Young adults talk about what lured them to the region, and how to keep them here.
By Veronica Torrejon
Of The Morning Call
Lehigh Valley native Amy Pirrotta uprooted herself after college with starry-eyed ambitions of making a name for herself as a fashion photographer in sunny Southern California.
What she couldn't quite shake were the feelings of homesickness and longing that had her scouring butcher's racks for Hatfield country sausage and rooting through her grandmother's cookbook for traditional Pennsylvania Dutch fare. The Penn State grad was overcome with emotion the day she found and emptied the supermarket shelves of TastyKakes.
Almost four years after she arrived, Pirrotta, 30, packed her bags, bid adieu to the fast-paced Los Angeles region and returned to the valley her family has called home since the 1700s. She remains hopeful that revitalization efforts will transform the Lehigh Valley into a place where young graduates can discover themselves without leaving home.
Pirrotta joined a packed crowd of young adults in the Terrace Room of the Hotel Bethlehem on Tuesday night for the first in a series of five community forums to seek input on how to reverse the so-called ''brain drain'' of graduates who flee the state for better-paying jobs in more metropolitan areas.
The group of mainly 20- and 30-somethings included Lehigh Valley natives like Pirrotta and transplants originally from major East and West Coast metropolitan areas and smaller cities in the Midwest. Coming from varied backgrounds and professions, they touched on many common themes including job opportunities, housing, transportation and the local social and cultural scene.
The event was hosted by the Campaign to Renew Lehigh Valley and other groups including the Lehigh Valley Network of Young Professionals.
''Pennsylvania is leading the country in losing its young workers,'' said Emmaus Councilwoman Joyce Marin, who led the fairly informal presentation and discussion that ranged in tone from serious to lighthearted.
''The only state that has more old people than Pennsylvania is Florida, and they have the rich ones,'' said Marin jokingly, eliciting chuckles of laughter from the audience. Marin told attendees she intends to use their discussion to compile a report that would be distributed among state lawmakers.
''What do we need to do differently? That's what we need to get our arms around,'' said Marta Gabriel, senior vice president of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Topping the wish list for young adults in attendance Tuesday was affordable housing, a passenger train to New York and other cities and the preservation of farmland and open space for recreation.
Some of the more novel ideas included a hovercraft public transportation system along the Lehigh River or a light rail connecting Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. More bike paths, walkable communities and a centralized theater, restaurant and nightclub district were also among the ideas.
Pirrotta said she would like to see more of an upscale lounge scene and more emphasis on theater and the arts. Local businesses tend to cater to the college crowd and not people who are 25-to-30 years old, she said.
''I find myself going to New York and Philly for entertainment,'' she said earlier. ''The few nightclubs out here, I feel like an old lady.''
Revitalization efforts are already evident. Bethlehem is going through a renaissance, said a few attendees, with trendy restaurants and storefronts. The nightlife, though geographically widespread, is varied and diverse.
''There is a sort of coolness factor to Bethlehem now that wasn't there when I left,'' Pirrotta said. ''Allentown doesn't quite have that pull yet Â Easton is on it's way.''
Pirrotta's odyssey is an all-too familiar tale for experts who have been tracking the migration of young professionals from the area. A Brookings Institute report found Pennsylvania is No. 1 in exporting college graduates. A more informal survey by the local Network of Young Professionals found that although only a minority of its members say they agree the Lehigh Valley has an active nightlife, an overwhelming majority say it is a great place to raise a family, said organization President Abraham Nemitz.
''When you are young and looking for adventure, you are looking elsewhere,'' said Nemitz. ''When you start thinking about raising a family, you come back.''
Formed in 2001, the Network of Young Professionals is a resource for young adults concerned about job opportunities and also a social organization networking hundreds of people in the area.
Nemitz, 29, also hopes the organization can be a tool for people whose jobs bring them to the Lehigh Valley, so they can make friends and rapidly put down roots in the area. Nemitz is a senior product manager at PPL's Telecom division and a transplant from Minneapolis.
Although their paths to the Lehigh Valley differed, both Nemitz and Pirrotta agreed it has great potential.
Pirrotta eventually found a job that allows her to work from her home in Allentown's West End. She now handles marketing for Sideshow Collectibles, a California company. Her husband, Christopher, 31, is a Web site designer for the company. The couple return to California four times a year on business.
''I was like most young people in the area with ideas about moving to a big city somewhere and doing something important with my life,'' she said. ''In the end what mattered to me was that I was somewhere that made me happy.''