While Decatur has the technical jobs to lure some young professionals back after college, a poor range of entertainment and social activities impedes the city's draw, college and prospective college students say.
"A lot of people always say there's not much to do in Decatur. For young adults and teens, the things we do have, such as the movie theater — that's fun, but you' can't do that forever — you sort of run out of things to do," said 18-year-old Skyler Settles, an Austin High School senior looking to head to Auburn next year to study mechanical engineering.
He said that line of work could well bring him back after college to his hometown, which boasts a variety of plants where everything from rockets to cat food is made. Its proximity to Huntsville also makes it a brief commute for industries there.
"I think the city is very nice, and they've been doing a great job of expanding and putting in new stores and restaurants," Settles said. "A lot of people don't want to come back to Decatur because that's where they grew up, but that's not really a problem that I have. Mainly it just depends on where I want to work."
From 2000-07, Decatur lost 238 residents ages 18-24 and 2,264 residents ages 25-44, according to a 2009 report from Market Street. The Chamber of Commerce commissioned the $105,000 report to assess the community as part of a five- to seven-year project.
The U.S. Census Bureau in 2010 also reported 6,944 people ages 20-24 and 15,061 people ages 25-34 live in Morgan County, about 46,000 fewer young people than in neighboring Madison County.
Market Street found Decatur and Morgan County are less attractive to young professionals who are single or without children. The report also discovered higher rates of young residents and families with school-aged children leaving the community.
Austin senior Brittany Cross, 18, said she's torn between wanting to return to Decatur and move to Atlanta.
"There would be more to do in Atlanta, and maybe a lot more job openings," said Cross, who plans to major in either chemical or computer engineering at the University of Alabama. "I think Decatur could use a little more night life to draw back the youth, 18 to 25."
Cross also said the city needs more single-occupant apartments.
"I love the places to eat," she said. "There are a lot of choices. I like the fact that we have a bowling alley and skating rink — we do have some places to go and do things. ... I think Decatur could use a teen lounge, or somewhere cheap where young adults can go and not have to stay at home all the time."
Hannah Clardy, a Samford sophomore studying pre-med biology, plans to become a dermatologist.
"Where I go to medical school will probably dictate where I end up, but I know the Huntsville/Decatur area is in need of my profession, so I could see myself ending up back there. I grew up in Huntsville my whole life, so I could definitely see moving back there to raise a family there," Clardy said.
Clardy, who attends school in Birmingham, said she prefers a smaller city to a larger one in some ways.
"It's a lot more crowded (in the Birmingham area), a lot more traffic, a lot more people, and I know that Decatur is a smaller-knit community."
The 20-year-old, who enjoys philanthropic activities and does volunteer work with inner-city kids, said Decatur doesn't have enough on its schedule of events.
"In Birmingham, there are always concerts and fundraisers," Clardy said.
Activities in Decatur often aren't aimed at her age group, she said.
"Decatur is more of an older-generation-run community. Our generation isn't getting as involved around town," she said.
Seth Burkett can be reached at 256-340-2446 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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