Millennials may hold the key to the future of cities

'We wanted ... a city that was growing'

Posted 11/18/18

During a recent meeting of the Cleveland-Bradley Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Council,  Doug Berry, vice president of economic development, questioned whether enough effort is …

This item is available in full to subscribers

Millennials may hold the key to the future of cities

'We wanted ... a city that was growing'


During a recent meeting of the Cleveland-Bradley Chamber of Commerce Economic Development Council,  Doug Berry, vice president of economic development, questioned whether enough effort is being placed on attracting the right mix of demographics to the area.

“We’re always talking about attracting retirees here, but what we need is millennials,” Berry said.

He may be right.

As Cleveland’s population ages while its economy continues to grow, the need to replace baby boomers as they retire will present challenges to the local job market, as well as the community, notes Berry. And while retirees from other areas continue to move to Cleveland to take advantage of its quality of life, as well as affordable housing and low taxes, the importance of attracting and retaining younger generations will be more important than ever.

However, a steady pipeline of young transients moving into the Chattanooga area may offer an opportunity to attract young people to live in Cleveland, where residents have a strong sense of place in a community that is known for its churches, top-tier university and non-governmental organizations that have a worldwide reach in helping others.

According to the Chattanooga-based moving company Bellhops, Chattanooga, which is located just over 30 miles from Cleveland, is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States, with a population increasing from 529,228 to 551,632 residents from 2010 to 2016.

The Bellhops study was based on information obtained from the United States Census Bureau and was conducted in partnership with Lawnstarter – a company that, according to Bellhops, connects consumers with local lawn care providers.

In the study, Bellhops determined that Chattanooga is attracting new residents from the following areas: Nashville; Atlanta; Knoxville; Dalton, Ga.; Memphis; San Antonio, Texas; Clarkesville; Morristown; and Detroit. 

However, the largest number of new residents are from Nashville and Atlanta, with 1,898 and 1,779 residents relocating to Chattanooga between 2011 and 2015, respectively.

Interestingly, 919 Cleveland residents moved to Chattanooga, while 901 Chattanoogans moved to Cleveland, resulting in a counterflow gain of 18 residents for Chattanooga. 

The joint study also found that over 50 percent of residents who move to Chattanooga are under 30 years old.

Millennials are considered those born between 1982 and 1998.

What Do Millennials Want?

According to a survey conducted by Abodo, an apartment search engine platform, the idea of a perfect city to millennials is one that not only offers affordable housing and a thriving job market, but also a vibrant downtown area that features parks and hiking trails, concert or music venues, coffee shops, locally owned restaurants and access to a nearby beach, lake or river.

Lee University student Emily Harris said certain city attributes are important to her.

“I would want Cleveland to have a large common space, as well as a performance center,” said the Lee sophomore majoring in political science. “A place where people can get together and spend time.”

Also, Harris said she thinks Cleveland should encourage more small businesses to locate downtown. 

City leaders nationwide are beginning to realize attracting millennials to their cities is increasingly important. According to an article in Politico, of the nearly 50 city hall leaders who responded to a non-scientific survey, 85 percent listed attracting millennials  – ages 20 to 35 – as a top-10 priority, with 41 percent reporting it in the top five. 

The largest impediment to attracting millennials, according to the article, isn’t just the absence of "craft breweries or walkable retail promenades," but the absence of affordable housing or reliable pubic transit.

Local entrepreneur and millennial David Durkin said housing affordability  is important to his generation.

“It’s a big issue,” Durkin said. “It’s not just a challenge here. The homeownership is not there because they can’t afford it.”

Durkin said the economic and national security problems of the preceding decade resulted in hamstringing early populations of the millennial generation.

“9/11 kicked us off and then we graduated either just before or after the recession,” Durkin said. "The 38-to-35 age group has struggled. It’s taken us longer to get established, and so many are working to pay off their college loans, while also trying to save money for a home.”

In 2017, Durkin and his wife, Brittany, purchased a building in downtown Cleveland to renovate and locate their two businesses: Terra Running, a sports footwear and apparel store, as well as a Bear Brew Coffee, located next door. And like the merchants of yesteryear, they live in a townhouse located above their store.

Originally from Pittsburgh, Durkin and his wife lived in Atlanta before moving to Cleveland to open their businesses. They also wanted to live in an urban setting.

“It’s a really good place to live,” Durkin said of Cleveland. “There is a sense of place unlike other cities. There are good schools here. Compared to Chattanooga, you can get a lot for your money.”

Durkin said he and his wife researched the type of city where they wanted to work and live. Cleveland was the right fit.

“We looked for a specific-sized city,” said Durkin, who added that he had grown weary of living in Atlanta. “Cleveland is smaller than Atlanta, but big enough to support a small business. We wanted to be in a city that was growing and had an active lifestyle.”

He said Cleveland’s efforts to provide opportunities for walkability caught the attention of the Durkins, convincing them the city was the right place to move.

“The Greenway played into that,” Durkin said.

In addition to running their two businesses, the Durkins have sponsored several road racing events in downtown Cleveland, including the upcoming Thanksgiving Day 5K, the Cleveland Half Marathon, the Bear Claw Trail Race, the Terra Trail Half Marathon and the Cookie Run, positioning the city as a mecca for running events.

While Cleveland’s growth attracted Durkin and his wife to the area, he feels efforts must be made to attract additional members of the millennial generation to fill jobs as older generations retire. 

