If someone is leaving Graham County for a job elsewhere, or for any other reason, Vance Bryce, the executive director of the Graham County Chamber of Commerce, wants to find out why by sitting down with people and asking them questions about their time in the county. Something akin to an exit interview.
”It’s super informal. It’s just an idea I have. With different people leaving the community, what can we do better?” Bryce said.
The idea, Bryce said, is to focus in on why someone might be leaving the county and thinking of ways the community can address those issues. They hope to retain a skilled labor force in the county and attract new people and new businesses to move to the county and increase the quality of life for everybody.
He started doing these informal exit interviews because he said he was tired of hearing canned answers from people leaving the county that everything is fine in Graham County and nothing needs to be done to change or improve the social or business atmosphere in the county.
”There’s always some improvements to be made,” Bryce said. ”What can we do to keep talent here is a question we’re always thinking about.”
So far Bryce has talked to five or six people, including a doctor and a nonprofit director, about why they’re leaving the county. The number one issue they talked about was a lack of connectiviness and inclusivity they felt in the county and a resulting feeling of isolation.
”They don’t feel connected. They feel more connected to a previous place they lived (in), or the place they’re going to,” Bryce said. ”If you’re not from here there’s always this ‘they’. People can live here for 10 years and still feel like they’re new.”
To get both longtime county residents and people who have recently moved into the county more familiar with each other, Bryce said he’s thought about starting tours of the county, or starting other kinds of community events for people to meet and get to know each other, including events that bring “an awareness of new cultures.”
”There’s a lot of reasons to have a community event,” Bryce said. “Maybe that’s the point, we have to work and talk with a lot of people to have a community event. Maybe that’s the point.”
People lost the ability to talk and interact and tolerate others during the COVID-19 pandemic to a certain extent and people are only now starting to re-learn those skills, Bryce said.
People that “throw themself into service” like working with local nonprofits, Bryce said, often connect with the community and tend to stay in the county longer, he said.
“They’re going to enjoy the comradery there. There’s your connection, getting out and serving,” Bryce said. “They have a high quality of life, and they love living here, but I also did an exit interview with someone like that, and they also got frustrated.”
Other times, people newly arrived people find community in religious institutions, Bryce said, but while there’s lots of options of adherents of various denominations of Christianity, there aren’t so many options for adherents of other faiths.
People have also brought up the housing shortage and discrimination, Bryce said.
Bryce recalled talking to a Muslim family who wanted to move into the county, but were unsuccessful at finding a home and felt like they were overtly discriminated against when they came to look for a home. The family eventually decided not to move to Graham County, Bryce said.
”If there’s a diversity and inclusion issue, how do we address that as a community? Sometimes we like to say that there is no issue, period,” Bryce said. “I know we have a racism issue, America has a racism issue. If we don’t measure how we’re doing, we can’t get better.”
Using the information gleaned from these interviews, Bryce said he wants to make Graham County a more welcoming, friendly and inclusive place for people, especially people of color, disabled people and LGBTQ people and generally increase the quality of life in the county.
If you live here in Graham County, you should feel part of the community, Bryce said.
”Yeah, we just always want to get better,” Bryce said.