Businesses revamping for the new millennials

November 14, 2011
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The economic sea change of the new millennium that has been hurried by the Great Recession was seen more than two decades ago by researchers and now is underscored by examples. Urban centers continue to show the most dramatic change, as cities from Austin to Seattle demonstrate.

So, too, is the opportunity of market response to millennial preferences understood in Grand Rapids and Detroit. The success of what each city makes of it affects the entire state, not just the communities.

As the Downtown Development Authority begins a search to replace the retiring and highly respected Jay Fowler, it must consider an entirely new set of parameters to move leadership to the next level.

The University of Michigan/Urban Land Institute annual real estate forum, held last week in Detroit, provided several emerging examples from both sides of the state. (The 26th annual conference will be held in Grand Rapids in 2012, giving this region face to the entire state.)

While Grand Rapids is acutely aware of the need for urban apartment housing, the titans in this business sector also are seeing the emergence of single-family housing as an unmet need in the same urban areas. Dozens of major retailers redrawing store plans that fit in urban environments include Home Depot, Kohl’s, Barnes & Noble — and Meijer Inc., which this year opened its first urban store in Chicago. The Windy City is in the top tier in attracting the young talent pools of millennials.

The city economic developers also have been keenly aware of the types of environments drawing the talent pools to various regions of the country. Incubator spaces for business start-ups and talent collectives like GRid70 and, most recently, MoDiv, accentuate Division’s Avenue of the Arts, which now boasts several new businesses seeking to connect to the creative class.

The work of Susan Mosey, who for all intents and purposes has created the new Midtown Detroit Inc., is a textbook example for Grand Rapids. One of the most recent indicators of that success, among dozens of new initiatives, is Kresge Foundation’s decision to move its headquarters to Midtown — the area now boasts 95 percent occupancy in its new housing projects. And Whole Foods is revamping its entire national template for its first urban store in Midtown.

Michigan Future Inc. president Lou Glazer has been unrelenting in the pursuit of new policies that focus on the fact of example after example of knowledge-based businesses moving to follow the talented and educated millennials. The data reported just weeks ago in an economic prosperity research paper created with University of Michigan economists shows how far each city has yet to go to attract that talent.

The good news is that the next report may show improvement, but that will be due to the leadership in the urban areas understanding the fundamentals of a new prosperity.

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