Hickory does not have the jobs and entertainment that young people prize, college students said at a recent community meeting.
Almost all of the 35 college students were from Hickory but only a handful said they expected to move back to their hometown after graduation.
Moderator Alan Jackson asked why? Few jobs, they replied.
Only a couple more hands went up when Jackson asked how many would likely move back to Hickory to raise their family once their careers were established, maybe 10 or 15 years after graduation.
We want to find a way for more hands to go up, said Jackson, president of the Jackson Group, a Hickory survey and consulting firm.
The city of Hickory organized the meeting at its main library as part of its study to find ways to make this Catawba County city of 40,000 more appealing.
Hickory has lost hundreds of young people in the past decade as industries closed and retirees move in. In a 10-year period, the Hickory region lost one out of every five people ages 20 to 34, according to the 2010 census.
The combination of a graying population and fewer jobs worries city officials, who want to bring in more employers to revive a lukewarm economy.
The city wants to attract what is known as the creative class young college graduates who work in business, medicine, law, education and technology, often those entrepreneurs who start new businesses.
But its a tough sell in this town noted for its furniture and textile industries, both in decline. Newcomers note rag-tag roads leading into the city, closed mills and a network of confusing streets.
One of the best things Hickory has going for it, some audience members said, was that it is only an hours drive from Charlotte.
The Hickory City Council, which hired the Jackson Group and Charlottes LandDesign, hopes to come up with a master plan in the spring to map out a long-range strategy to improve Hickorys appearance what it sees as the first step to improving the town.
The early changes could be improving the appearance of major streets leading into the city, but the long-range plan could take up to 20 years, City Council member Brad Lail said in an interview.
The problem is we have difficulty retaining our own young people, Lail said. We want to do that and attract others who didnt grow up here. He used the analogy of a once-prosperous hotel that has not kept up with the times. Like that hotel, Hickory must work hard to bring itself back, Lail said.
Students said the city could be improved by dressing up its main entrance roads, attracting more jobs for college grads and more nightlife.
They also said the city needs a stronger connection to the Lenoir-Rhyne University. City businesses do not seem to embrace the college and there needs to be a way to improve the two-way relationship between town and college, they said.