangers take full advantage of all Tucson has to offer, and that they (and their spouses!) don’t regret their decision to leave the big city. We can also host a monthly series of wine tastings, dinners, hikes, bike rides, or other events, giving each new resident and their “Boomerang Buddy” a natural opportunity to build their networks.

Even with limited funds, we could do a lot with a “concierge service” approach to relocation.

  • “We’ll pay the movers.” Offer to reimburse the cost of relocation, up to a modest limit.
  • “We’ll pay your fees.” Some of these individuals will be working remotely (see below) and won’t have the built-in social network of an office environment. To help build a sense of community, we should encourage these new virtual workers to build as many personal connections as they can. That can be Rotary, or a softball league, or a hiking club. For the first year, if they join a qualified group, we’ll reimburse the membership fees.
  • “Your kids are covered.” Day care is an enormous issue for young parents. Just having a program to match new residents with appropriate day care would be a big help. (Subsidizing it for the first year would help even more, but would get expensive.)
  • “You’ll meet everybody.” Several times per year, have invitation-only “Welcome Back, Boomerang!” events for new residents who have been attracted by the program. They’ll get a chance to meet the mayor, city and county officials, local legislators, university leaders, and local CEOs in a setting that encourages conversation and connections. 

For a relatively modest investment, “boomerang” marketing and recruitment could bring hundreds of talented professionals back to the region, helping the local innovation economy reach critical mass.

Surf the wave.

Building such a set of services to accelerate the existing trickle of boomerangers will take months. By that time, we hope that the country will have emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic with effective treatment, a reliable vaccine, or both. There are many unknowns, but it seems likely that there will be lasting social and business impacts that could favor Tucson. 

Overnight, much of corporate America has learned how to work from home. And, after initial skepticism, many companies realized that it worked well. In a post-pandemic environment (with the fear of the next pandemic always around the corner), many individuals who have traditionally been attracted to the density and excitement of big cities are going to choose to live in smaller cities or even rural areas. In such a climate, Tucson is an amazingly attractive destination. I’ve addressed some of this in my four-part series of blog posts, starting with Tucson After the Coronavirus.

Large technology companies like Facebook have already committed to allow the majority of their employees to work from anywhere (with a corresponding salary adjustment to acknowledge that pretty much anywhere in the U.S. is cheaper to live than the Bay Area). Companies in other sectors are following suit. That could lead to an entirely new class of boomerangers who could be recruited back to Tucson to enjoy the city’s low cost of housing and high quality of life, without changing jobs

If Facebook cuts your pay by 20%, but your mortgage is cut by two-thirds, it’s still a good deal! (As I referenced in my 2013 post: At a certain point, the difference in cost of living means you can live your life differently in Tucson than in one of the high-cost creative-class supercities. To take an obvious example, the arithmetic of housing prices and day-care costs can make it cheaper for half of a two-career couple to stay home with the kids. That’s a life-changing decision, and one where Tucson wins!)

Venn diagram showing total available market

Let’s set our total available market to be all Tucsonans (or Arizonans) who have left the state. We have already seen a trickle of boomerangers coming home for personal, family, or financial reasons. The Age of Coronavirus means that the served available market just expanded dramatically, and could turn that trickle into a flood.

A particularly attractive model is “Tulsa Remote,” launched before the pandemic in an effort to recruit a diverse group of talented professionals across multiple industries to relocate to Tulsa:

Tulsa Remote is a unique recruitment initiative aimed at attracting talented individuals to Tulsa. The program brings remote workers and digital nomads to the community by providing $10,000 grants and numerous community-building opportunities. Each grant is distributed over the course of a year to eligible remote workers or entrepreneurs living outside of Oklahoma… The City of Tulsa and other community organizations lend their support to ensure program participants are fully immersed and engaged in the community. 

Tulsa is approximately the same size as Tucson, also has a major Air Force Base, and has similar workforce challenges. As a first step, Tucson can simply copy what Tulsa is doing; it’s a good model. Nominally, $500,000/year could help bring fifty high-earning professionals to Tucson, ready to be welcomed by the city, the county, and a variety of community organizations. By adding “concierge services” to the program, Tucson could differentiate itself from other mid-tier cities and live up to our “Top Eleven” ranking from the Site Selectors Guild. 

Who Bells the Cat?

I’ve mentioned “we” a lot in this post. In one sense, “we” is all of us who live in Tucson and care about its future. In another sense, “we” needs to include a cadre of people for whom making this happen is part of their day job. I don’t know who they are, or how they get paid. Maybe they work for the city. Maybe they work for Sun Corridor, or the Tucson Metro Chamber, or the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, or the Pima Association of Governments. Maybe we need a new organization (I hope not!). But building a solid program to target, recruit, and integrate “boomerangers” will require a budget, and some leadership, and at least a part-time staff. 

In normal times, this would be “nice to have.” In the age of coronavirus, we are suddenly competing with every other mid-tier city in the country, all of whom are trying to figure out how to lure high-paying talent away from New York, San Francisco, and Chicago. Once a young family has moved to Boise or Huntsville or Indianapolis with the intention of putting down roots, it would be doubly hard to recruit them to Tucson, even if one or both of them grew up here. So we need to act quickly, while the shape of the COVID19 realignment is still coalescing.

Conclusion

Tucson has all the widely-recognized assets of our peer group: great workforce, business-friendly policies, low taxes, good infrastructure, great weather, low cost of living. But we have an underutilized asset—the diaspora of Tucsonans who have left the region and are building successful careers elsewhere. A targeted campaign to identify and recruit these potential “boomerang” individuals would be a great complement to our existing corporate recruitment efforts.

Comments

  1. Stephen Fleming says

    By coincidence, this crossed my feed today. These are some of our competitors:

    https://www.afar.com/magazine/most-surprising-cities-united-states

  2. Wow! I just learned about this program today! Keep an eye on this webpage…

    https://www.startuptucson.com/remotetucson

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