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Northeast Ohio Tries to Bring Back the Rust Belt Refugees

Rust Belt Refugee Justin Herdman & his wife Elizabeth Hijar
Rust Belt Refugee Justin Herdman & his wife Elizabeth Hijar

Attorney Elizabeth Hijar just didn't get it. The El Paso native had met her husband, Justin, at Harvard and he landed a decent job at a law practice in Manhattan. So, his decision to move to Cleveland just seemed like a step backwards.

ELIZABETH HIJAR: I had this impression of Cleveland as this…industrial, gritty city. You know: "Mistake on the Lake"... river burning... blah, blah, blah.

You know the clichés. But, Justin was a Northeast Ohio native with a strong desire to return to his roots and raise a family. Hijar's stone wall of resistance crumbled when her husband took her to Chagrin Falls.

ELIZABETH HIJAR: It was like, "Oh, my God!" It's so quaint - especially for me, growing up in the West, where there were all of these endless subdivisions, and it's hard to get a sense of community. And then, just coming here, it was just apparent.

Elizabeth Hijar's husband is part of a demographic known as "boomerangers" - people with ties to a region who left for an education or a job, but now have the urge to return. Others refer to this group as "salmon", who have come back home to breed. Washington-based Economic Geographer Jim Russell has a different label.

JIM RUSSELL: I refer to them as "Rust Belt Refugees" - essentially, people who had to leave. They were pushed out, due to economic circumstances. They are essentially refugees.

Russell was in town, recently, for the Global Cleveland Summit - an event aimed at brainstorming ways to attract and retain people with a local connection - be they native born, or visiting international students, or area immigrants with ethnic ties. The goal is to stem the population loss that’s plagued the Cleveland area for decades. Russell says among Rust belt Refugees, he’s found a strong desire to return.

JIM RUSSELL: Most of them would love to be serenaded by Cleveland. They would love for Cleveland to say, "We want you, and we want you so badly that we'll give you a job. And not just any job."

Contrary to what you might think, the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services indicates that there actually are jobs here. The Department's May 2011 employment snapshot shows over 35,000 positions available in Cuyahoga County, especially in the fields of Healthcare, Financial Services and IT. Of course, the prospect of importing people to fill jobs might not sit well with the many locals who are unemployed. But, Greg Brown, who heads the African American think tank Policy Bridge, thinks you have to look at the big picture.

GREG BROWN: There's an economic argument to be made that people who could come here could really help to drive our economic engine into this next century. And, we think that is a benefit that we would be fool-hardy not to take advantage of.

Global Cleveland planners claim that their proposal to attract the boomerangers and the other outsiders is a stop-gap measure to fill jobs with talented people now, while workforce development programs at community colleges gear-up to produce a local pool of talent. Analyst Jim Russell says, older industrial areas across the country have slowly been attracting 20-somethings in recent years.

JIM RUSSELL: You can see these pockets in Cleveland, the gentrified neighborhoods like Ohio City - if you look at the migration data for those specific census tracts, they're positive. And they're not positive by 10 or 20 people - we're talking 4-to-500. That's a pretty significant chunk of people, who tend to be young and college-educated. That's a win. But, that's not a headline.

With growing enclaves like Ohio City or nearby Tremont, and thousands of jobs for the taking, the Global Cleveland group has set a goal of attracting 100,000 people to Northeast Ohio over the next ten years. The plan is to use the lure of cheaper housing and plenty of cultural amenities as bait for rust belt refugees like Tracy Moavero. The 43-year-old Parma native has spent the last 17 years working for non-profits in places ranging from New York and Washington DC to Geneva, Switzerland - all fast-paced, exciting cities. But, eventually the cost of living caught up with her. The fact that she boomeranged back here, took Moavero by surprise.

TRACY MOAVERO: To be honest, I didn't think I would. I loved being on the East Coast, I loved New York City, but Cleveland's a much more livable city. You don't have to fight so hard to pay that rent, to get from one end of a big city to another. I really love being back.

And she'd love to land one of those 30,000 jobs. That hasn't happened yet, so she's trying to balance optimism about the future with a dash of Northeast Ohio skepticism about the present.

TRACY MOAVERO: There's a lot of great things going on here - there's a lot bubbling up - and I see change happening. But, finding my spot is taking a little time.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.