A big question: What are cities doing to keep millennials

Pantagraph (Bloomington, IL), 2014-08-03


Aug. 03 -- BLOOMINGTON -- Tenants in recently renovated apartments at 115 E. Monroe St. all have something in common: an online social media tool founded a decade ago.

"They all do Facebook. ... That was the only advertising we did," said Fred Wollrab , one of the developers of the historic building turned into high-end apartments. The longtime downtown developer said his projects are drawing a younger, "hipper" crowd than in the past.

One of them, 30-year old Ryan Oehler , moved downtown "for a change of pace" and is excited to take advantage of the restaurants, retail and entertainment. He wanted "to start trying to have the ability to just walk out of my apartment and go downtown and enjoy the leisure of what's available."

Oehler noted the historic elements of his updated apartment and said rent is comparable to a monthly house payment, but with the perk of flexibility -- if he decides to move on, he's not locked into a mortgage.

Like almost every other tenant in his building, Oehler is a "millennial" -- the generation currently between the ages of about 18 and 36 that grew up with the Internet and is increasingly coveted by cities as they strive to thrive in the coming decades.

"After the baby boom generation, millennials are the big generation," said Vasu Pinnamaraju , executive director of the McLean County Regional Planning Commission that is leading Bloomington through an overhaul of its comprehensive plan. "If we can't keep them here, that's a problem. That is our younger workforce and if we want companies to stay here, we need a younger workforce."

Pinnamaraju said Bloomington , following a national trend, is losing its younger workforce. From 2000 to 2010, the percentage of workforce ages 25 to 44 has declined from 33.3 percent to 30.3 percent. Over the same time period, the percentage of people between 45 and 64 has increased from 19.3 percent to 24.8 percent.

"Younger populations are not growing at the same percentages as the older populations, so every community is going to struggle to attract a young workforce," said Pinnamaraju, adding the Twin Cities' higher education institutions are a "unique opportunity for attracting the younger workforce. So, what are we doing to retain them?"

She said that's among the "big questions" the city needs to answer going forward, and a question the updated comprehensive plan will try to address as it is developed with broad community input over the next several months.

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner already is convinced downtown investment is a key answer to the millennial question and the city's future economic health.

During a Bloomington Public Library meeting in August, Renner noted the long, pre-leased status of 115 E. Monroe before it opened, explained his general focus on downtown development and the need to expand the library there, rather than on the city's newer east side.

"We're seeing movement back into our downtown, so we're seeing those kinds of patterns already," he said. "The things that distinguish us from other communities are our culture, our historic core, our older neighborhoods."

He described a conference where he was attempting to convince businesses to look at investing in Bloomington . "Every single one of them said, 'What have you got to offer millennials?'" Renner said. "Some of them who had done Google searches liked what they saw in uptown Normal. They liked our Constitution Trail . Then they turned to me and said, 'What are you doing with your downtown?'"

A March 2014 Nielsen report found a majority of millennials prefer to live in mixed-use urban environments with an eye toward creativity and social consciousness. An American Planning Association survey found 81 percent of millennials place some importance on alternative transportation modes and fewer than 8 percent want to live in a suburb where cars rule.

Jennifer Vericella , 30, who also lives at 115 E. Monroe St. , and who previously lived in Chicago and Switzerland , said downtown Bloomington offers more of the environment she and other millennials are looking for with its views of interesting buildings, unique restaurants and walkability.

"You don't really feel like you're in Bloomington ," she said. "You feel more urban down here."

But downtown can be even more attractive, said Vericella, such as more streetscaping like that in uptown. A downtown hotel and downtown library campus -- which the city is currently exploring -- would help, she said, as would additional restaurants and retail for the young professional crowd.

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