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Bright kids not seeing their future back in Hernando County

Eighteen teenagers had gathered Tuesday morning at Chinsegut Nature Center and there wasn't a body piercing in sight — not a single expression of sullen boredom.

The students, chosen from county high schools for their academic and leadership ability, debated how to develop a fictional 250-acre forest as part of a Teen Leadership exercise sponsored by the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce.

They showed business judgment, imagination and concern for the environment.

Watching them huddled around pine-shaded picnic tables, absorbed in discussion, was enough to make you feel almost cheery about our future.

Except when one of the event's organizers asked the students whether any of them planned to return to Hernando after college and, if so, to please stand up.

Not a single one budged.

Maybe it's no surprise that ambitious teenagers plan to leave home. But it did concern the adults who helped put on the event, including Barbara Jensen, a career specialist at Springstead High.

"We chose these kids based on our feelings that they are good leaders,'' she said. "Of course, we hope they will stay in Hernando County.''

Another reason to worry: The students were absolutely right about their main gripe — a lack of opportunities.

Two years ago, economist William Fruth completed a report for a private industry group, Hernando Progress Inc., that never got the attention it deserved. One of his findings — that our economy's dependence on residential development has created a glut of low-paying service jobs — was no surprise. The extent of the problem was.

If Hernando was considered separately rather than as part of the Tampa Bay area, Fruth's report said, its average wage would be at the very bottom of the 361 metropolitan areas in the United States.

Judging by the county's depressed housing market and climbing unemployment rate, good jobs may be even scarcer now than they were two years ago.

Knowing the county's need for economic diversity makes you want to cheer recent signs we are attracting new companies, some of which we wrote about Sunday in our annual Hernando Business section.

The industrial park at the Hernando County Airport, in the midst of a major expansion, is now home to about 100 businesses, said county business development director Mike McHugh.

Several of these, like the Jet ICU Air Ambulance Service, are the kind of exciting companies that might draw talented young people.

Maybe, eventually, even a few of the students I met Tuesday:

Matthew Szaro, taking the role of a timber company representative, helped draw up a logging plan that included an eco-tourism center to preserve old-growth forest and create jobs.

Paige Higginson, an aspiring graphic artist from Hernando High, stepped in so quickly as a newspaper reporter, I thought I might talk to my boss about her. William Holobinka, posing as a planning commissioner, asked better questions than many real commissioners I've heard.

If any of them change their minds in a few years, and decide to bring their talents back home, it would be good for all of us.

Bright kids not seeing their future back in Hernando County 02/27/08 [Last modified: Thursday, February 28, 2008 10:38am]
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