Sunday, June 8, 2003

Losing a generation


City leaders waking up to value of keeping vital, energetic group

By Amy Higgins
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Cincinnati Tomorrow, a group of young professionals, meets downtown and works to keep Gen Xers in the city. Barry Gee (from left) of Hyde Park; Nick Spencer, James Czar and Stacy Recht of downtown; Shawn Mummert of Columbia Tusculum, and Gerhard Bohn of Wyoming got together on Main Street.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
| ZOOM |
John Kruthaupt left Cincinnati for the 24/7 bright life of Las Vegas. Laura Gartner moved to Denver for skiing, hiking and "progressive ideas." Good housing and a great job drew Deric Shuster to Raleigh, N.C.

Cincinnati's young adults are growing up and moving out at alarming rates, an Enquirer analysis of Census data shows.

More than 7,200 people born between 1966 and 1975 left Hamilton County in the 1990s - a nearly 6 percent loss. Only nine of the nation's 75 largest metro counties lost young people at higher rates.

Now, the flight of Generation X is prompting a significant shift in urban approach - to lure and keep the young.

Rather than concentrate on winning new businesses and buildings, economic developers are pursuing a better quality of life. New plans promote sidewalk cafes, hip local music and an energized entertainment strip. Attention to arts, culture and downtown living are replacing old ideas about building new department stores and riverfront towers.

"I would love to see a Cincinnati that has sidewalks full of people after the offices close, that has local music all the time, that has people attending arts events on a regular basis," says Julie Bernzott, 24, a Mount Lookout resident.

Members of Gen X, now in their mid-20s to mid-30s, once were derided as lazy and uninspired, self-absorbed and expendable. Today, they're considered the key to any city's future: Lose Gen X today and create a leadership vacuum tomorrow.

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"That's why making the city attractive to young people is so vitally important," says Nicholas Spencer, 25, founder of Cincinnati Tomorrow, a grassroots group of young adults that was created last year to make Cincinnati more attractive to younger adults.

Spencer and others point to cities such as Las Vegas, Denver and Raleigh that made attracting young professionals a priority in the '90s. Now they're seeing higher sales tax revenues and exciting job growth.

Recruiting younger workers here traditionally has fallen low on economic development priority lists. Conventional wisdom says that tax incentives and landmark developments are needed first to attract the companies that will provide the jobs that will draw the workers.

But the latest efforts reverse that thinking. The new logic goes that talented, young workers will develop companies that will provide the jobs.

"It's all about a sense of competitiveness," says Nick Vehr, vice president of economic development at the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. "It's about a quality of life on the street versus the size of the building on the corner."

Key to economic growth

The stakes are high.

Forbes magazine last week rated Cincinnati No. 39 on a list of 40 "Best Cities for Singles." (Pittsburgh was last; Austin, Texas was No. 1.)

In addition, Census figures show that Hamilton County lost more Gen Xers than any urban county in the Midwest in the 1990s.

Compared with the nation's 75 largest metro counties, Hamilton County's losses in this age group ranked 10th. Orange County, Calif., Baltimore and Pittsburgh were among areas losing more, the Enquirer analysis shows.

The analysis tracked the numbers of people in each metro county who were 15 to 24 years old in 1990, and 25 to 34 in 2000.

While Hamilton County lost 5.8 percent of that age group over the decade, Columbus, Cleveland, Louisville and Dayton all gained. Indianapolis added 24.1 percent.

People aged 25 to 34 are key to a region's economic growth because those are the ages when people put down roots, start families and get involved in their communities. Tomorrow's leaders are almost always on their paths to achievement by age 35.

The competition to attract young workers isn't just with other major cities, either. Suburbs like Kentucky's Boone County and Ohio's Warren County did great jobs of attracting Gen Xers in the 1990s. But city leaders fear that's creating a doughnut effect - a younger outer ring with an aging core.

"We have to address the fact that we don't want people my age to run this city and be the only people living in this city," 55-year-old Cincinnati City Councilwoman Minette Cooper says.

Those who have left Cincinnati say they moved for better job opportunities, nicer weather, better housing choices. They cite Greater Cincinnati's lack of high-tech jobs, lifestyle tolerance and fun things to do.

"I just thought that this was such a beautiful place with perfect weather," says Laura Gartner, 26, a Finneytown native who moved to Denver in 2000. The skiing and hiking there are some of the best in the world, she says.

Craig King, 29, moved to Phoenix after graduating from the University of Cincinnati in 1997 for a career in the growing semiconductor industry.

"With a sushi bar or martini lounge on every corner, packed full of 25- to 35-year-olds every weekend, going out can be much more exciting," King says.

Projects planned

Cincinnati can't do much about the weather, but its City Council has begun work designed to attract younger workers. Among the projects:

• Promoting the arts. Council members last year created the Arts & Culture Committee with the mission of awarding $1 million in grants to local arts groups. The council more than doubled the committee's annual budget - to $2.2 million - for 2003 and 2004.

