NextGen 2010: Designing Cape Breton

Reprinted in the Cape Breton Post, Saturday print edition for June 19; and

Cape Breton’s ‘next generation’ came together at a recent day-long conference organized by the Cape Breton Partnership to discuss ways to “attract and retain the younger generations to work, live, play and start families” in the region.

From listening to the panelists and discussing the issues with some of the attendees, it was easy to perceive a dynamic split between, on the one hand, those who believe Cape Breton needs to become more ‘international’ to compete in a globalized market; and, on the other, those whose vision for Cape Breton’s future involves promoting and developing its existing assets, particularly in culture (including agriculture). In short, go global vs. go local.

The ‘global’ case

A young professional who teaches business at Dalhousie reported that out of an entire cohort of 20 students, every last one planned to leave Halifax. In order to compete, then, Sydney (if not Cape Breton) must become more like the places for which kids are even leaving Halifax.

Recommendation: direct flights to London; dredge the harbour.

The ‘local’ case

Many in attendance agreed that – notwithstanding the hokeyness of the sentiment – Cape Breton’s greatest asset is its people, followed by the scenery in close second. The combination of people and place has produced a culture of love of family, community and nature; not to mention a distinct, even world-renowned artistic culture. Young people can certainly benefit from experiencing more of what the world has to offer before returning home to Cape Breton, which they will, pulled by these forces.

Recommendation: instill values in the very young; cross your fingers.

Splitting the Difference?

We can’t – nor should we – make it hard for youth to leave. Important experiences await them, ‘out there’. But we must make it easier for them (and others) to come back – with their degrees, their experiences, their expectations, and their entitlements.

The trick to attracting and ‘retracting’ (as opposed to retaining) young people can’t be to try to become like somewhere else. After all, if today’s radically mobile youth can live anywhere in the world, what would make them choose this anywhere over anywhere else?

Nor can the answer to that question be to take for granted that family and community ties will be enough to make youth stay put when their employment options often consist of an imaginary container port and some very real call centres. Not to mention this totally ignores the problem of how to attract the ‘come from aways’. Like it or not, with its rapidly dwindling and aging population, attraction will overtake retention as a priority for the region.

All of this means, yes, promoting Cape Breton’s unique assets – its people, scenery and culture. But it also means developing those assets: investing in the arts, transportation, and housing.

Cape Breton already is a place where artists and innovators, professionals and entrepreneurs, farmers and homesteaders can make a life and a living – surrounded by wonderful people, beautiful scenery, and fiddle music (kidding, sort of). With a little planning – equal parts vision and gusto – it could be world-class local.

Recommendation: Cape Breton doesn’t need to become like somewhere else; Cape Breton needs to become more like itself.