Mark R. Howard
Millennial magnets: Healthy downtowns and urban cores
My daughter, a 24-year-old professional in St. Petersburg, rode her bike to work last week, a commute of less than 2 miles. Unremarkable as that may seem, her choice of transport reflects powerful generational trends that are shaping Florida’s communities.
Nationally, there are now more than 53 million workers in my daughter’s 18- to 34-year-old cohort, the so-called millennial generation. More than 4 million live in Florida. Millennials have passed Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers to comprise the largest part of the U.S. workforce, constituting 34% of all workers.
Broadly speaking, millennials — shaped by events like Sept. 11, climate change and the explosion of technology and social media — are confident, comfortable with diversity, environmentally conscious and collaborative. They can be polite but tend to feel empowered and aren’t bashful about sharing their opinions with elders in ways that can grate on those accustomed to greater deference from the young.
My daughter and many other millennials, including a raft of young entrepreneurs, expect a lot from the places where they live, including the option to live affordably near their workplaces and the option to bike, walk or take public transit to work and play.
Employers looking for young talent have responded by gravitating to downtowns. Increasingly, the cities that attract the best businesses feature clean, safe, mixed-use environments with retail, residences, restaurants, cafes, offices and entertainment venues, and good transportation options.
A national report from a group called Smart Growth America documents how some 500 firms, including more than 50 companies on the Fortune 500 list and 12 on Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For list, have moved to and invested in “walkable downtown locations.”
The companies in the study represent more than 170 industries, ranging from software developers and information technology firms to ad agencies, universities, food production firms and oil and gas entities. Nearly half of the companies had moved from a suburban location to a downtown area. Nearly 100 had opened a new downtown location or branch.
For the companies, being in a vibrant downtown is a “crucial selling point” in competing for the best talent, the study found.
The companies also view healthy downtowns as helping them build their brands and corporate culture — and as supporting collaboration and face-to-face interaction with customers and clients.
Either consciously or serendipitously, many Florida communities have been redeveloping their urban cores in ways that position them well to attract millennials and the businesses that hire them.
Among major metro areas in Florida, St. Petersburg and Tampa stand out. St. Pete has what I believe is the most vibrant urban core in the state, coupling its walkable, city-owned bayfront with a host of restaurants, concert venues, parks and bike trails. Jobs and residential development continue to flow into the urban core. Tampa, meanwhile, is coming on strong under Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who has completed a longsought riverwalk project and has shown he understands how the private sector and government can collaborate to create economic vitality.
Some smaller Florida communities have likewise taken steps to build more vigorous downtowns. Winter Garden, a wonderful town near Orlando, redeveloped its entire downtown around the West Orange bike trail. In 2013, Deerfield Beach became the first city to formally adopt the state’s “Complete Streets” initiative, meant to encourage communities to design and build roadways safe for all modes of transportation, from walking to biking to driving.
It’s noteworthy that the Florida Department of Transportation formally adopted the Complete Streets program as statewide policy last year. That’s the kind of initiative that Gov. Rick Scott never talks about when he discusses job growth strategies, but he ought to.
Another town with an interesting downtown initiative is Melbourne, on the state’s Space Coast. The area, with aerospace and defenserelated employers like Harris, Embraer, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and a host of smaller tech firms, now has the highest concentration of engineers in the country outside Palo Alto, Calif.
Increasingly, those engineers are millennials. Melbourne has a vibrant weekend bar scene but needs more residential development downtown to create a healthier live-work-play mix for the emerging workforce. With some relatively minor tweaks to its downtown development codes, the city has helped jump-start two residential projects with a total of more than 350 residential units.
“We know that the young demographic is there, and we believe that bringing in that residential component is exactly what’s needed so we can capture these young engineers” who work in the area, says Melbourne City Manager Mike McNees.
That kind of initiative is essential to keeping the Old Florida charm of our cities while positioning them for 21st century lifestyles and economics. Given our weather and the state’s heritage as a retiree haven, Florida may never overcome its image as a draw for older people. But in many important ways, the state is thinking and acting young.
Millennials expect a lot from the places where they live, including the option to bike, walk or take public transit to work and play.