"Our generation tends to be more open-minded, so we're interested in things that expand the mind," says Natalie Wheeler, 24, of Oakley.

• Building a downtown bicycle trail. After years of fighting off naysayers, Councilman Pat DeWine secured $1.3 million in city and federal funding for a riverfront recreation link between downtown and Lunken Airport.

"At arts and recreational activities, you meet the type of people you enjoy, people who enjoy the same things you do," says Peipei Zhou, 23. She struggled to meet new people when she moved to Hyde Park from Austin, Texas, last year. Arts and outdoor activities are "just a great way to get to know people," she says.

• Supporting cultural projects. The council last month allocated $15,000 for the 2003 MidPoint Music Festival, expected to bring 150 acts to 13 venues in the Main Street entertainment district on Sept. 24-27. Council members also support an exhibit to King Records, a Cincinnati-based rock 'n' roll pioneer.

"The economy is more and more driven by people who care about their quality of life more than the job they have," says Councilman John Cranley, 29, a Gen X member himself.

• Encouraging more housing in downtown and Over-the-Rhine. Young professionals, especially artists and members of the "creative class," want to live downtown in dynamic housing.

"They're looking for funky places to live and shop because that's what they've seen in other places they've lived and visited," Councilman Jim Tarbell says.

• Rethinking Main Street. A task force led by young city hall staffers is exploring allowing pedestrians only on a revitalized Main Street. The Over-the-Rhine entertainment strip would become more like Beale Street in Memphis or Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

"The key is to end up with Main Street as the premier entertainment destination in this region," says Brendon Cull, 26, assistant to Mayor Luken.

Late in the game

Some corners of the Tristate have been complaining about "brain drain" for years. Procter & Gamble Co., for example, has had in place its own recruiting mechanisms to keep the best and brightest in the city - and in its own leadership pipeline.

"It's particularly important to Procter & Gamble because we're a promote-from-within-company," says Charlotte Otto, P&G's vice president for community relations.

"Should Cincinnati have had this focus five years ago? Sure, but it didn't," the Chamber of Commerce's Vehr says. "We didn't feel the challenge, didn't feel the urgency."

Michael Fisher, who became chamber president two years ago, says his ideas about attracting younger workers stem from living in and visiting cities that are more popular among Gen X.

"The name of the game for a region's economic growth and economic vitality is attracting talent," Fisher says.

Fisher made attracting young professionals the top priority of the chamber's new workforce development director, Sherry Kelley Marshall.

Before Marshall took over, the position focused mostly on providing human resource assistance to local companies, running an online help-wanted site and attending area career fairs.

"Cincinnati as a community sometimes has to digest and chew on things longer than other communities do," she says. "Sometimes what makes the difference is you have to have the right person champion it."

Marshall became determined to act so that the 2010 Census doesn't reflect the same exodus shown in the 2000 Census.

Her method: championing Cincinnati Tomorrow and other grassroots Gen-X organizations, instead of creating a new chamber-driven group as other cities have done.

Chamber staffer Melinda McDaniel-Canino spent six months gathering information on the 31 different organizations catering to young professionals. The chamber unified the groups under one Web page umbrella, www.YPCincy.com, and held summit meetings that brought the groups together to build on each other's success.

"The chamber brings legitimacy to the groups," Marshall says. "We brought groups together and made people pay attention to them."

Young and influential

Leaders throughout Cincinnati, especially Mayor Charlie Luken and City Council members, paid attention when Cincinnati Tomorrow released a 42-page manifesto in February.

The report recommended accentuating Cincinnati's unique neighborhoods and making the area more dynamic. That's a theme shared by the various young, professional groups.

"The synergy is unbelievable," says Jeffrey Stec, 35, co-facilitator of the Urbanists. His group targets young professionals as potential residents of downtown and Over-the-Rhine. Like Cincinnati Tomorrow, the group promotes bohemian clusters and mixed-income housing.

Stec says Cincinnati is a great place to live because its geography creates a "magical basin" and cozy neighborhoods nestled in the hills.

"To know the geography of Cincinnati is to be fired up about living here," Stec says.

The Cincinnati Partnership, meanwhile, works to attract and retain young professional African-Americans.

Give Back Cincinnati, the oldest of these young professional groups, is the largest with nearly 1,000 members. It simply tries to "make people's lives better," says its founder, Jamal Muashsher.

All of these groups are having an impact on old-line Cincinnati establishments.

"It's energizing for us, and for the chamber as well, organizations that have a traditional Cincinnati reputation, to think about how to energize the creative edge of Cincinnati," United Way President Rob Reifsnyder says.

He created a staff position to recruit Gen X volunteers.

"If we don't attract young professionals, we don't attract individuals who are the future of our work force, who are the future leaders of our civic and charitable organizations," he says.

"If we get the reputation as a community that is not accepting or attractive to the young vibrant professionals, I think the case is closed for the Cincinnati of the future."

E-mail ahiggins@enquirer.com




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