A Decatur program that brings young professionals to the city by offering to help pay their student loans could almost double its number of participants with state money on hand or promised.
The Best and Brightest Initiative has brought 30 educated newcomers to Decatur by agreeing to provide each with up to $15,000 over five years for college student loans. Based on the maximum grant to each newcomer, the Best and Brightest could bring in 26 more young professionals with the $390,000 the Legislature has appropriated for the program from fiscal 2020-22.
The program has in the bank its entire $120,000 fiscal 2020 appropriation, and it received $135,000 this month from the state for 2021. State Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, sponsored $135,000 in the fiscal 2022 budget approved by the state Legislature during this year's session.
“I hope we can add $135,000 more in fiscal 2023," Orr said.
Director John Joseph said the initiative has a 75% retention rate since selecting its first class of eight new Decatur residents in 2016.
The program initially relied on private donations to operate, and also received $64,000 from the state’s “Growing Alabama” tax credit program.
The initiative pays $3,000 toward college loans each year a recent college graduate in science, technology, engineering or math continues to live in the city, with payments lasting a maximum of five years.
Joseph said the state only allows the budget-funded grant to be spent on graduates of a four-year Alabama university in a STEM subject. They also must be from the state.
The state money must be spent in five years. Joseph said they've received a lot of applications but he plans to be patient with his selections.
"We would like to stay at about seven to 10 (students) per year if we're able to provide the staff support and special experiences that we want for these newcomers," Joseph said.
Joseph said the program has relied to this point on local support that includes a $100,000 city appropriation and almost $100,000 in private donations. He said the local money also provides meals and the "special experiences" like mentoring, networking and opportunities to help the newcomers get to know the city and make them want to stay here.
"We don't lose touch with them after they arrive," Joseph said.
Joseph, who also runs the Decatur-Morgan County Entrepreneurial Center, said he has seen studies that show a college-educated resident creates an average of $5,000 annually in municipal tax revenues.
Participants do not have to pay the money back they’ve already received if they don’t complete the five-year commitment because of the tax revenues they create for the city during their stays, Joseph said.
“These are people bringing tax revenue to Decatur and giving the city a skilled workforce,” Joseph said. “If people want their streets paved, their schools providing a good education and their parks looking good, the city needs growth.”
Orr said he’s so impressed with Decatur’s Best and Brightest Initiative that he added Demopolis in rural Marengo County to the budget last year so that town of roughly 7,500 in population could start a similar program.
“Decatur’s initiative was one of the first of its kind in the country,” Orr said. “They’ve got a track record of bringing young professionals to the city.”
Orr said he’s been concerned about the lack of growth and “brain drain” — loss of college graduates to other states — in the rural and mid-size counties like Morgan, Lawrence, Lauderdale, Marengo and others. He pointed out that Florence recently began a similar program.
“We need to evaluate it and see if we can expand it to other areas of the state,” Orr said.
Orr said he thinks losing a college graduate from an Alabama college to another state “is a waste of taxpayer money. It does us no good to educate them here and then see them leave.”
Joseph said he held the state’s allocation last year and didn’t name a class in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic. He’s working now to build the newest class in the initiative.
“We have seven in the class so far,” Joseph said. “I’m not sure yet how many we will have in this class.”
Joseph said the great thing about the participants is they often bring spouses and children with them to the city. The city has gained seven children so far, either through a move or by birth during their parents' stay.
John Seymour, executive director and president of the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce, said Best and Brightest has been an effective way to meet a goal set in 2009 to boost population growth.
“One of the areas defined as a need to grow our population was young, educated professionals,” Seymour said. “John’s initiative has been very effective. A retention rate of 75% is pretty impressive.”
Joseph said he appreciates Orr’s support with his sponsorship of the state allocations.
“It’s a validation of the approach that attracts a highly skilled workforce,” Joseph said.