Publisher's Notebook: 'Values audit' is one way people picking places to live
Thursday, May 15, 2014 7:43 PM
As Jerry Williams, former Rochester schools superintendent and Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce interim president, goes to smaller communities surrounding Rochester to talk about the impact of Destination Medical Center, he talks about the opportunity available for communities that want to attract new residents. Not all the people filling the 35,000 to 40,000 new jobs created by the $5 billion initiative will want to settle in Rochester.
So how do people choose a community in which to live? Williams pointed out that it isn't the same way they did it when people with the same color of hair as his - white - first settled down.
In the past, people tended to choose a job, or perhaps a house, and then adapt to the community. Today, young people choose a community first, he explained at a recent function.
This is an intriguing concept, whether or not a community figures to benefit from DMC, because every rural community, in a sense, seems to be fighting for its life these days. More residents can aid in the survival of a town since much of a community's health is based on numbers these days. More numbers increase the market for small businesses, bring in money from the state to support local schools and add vitality to rural communities.
A financial column in the New York Times by Robert Neubecker lends support to Williams' view that the process for picking a place to live is changing. The column suggests that rather than the traditional questions about school quality, most house for the money and commute time, people should do something like a "values audit."
The article, called "43 questions to ask before picking a new town," suggests a checklist with things such as scouting the drop-off zone at schools, eavesdropping shamelessly, scanning the community's bookshelves and investigating other items that reveal shared values of a community.
"The object is to figure out what a community really stands for and whether you would want to be friends with any of the people who live there," wrote Neubecker.
One person has even built a business around it, taking customers to park in front of the pre-school to observe who is going in and out and what they are wearing. They also observe the high school to see where students are going when they leave - to team practice or to smoke cigarettes just off campus?
Next may be a visit to the town's biggest park to see if they meet anyone and if they do, will they talk to them? Then, they may go to a kids' athletic contest to observe what dominates conversation - politics, work, fitness, money, gossip?
The process goes on, meaning it would be a substantial investment in time. Most people won't go to those lengths, but you can bet that potential residents are doing more research on communities than ever before. And some of that research may be, in a way, stealth, unknown to even those contributing to the research.
It may be of value for local leaders to reflect, or do their own research, on their communities by observing everyday behavior to get a feel of how the community appears to outsiders. With the kind of research going on, every resident - and any one resident - is an ambassador for the community.
This isn't to suggest that leaders could change the culture of the community to appeal to certain new residents. However, an honest analysis is important.
The New York Times article ended with an example of one couple that investigated several communities in the Boston area. The one the two chose didn't have a great reputation in the greater Boston area, but it met many of their criteria and the deciding factor was a response to a question to the mayor.
The couple brought up a detrimental factor - lower school test scores than neighboring communities - in a letter to the mayor. Not only did the mayor take the time to answer the couple, she explained the reason in honest, straightforward terms without trying to talk around the subject.
Not everyone wants to live in a rural, small town in the area, which is why small towns are still small. However, small towns can offer value - and values - that may not be reflected in hard data.
The trick is to for small communities to connect with people who may have an interest in those values and a more rural lifestyle.
In light of the DMC push, leaders may be focused on trying to make the face of the community prettier or creating splashy events to attract visitors. However, the real connection to potential newcomers will come from the soul of the community revealed by each one of us as we go about our daily routine.