The American Dream – Millennial style

Cleveland is routinely ranked as one of the best cities in the nation for retirees. But as baby boomers age, there may be an upcoming glut of suburban homes nationwide that will stand empty and unwanted, leaving both generations at a loss, according to CityLab, a digital magazine owned by The Atlantic. A piece there warns that as baby boomers retire and trade in their large four-bedroom homes, they may encounter trouble selling them due to the inability of millennials to afford them. Another problem: millennials may not want them, preferring to live in smaller homes or condos in urban areas.

Whether or not such a problem arises in Cleveland, the housing shortage here could become a problem, especially for those seeking starter or first-time homes.

According to a Cleveland Daily Banner article published in late 2017, the tight housing market was contributing to shortages, with homes listed under $140,000 getting snapped up by buyers within a day of hitting the market. At the time the article was published, there were 328 homes available – all with an average price of $262,000.

Local real estate agent Tony Young told the Banner Wednesday that housing remains tight in the area, with some improvements in inventory.

“The inventory has risen a little bit,” Young said. 

Young said a recent snapshot of available inventory consisted of about 300 homes, with 221 of them priced at over $200,000.

Although, some millennials in their late 20s may consider many homes too pricy, Young said there are first-time home buyer programs that will assist young buyers.

On the plus side, as noted, the young transients moving to the Chattanooga area from Nashville and Atlanta may find home prices, rental rates, as well as low taxes and cost of living heavily in their favor.

Home prices in Nashville average about $259,300, according to, with Atlanta home prices following close behind at $248,100. With an average home price of $144,700 in Cleveland (if they can find them), followed by $143,300 in Chattanooga, it may be possible for the city to entice transients to settle in Cleveland as opposed to its larger neighbor. Although home prices in Cleveland may slightly average more than Chattanooga, the slight difference could still entice young buyers to settle in Cleveland, where there are high-performing schools and a strong sense of community.

An Aging Population

Berry is concerned Cleveland’s aging population will make it increasingly difficult to replace employees as they retire during the next several years.

“We have a slightly aging community,” Berry said. “Many are five to seven years from retirement. We need to think about having a trained workforce that is career oriented.”

Berry said he is concerned there will not be enough job candidates to fill jobs as Cleveland’s economy continues its growth.

“Young people leave to pursue careers elsewhere,” Berry said.

Yet, Berry is encouraged that local schools are focusing on technical training that will enable young people to stay in Cleveland, where there are many large industries that will need a steady influx of employees in the coming years.

He suggests the city expand on its strengths as a close-knit community to attract young transients.

“It’s a unique setting and community,” said Berry who added that he has just purchased a home near downtown. “There is a strong sense of faith and community here.”

In addition, he said Cleveland should work to attract young people who enjoy the outdoors by accentuating the city’s proximity to areas that offer canoeing, hiking and camping, but who also want to live in an urban environment in a revitalized downtown that offers affordable residences that are close to coffee shops and music venues, for example.

“I call them urban pioneers,” Berry said.

Leaders are Listening

Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks agrees the city needs to listen to what millennials want.

“I have challenged my team for better connectivity with the next generation,” Brooks said. “They are the workforce of the future, the next parents of tomorrow, the next school board members of tomorrow."

The mayor said he thinks millennials, or what he prefers to call the "next generation," are both the future of the city, as well as an overlooked presence.

He said he became more aware of their wants and needs during his mayoral campaign when young voters connected with his campaign through social media.

“We learned this summer that they reached out more than ever before and expressed their wants and concerns to be included in planning for the future,” Brooks said.

He said he has responded to their requests to be more involved in planning Cleveland’s future.

“I met with two groups last week,” Brooks said. “They are interested in discussing options in the downtown area, and are asking about what is going to be built for their generation.”

Brooks said he will continue a dialogue with the city’s young people.

Financial Incentives

Finally, as cities and counties compete to lure younger residents by revitalizing urban areas and offering amenities such as green spaces, concert venues and coffee shops, some Midwestern cities have upped the ante by offering financial incentives to convince young residents to relocate to their cities, as well as to persuade natives from moving away.

According to the Washington Examiner, St. Clair County, Mich., is working to “combat brain drain by homegrown students leaving for college and never coming back” by offering a $15,000 “talent retention incentive,” to college graduates with degrees in science, technology and math. The incentive will go toward paying off their college debt.

In Crawford County, Ohio, college graduates are being offered $10,000 to return to the area to establish their careers. According to the article, local government leaders hope “keeping educated millennials around” will “curb outmigration of individuals under 45 as the tax base steadily erodes.”

Although millennial populations have tended to be centered in larger cities, there is a growing trend they may be seeking better lives in less expensive locales. According to, an increasing number of millennial home buyers are moving to small towns, where home prices are low and public schools are excellent.

Jason Dorsey, president of the Center for Generational Kinetics, said that “millennials are getting older and having more stable relationships."

“Planning to have kids is a catalyst for wanting to buy a home,” Dorsey told “Enrolling their kids in good public schools without having to shell out big bucks for city private schools is important for many millennial buyers.”

Although government leaders and older generations may scoff at the financial commitment required to attract younger generations to their communities – revitalizing downtowns, building green spaces, offering financial incentives, for example – Berry said millennials bring much to the table.

"They are known for being involved in improving their communities," Berry said. "They may not now have much money to donate, but many donate their time to make communities better."


No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment


Print subscribers have FREE access to by registering HERE

Non-subscribers have limited monthly access to local stories, but have options to subscribe to print, web or electronic editions by clicking HERE

We are sorry but you have reached the maximum number of free local stories for this month. If you have a website account here, please click HERE to log in for continued access.

If you are a print subscriber but do not have an account here, click HERE to create a website account to gain unlimited free access.

Non-subscribers may gain access by subscribing to any of our print or electronic subscriptions HERE