If you’re graduating soon, you’ve probably given some consideration to leaving Michigan for greener pastures after college is over. In a time when the entire nation is facing a tough economy, our state has one of the most depressing outlooks. But even with a September unemployment rate of 8.5 percent, the state is finding ways to make things better. The Creative Cities Conference 2.0 in Detroit last week was one of those efforts. But the conference, like many of the state’s innovative ideas, failed to answer one of the most important questions: How is the state going to harness one of its best resources — its students?

The Creative Cities Summit, held in St. Petersburg, Fla. in 2004, chose Detroit as host in 2008 so the city could serve as a symbol for the transformation of economies into innovative, vibrant economies. Community leaders and professionals, including architects, urban planners, city politicians and educators, from across Michigan gathered at the conference to attend workshops and discuss how to revive the state economy. These methods include high-minded ideas like social and community involvement, encouraging intellectual diversity and creating green and sustainable neighborhoods.

And while Michigan needs to do all these things in order to recover from years of economic hardship, the devil is in the implementation. Gov. Jennifer Granholm has been pitching ideas similar to those discussed last week for years.

Take the Cool Cities Initiative, for example. The project was meant to be an urban strategy to revitalize communities, build community spirit and retain smart workers — workers who are leaving Michigan in alarming numbers. It offered cities up to $166,000 in grants so they could become a little bit cooler.

And what happened with that money? East Lansing spent its grant on a few free wireless hotspots and public art and gardens in boulevards. Ann Arbor received a $100,000 grant to create microcinema lounges at the Michigan Theater. While these projects weren’t necessarily a waste, it would be a stretch to think they helped keep smart young people in this state.

It’s not hopeless, though. Where projects like the Cool Cities Initiative have failed, others have succeeded with a more practical way. The University, for example, expanded the size and scope of the Dearborn and Flint campuses. The campus expansion has done a lot more to revitalize these cities and retain educated young people than a few wireless Internet spots ever could. And that shouldn’t be a surprise. Students are the perfect consumers. They fuel local businesses and foster the youthful culture that makes a city cool.

The three research universities in Michigan — the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University — help bring and retain jobs in the state. But the students attending universities across the state are driving economic activity, too. Their efforts and contributions shouldn’t be forgotten.

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