Wanted: SF/SM

Whenever I tell people that Columbia needs to attract more young singles, I get some odd looks.  Don’t we already have plenty of young college students?  True, but how many of our nearly 30,000 students actually remain here in Columbia?  You could say that talented young people are Columbia’s number one export.

That’s a shame because in the new economy, the key to a city’s economic growth is 25 to 34 year olds.  These well-educated, single professionals make up the bulk of the creative class—knowledge workers who traffic in ideas, innovation and technology.

Researcher Joseph Cortright calls this demographic “The Young and the Restless.”  They’re an intelligent, mobile and relatively inexpensive workforce—and they are the key to making it in an economy that has seen major shifts in recent years.

The old economy focused on selling your city on the cheap with low cost labor and unrealistic incentives.  The new economy focuses on attracting creative and talented people—and using them to lure in businesses.  These young professionals are highly mobile and will pack up and move to a great city, trusting that a job will be there.  Gone are the days when a graduating senior relocated to a run-of-the-mill town simply because she or he had a job offer.  Cortright says that cities who actively work to make themselves attractive to 25 to 34 year olds—by making people the focus of economic development efforts— are the ones that will come out on top.

This certainly isn’t the only demographic we should be courting.  The Columbia Chamber of Commerce, for instance, is doing a great job promoting Columbia as a home for retirees.  Although the emphasis on the number of hospitals we have seems to suggest this generation is bordering on the infirm, that’s certainly not the case.  Today’s retirees are “younger” than ever before.  You’re more likely to see them at rock concerts, brew pubs and rock climbing gyms than at senior centers.  No wonder the Chamber has this demographic in their sights.

However, a city comprised of college students and retirees won’t get us where we need to be.  We have to ask ourselves, what do we need to do to keep these young and talented professionals here in Columbia?

Part of the answer is amenities—a live music scene, recreational opportunities, a vital central city and a diverse and tolerant society. They’re more likely to be up on the latest innovations, the coolest technology and the hottest new podcast—so the local culture has to be open to innovative ideas.  And, in a statistic that’s close to my heart, they’re a third more likely to live within three miles of downtown—meaning more central city housing geared to 25 to 34 year olds.

The rest of the answer lies in our current relationship with our college students.  Have we welcomed them into our community or do we view them as the reason for the open container ordinance?  Do we have the tolerance for diversity necessary to attract young people from all walks of life?  Are we encouraging a climate where innovative, tech-based businesses can thrive? Do we know what they want, why they leave and where they are going?

Instead of breathing a sigh of relief when all the students leave for the summer, let’s find out what we need to do to get them to stick around.