Development

Cities like Charlotte are racing to lure millennials. But will we stay?

The $1.1 billion Lynx Blue Line extension is set to open in 2017. The expanded light rail line is one of the many urban features city planners and businesses hope will make Charlotte more attractive to millennials.
The $1.1 billion Lynx Blue Line extension is set to open in 2017. The expanded light rail line is one of the many urban features city planners and businesses hope will make Charlotte more attractive to millennials. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

As a member of the millennial generation in Charlotte, I’m feeling a lot of love these days.

Cities are competing to attract my peers because of our allegedly crucial role in the economy of the future. Our influx is supposed to bring creative jobs, fill the record number of upscale apartments Charlotte developers are building, provide customers for all these mixed-use developments and breweries, and ride the LYNX Blue Line extension instead of own a car. At a Smart Cities conference last month about green buildings, Mayor Dan Clodfelter said we have to have a more energy-efficient city – because that’s what millennials expect.

If you’ve been paying attention to economic development lately, you’ve probably noticed how much of it is premised on attracting millennials, roughly defined as people born between 1980 and the late 1990s. Cities are competing to lure millennials such as a single guy trying to catch a woman’s eye at a bar just before closing time, touting assets such as mass transit and local food options in the hopes of luring creative, Internet-savvy workers.

“The pace of change has accelerated,” said Jeff Michael, director of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. “So much of that is dependent on these digital natives, or at least there’s a perception that there is, that a community has to be attractive to that generation.”

The stakes for cities can be high. Hotel giant Marriott says it plans to vacate its Bethesda, Md., headquarters and move thousands of jobs because it needs to be closer to mass transit to attract and retain younger workers.

A quick survey of news headlines around the country shows that just about every place is after millennials. “Developers offer millennial vision for Atlantic City,” “Denver rental market hot for drawing in millennials,” “Millennials are saving St. Louis, and why we need more of them,” and “Suburbs such as Montgomery County rethink transit to court millennials” are just a small slice of the millennial fever out there.

The millennial generation is the largest since the baby boomers, with 77 million members. By 2025, the Brookings Institution expects millennials will make up 75 percent of the nation’s workforce. And cities follow the same adage as businesses – grow or die.

Over the past few years, Charlotte’s millennial population has boomed, with gains powering the city’s overall rapid growth. In Mecklenburg County, which recently passed 1 million residents for the first time, the millennial population grew 32 percent between 2007 and 2013, according to a study of census data by RealtyTrac. Millennials increased to 27 percent of the population, up from 21.7 percent.

Businesses are responding, none more visibly than apartment developers. Charlotte has more than 10,400 apartment units under construction, an all-time high, and an additional 10,000 are planned. Most of them are upscale units in close-in neighborhoods such as NoDa, Dilworth and South End, nestled near the light rail and greenways. Many host social hours, often fueled with locally brewed craft beer, for their residents.

But all the millennial focus leads me to wonder: What if we turn out to be a lot more like our parents than we’d maybe like to admit? What happens when more of us start having kids and find that a yard and a two-car garage looks more like an opportunity than a millstone, and we have to worry about which school district we’re in?

There’s some evidence that could happen. A survey released in January by the National Association of Home Builders (admittedly, a group that favors houses) found that 75 percent of millennials said they wanted to live in a single-family house, and 66 percent wanted a house in the suburbs. Only 10 percent said they wanted to remain in a city center indefinitely.

J. Ron Terwilliger, chairman of apartment building firm Terwilliger Pappas, said last week that he expects most millennials will eventually go the way of their parents, toward single-family homeownership. They’re just taking a longer time to get there, as they delay marriage and work out from under student debt and the recession’s hangover.

“They are less anxious to get into homeownership, less anxious to get married,” Terwilliger told the Observer. “I honestly think they’ll eventually get married, have kids and get a suburban single-family home. But it’s just a little later.”

What’s striking is that Terwilliger Pappas is one of the biggest developers and has more than 1,000 Solis-brand upscale apartment complexes planned or under construction in Dilworth, SouthPark, South End and southeast Charlotte.

Even as millennials eventually age out of apartments, Michael, of the Urban Institute, said they might choose to stay in close-in suburbs such as Dilworth, rather than farther-flung exurbs. But it’s still an open question what exactly this generation will do.

“That’s the big question that a lot of us who are in the business of studying urban areas will be looking at,” Michael said.

In any case, we won’t be able to rest on our millennial laurels forever. A press release landed in my inbox last week advising businesses to prepare for the rising power of people born between 1998 and 2008.

The subject line: “Gen Z: The New Kids on the Block.”

Ely writes about growth and development at charlotteobserver.com/business. Follow him on Twitter at @ESPortillo. Send him news tips and feedback at elyportillo@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-5041.

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