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One of the major threats to the economic vitality and sustainability of Canada's rural communities is the loss – or out-migration – of young people. Some leave to pursue higher education and never return. Others stick around for a while after finishing high school, but find no incentive to stay. Rural communities have a hard time competing with the greater opportunities and excitement offered by larger centres. Even a seemingly small thing – for example, the lack of high speed Internet – can be enough to cause young people to leave.
Without a younger generation to take on jobs, create new families and contribute new ideas, the future of a community is bleak – and finite.
In eastern Alberta, SAMDA Economic Partnership has decided to confront the problem head-on, with the launch of Return to Rural (R2R), an innovative project aimed at attracting and retaining early- and mid-career families to the area. The project is headed by Christie Dick, Economic Development Officer at SAMDA.
Ms Dick feels that this is the right time to focus on youth. "We were searching for a tangible way to impact our communities," she says, "and decided that young people, technology and the opportunity created by the recession and the changing perception of rural living set the stage for us to do something really different and compelling."
The project will focus on social media and technology to reach its target audience. The idea is that, by blending technology and community, it is possible to create an environment where anyone can live their dream life in a rural community. SAMDA will be providing exceptional technology and business supports, striving to create a social media strategy that works for the youthful demographic, and developing municipal strategies that are in alignment with a youthful vision for the future.
The project will include building networking opportunities between rural and urban residents, introducing technology to further advance business opportunities and communication in rural areas, and helping with community planning to ensure that welcoming regions can offer a great quality of life to people who choose to move back. Support has come from $400,000 in provincial funding through the Rural Community Adaptation Grant.
Project leaders have started out by gathering partners, pitching the idea, working with young people and developing focus groups in each community in the region. These focus groups will help determine exactly what incentives early- and mid-career families would require in order to be convinced to move or return to the area.
"We're taking a really grassroots approach," states Ms Dick. "We'll be using many different touch points, including the web, Facebook and other social media elements, plus print and radio. We're developing a database of names by starting with the people we know here and having them help us build the list through their Facebook friends and yearbooks."
When asked what actual changes she hopes to implement through the project, Ms Dick smiles. "We had a crazy goal," she says, "to bring just ONE family back to the region. But we also want to chip away at the negative and oppressive images of rural living that are out there and highlight the true opportunity and the true future that can be possible for any rural community anywhere – and to engage people and lead them towards change."
Although youth engagement and retention is widely recognized as an essential element for rural economic revitalization, there seem to be few Canadian projects aimed specifically at this issue. In her research, Ms Dick found only other example: "Creating a Province of Choice: A Youth Retention and Attraction Strategy for Newfoundland and Labrador."
According to its website, this provincial government initiative aims to "position the 'youngest province' as the 'coolest province,' or the province of choice for young people, and all people, to live and work for generations to come." A new ad campaign focuses on diversity and opportunity, and a video entitled "Province of Choice" features young people discussing their desire to stay in NL, the reasons why they can't, and how they feel the issue should be tackled (http://youth.gov.nl.ca/strategy/videos-publications.html#anthem).
Back in eastern Alberta, the SAMDA project is being received with a lot of interest. "Youth is a big subject in small communities," says Ms Dick. "We're trying to do something about the out-migration, and people are interested and intrigued that we are attempting to use technology to do it." Creating a link between rural communities and the social media community may just be the stepping stone needed to bring young people back home.