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Published: Tuesday, 6/27/2006

Glass City: Half empty or half full?

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Sara Wilburn is like many students graduating from Toledo-area high schools - she may have been raised in the Glass City, but she didn't find what she needed to keep her here.

Instead, the graduate of Notre Dame Academy and the University of Toledo found herself in Seattle, where her now-husband was living and where she found a plethora of technology-based jobs.

Unfortunately, as recent Census estimates confirm, Ms. Wilburn's decision to leave is not unique. And it's one that Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner wants to better understand.

The mayor's office recently partnered with nine area high schools to send out surveys to 13,000 graduates. The questions were variations of this simple theme: Why did they leave? More importantly, what would bring them back?

"We want to keep our best and brightest," Mayor Finkbeiner said yesterday. "We reached out to these youngsters. Believe me, we're going to take advantage of those responses."

Working through the City of Toledo Youth Commission, the mayor's surveys were sent to graduates from local high schools between 1995 and 2005. Though some of those reached still live in the Toledo area, many of them do not.

The letter asked the graduates to log on to an online city survey. There, they were asked questions about where they live, what professional field they were trained in, and what would make them consider relocating to Toledo or northwest Ohio.

The survey also asked if they were interested in information about starting a business or obtaining a job in Toledo.

"Why? Because 27 percent of 20-29-year-old Ohioans, with Bachelor [sic] Degrees or higher, left this state between 1995 and 2000, in a flight phenomenon commonly referred to as 'Brain Drain,'‚óŹ" the mayor wrote in the letter.

Ms. Wilburn, who left Toledo three years ago, said she participated in the mayor's survey to share her thoughts on Toledo's strengths and weaknesses. As of yesterday, more than 380 other graduates of local high schools had filled out at least some portions of the online survey.

"It was make [my husband] move back to Toledo or go out there where I could be more assured I could find a job in what I wanted to do," said Ms. Wilburn, 30, in a telephone interview with The Blade. "We've often considered going back just to afford a house. If more technology jobs could be attracted to the area, it would make it a lot easier of a decision."

The mayor's idea to seek information from area graduates was born from a conversation held earlier this year with two fellow Maumee Valley Country Day School alumni, Allan and John Robinson Block of Block Communications Inc., which is the parent company of The Blade.

Traci Jadlos, co-executive director of the City of Toledo Youth Commission, said her group originally contacted 12 area high schools to get lists of graduates. To avoid issues of confidentiality, the city printed letters, provided postage, and gave them to the schools to address.

The project cost the city about $8,000. Of the 13,000 letters sent out, about 900 were returned because of incorrect addresses, Ms. Jadlos said.

"We will share [the results] with the schools that participated and then we'll probably start to categorize the responses we have, whether they raise economic issues or quality-of-life issues or recreation issues," Ms. Jadlos said. "We're trying to get as much feedback from that generation so we can come up with a plan to become a friendlier city to 18-to-35-year-olds," she said.

Schools that participated include St. Francis DeSales High School, Central Catholic High School, Cardinal Stritch High School in Oregon, St. Ursula Academy, Notre Dame Academy, Toledo Christian Schools, Maumee Valley Country Day, and from Toledo Public Schools, Bowsher and Start high schools. Three high schools declined to participate, citing confidentiality issues.

The letters were mailed about a month ago, and participants were asked to respond by Friday. The mayor has since received a few hundred responses from former Toledoans who weighed in on what three things would bring them back to the Glass City.

"Three things that would make me consider moving back to Toledo would be: 1. JOBS!! 2. JOBS!!! 3. JOBS!!!! I grew up in South Toledo and never wanted to leave, but after a year-long job search with no luck it was time for me to go," wrote one former Toledoan now living in the Akron/Cleveland area.

Another respondent cited these needs: "1. More job opportunities 2. More engaging social life. 3. More diverse atmosphere."

Tom Jordan, 27, who graduated from Central Catholic High School in 1997, lives in Chicago where he works as a customer service associate at a human resources company. He said he moved from home about a year ago because he just wasn't finding what he wanted in Toledo. He applauded the mayor's initiative in seeking out people like him.

"I was kind of surprised. ... I thought it was an interesting thing that the mayor did," said Mr. Jordan in a phone interview. "Again, Toledo is a great city and is doing a lot of things, I guess, to make the city more appealing. But it depends on how happy you are and what you want out of your life."

Staff writer Laren Weber contributed to this report.

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-724-6076.



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