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Calling All Millennials … Urban Areas Lure Gen Y With Placemaking Programs

August 2, 2012

Challenge Detroit, Live Downtown, and Geek Move are just a few of the placemaking programs across the nation that are hoping to lure entrepreneurs and creative types back to urban areas with jobs and financial incentives.

Motown is a city with soul, but it’s short on people.

There are efforts to change that, though. With social media giant Twitter opening offices in downtown Detroit, an edgy “Imported from Detroit” Super Bowl ad campaign and a write up in the New York Times, it’s no wonder that a program called Challenge Detroit drew 900 applicants with an entrepreneurial spirit who are willing to test the waters of innovation and see what downtown Detroit has to offer.

The applicants, mostly millennials, and all college educated, competed for grants that will allow them to live, work and play in — and, perhaps, most importantly, contribute to — Detroit, which lost 25 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010 and has struggled with blight, economic decline and political scandal.

“Challenge Detroit is about attracting and retaining innovative thinkers and doers to counter the brain drain and make a difference in Detroit’s revitalization efforts … to make this place better than the way we found it,” said Challenge Detroit Executive Director Deirdre Greene Groves, in describing the program.

To that end, 30 host companies, including Quicken Loans, have signed on to the initiative. Each company agreed to provide one job for one year. Challenge Detroit grantees also will receive a $500 per month stipend for living expenses.

Challenge Detroit winners will live near one another and be required to work on 10 community projects, which could range from working on the development of after-school programs to developing an environmental sustainability strategy for the city. The grantees will have to participate in 10 team challenges over the course of a year.

The program helps to create a sense of community in Detroit by building the underpinning required to make it a success: a strong business, civic and entrepreneurial environment.

“Placemaking is all about living and embracing a city’s culture; working and delving head first into the business of a community; playing in a city by experiencing it 365 days per year; and giving one’s intellectual capital to contribute to bettering that place,” said Greene Groves.

The 900 initial Challenge Detroit applicants were whittled down to 60 with the assistance of public voting on the social media site Facebook, where the Challenge Detroit page has nearly 20,000 “likes.” Videos from an array of 20-somethings who are meeting planners, educators, city planners and interior designers are on display for public viewing. Vetting will be completed by Challenge Detroit judges in the next several weeks and the recipients will be in place and on the job in September.

The decision to participate by Quicken Loans, one of the host employers in Challenge Detroit, is not surprising given the company’s commitment to the area. Quicken Loans moved its headquarters and 3,700 of its more than 5,000 employees to downtown Detroit in 2011 and another 1,000 will relocate there before the end of the year.

Incentivizing Downtown Living

Quicken Loans also is one of five companies in downtown Detroit that is offering its employees economic incentives to move downtown as part of another placemaking initiative called Live Downtown. Along with Quicken, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Compuware Corporation, DET Energy and Strategic Staff Solutions launched a five-year, $4 million program that provides cash incentives to employees who want to move downtown.

New homeowners can receive a $20,000 forgivable loan toward the purchase of a residence, while new renters can receive a $2,500 allowance for rent the first year and another $1,000 in rental incentives the following year. There also are incentives for those employees who already live downtown.

As of April, said Jennifer Rass, senior communications manager at Quicken Loans, a total of 297 applications for participation in the program had been submitted by employees at the five companies, about half of which have closed. The majority of those applying are choosing the rental option.

Challenge Detroit and Live Downtown are two of a handful of placemaking programs across the nation that are hoping to lure entrepreneurs and creative types back to urban areas with jobs and financial incentives.

A little more than 600 miles south of Michigan in Chattanooga, Tenn., there’s a program called “Geek Move” that offers a $10,000, five-year, forgivable second mortgage to entrepreneurs who are willing to move to one of eight Southside neighborhoods. It also offers to pay people willing to make the trek to Chattanooga $1,250 in moving costs.

While the money isn’t enough to cement a lifetime guarantee from the mobile Generation Y, Sarah Morgan who oversees grants involving downtown development and urban revitalization for the Lyndhurst Foundation, says the built environments in Southside Chattanooga, including emerging urban attractions, a thriving arts community and the area’s natural beauty may be enough to make them fall in love and want to stay for the long term.

“Don’t you know we are going to sell the heck out of Chattanooga while they are here,” Morgan said.

One person already has signed up for the program, said Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises Director of Strategy Abby Studer Garrison, adding that another seven grants will be awarded before the end of 2012. Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises is a nonprofit housing organization dedicated to building sustainable communities.

Chattanooga is hoping to capitalize on the fact that the area has the nation’s fastest fiber optic network, which offers lightning-quick speeds of up to 1 Gigabit per second. While that speed may be lost on the average Internet user, Chattanooga is banking that it will be irresistible to those with the next “best technology” idea.

The city’s Geek Move is being funded in part by Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises, as well as the Lyndhurst Foundation, whose mission is to revitalize the Chattanooga area and the conservation of the surrounding region.

Accelerating Business Development

The Company Lab, a Chattanooga-based business accelerator, and its founder, Sheldon Grizzle, also is helping administer the program. While a traditional business incubator works with start-up companies, business accelerators set out to nurture nearly mature businesses over a shorter time frame, he said.

Grizzle maintains that the sophisticated fiber optic infrastructure available in Chattanooga and the surrounding 600-square-mile area around it puts the city 15 years ahead of its competitors in terms of technological infrastructure. Now is the time to leverage that advantage, he said, and import the people who can do just that.

“If we have a 10- to 15-year head start [on other cities], the question is what do we do with that head start,” Grizzle said. “If Chattanooga grows at the rate which we think it can grow, we need to have more technical talent.”

To help make that happen, Lyndhurst and others are sponsoring a 14-week “accelerator” for students and entrepreneurs to dovetail with Geek Move. It’s called “Gig Tank,” and it is reaching out to both students and young professionals.

Gig Tank will pit 10 entrepreneurial teams against each other for a $100,000 cash prize. The teams will be guided by “angel” investors. Students, meanwhile, will compete against each other for a $50,000 cash price and the opportunity to pitch their idea to an angel network of investors.

While there is no requirement that the winners of Gig Tank develop the business in Chattanooga, Grizzle is confident that they will. “There is no rule or string attached, but with the band width, it might make sense for them to start in Chattanooga,” he said.

Lyndhurst’s Morgan predicts that the natural beauty and the built environment also will make them want to stay.

Geek Move and Gig Tank are the latest placemaking initiatives that the Lyndhurst Foundation and Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprises have partnered on. Geek Move is modeled after a similar Chattanooga program, Arts-Move, which provided 26 artists willing to live in one of eight neighborhoods in Southside and the surrounding area a five-year, $15,000 forgivable second mortgage to help make housing more affordable.

Many of the benefactors of the Southside housing initia­tives have worked with REALTOR® Donna C. Williams, who returned to Chattanooga 11 years ago from Atlanta to be closer to her mother. Williams is a REALTOR® with the Keller William Realty downtown and is publisher of an online community blog for urban neighborhoods called LiveUrban.com.

A decade ago, she said, there were few housing options in Southside. Today, there are eight neighborhoods that grant recipients can choose from.

Like Lyndhurst’s Morgan, Williams maintains that money, alone, won’t convince millennials to move to Chattanooga. “But once they get here, and they get to look around the neighborhoods in Southside, they will consider Chattanooga more carefully.”