Do Millennials Want to Call Your City ‘Home’?

July 7, 2014 15 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Millions of millennials will soon be putting down roots. Cities and suburbs that are less attractive to them have a limited window to turn things around. William Fulton, the mayor of Ventura, California and GOVERNING's economic development columnist, provides his thoughts on this subject. Is Jacksonville a city Millennials may want to call 'home'?

Most people settle down by age 35, and usually don’t move from one metro area to another after that. And the demographic group behind the millennials is a lot smaller. Just like baby boomers, the preferences of the millennials will drive our society for two generations. They’re making location decisions based on their idea of quality of life. And they’re going to make all those decisions in the next few years -- by the time they’re 35.

So if you’re not one of the hip places today, you have only a few years -- the length of one real estate cycle and the time horizon for planning an infrastructure project -- to become hip enough to keep your kids and attract others.

This might seem like a daunting, if not insurmountable, challenge, but frankly I’m encouraged by what I see. Over the last six months I’ve been to many second-tier cities -- Omaha, Neb.; Oklahoma City; Richmond, Va.; Syracuse, Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y.; and Manchester, N.H., among them -- that would not to be good candidates for a hip urban core. Yet they’re all developing one.

Nebraska’s conservative Republican governor, Dave Heineman, took the opportunity of hosting a National Governors Association event in Omaha to show off downtown lofts and restaurants. In Oklahoma City, Republican Mayor Mick Cornett, who lives a block from City Hall, has championed urban reinvestment -- one of his latest projects is a streetcar line. In Manchester, the old mills bordering downtown are being refurbished. In Syracuse, where the urban core is adjacent to a prominent research university, several hundred housing units have been created in historic buildings, attracting many new downtown residents, including my onetime roommate, who moved back downtown after 20 years of living in a ritzy, cutesy suburb.

The lesson for me is that even though the window is short, there’s still time for second-tier cities and older suburbs to create the compelling places that will be required to succeed in the 21st-century economy. Most people -- even millennials -- want to live near their families and near where they grew up, meaning that if you can create interesting places, they’re likelier to stay. And you don’t need the endless hip urban fabric of New York or D.C. to compete. You just need a few great neighborhoods for people to live and work in. For most cities, that’s an achievable goal.

In his recent book, The New Geography of Jobs, economist Enrico Moretti of the University of California, Berkeley, noted that the current pattern of winners and losers is good for the national economy even if it’s bad for most cities, because the innovation economy thrives on agglomeration. That’s probably true, at least in the short run. But in the long run, it’s surely better to have more compelling places -- large and small -- that can attract their share of young talent and economic buzz. America’s prosperity will be more enduring as a result.

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