Since 2013, I have been intimately involved with Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana in various capacities, and I currently serve as the organization's president. YLNI, which was formed 12 years ago by a small group of 20- and 30-something professionals and now has more than 200 members, has a laser focus on its mission to attract, develop and retain emerging leaders through community, professional and social engagement.
I am also heavily involved in the arts and culture community in our city and, along with being on many local event and organization committees, I currently sit on the board of directors at Cinema Center.
I feel that I have a unique perspective on our community thanks to the combination of my various civic roles over the years, my widely diverse group of friends, and my professional network. Because of this, I have heard many ideas as to what attracts and retains talent within our region.
One thing I can say is that while affordability is a factor in attracting and retaining individuals in our community, it's never mentioned first. The idea of affordability is always mentioned passively and it's never the focus – usually encapsulated in flighty statements like, “It's so affordable here, too.” “Too.” “As well.” “Secondary.”
My personal conversations and experiences aside, YLNI has proven evidence that, at least locally, young people in our community prioritize amenities over affordability.
When we've conducted surveys within our membership to gauge quality-of-life priorities, arts and entertainment, dining and retail, and vibrancy and inclusivity are consistently the most common responses. Through our polling, YLNI's membership consistently encourages our local and state governments to partner with local and regional economic development organizations to find viable solutions that would allow financing for economic development projects to come primarily from private funding, with support from public funds.
Our polling has not indicated a desire for us to explicitly advocate for maintaining the low cost of living. In fact, our local demographic supports quality-of-life investments, including initiatives such as the most recent local income tax increase.
While it may be beneficial for northeast Indiana to advertise our region as an affordable place to live, going solely all-in on “affordability” is likely to fail. Outside of big metropolitan cities where the cost of living is high, our cost of living is comparable to other cities our size in our region, according to recent research by Niche. Even in those much larger cities, i.e., the Chicagos of the world, young people still flock because of the quality-of-life amenities offered.
In order to stay competitive and increase our ability to attract and retain a diverse group of people, Fort Wayne needs to differentiate itself by investing in quality-of-life amenities.
According to the Knight Foundation, it has been pointed out that “85 percent of millennials say they prefer urban-style living.” Large economic development projects in our city, such as the Riverfront development, The Landing, Parkview Field, Ash Skyline Plaza and Electric Works, among others, are quality amenities that add to the urban lifestyle.
Like many other cities, Fort Wayne is looking to attract people right out of college. Many in this generation aren't planning to start families right away. They are seeking cities with opportunities to grow professionally and personally, with a vibrant urban setting being a main factor in their decision making.
A new report from the anti-sprawl organization Smart Growth America and the real estate consultants at Cushman & Wakefield looked at companies that have made the decision to relocate to downtown areas in their cities between 2010 and 2015. They asked why they've made that choice and how they might empower others to follow suit.
After conducting a survey of these 500 companies and interviewing executives at 45 of those businesses, they concluded that talent attraction and retention is the most common reason businesses decided to move to a downtown. Businesses just like those surveyed recognize that we need a vibrant urban lifestyle to attract and retain young people.
YLNI members continuously express that we need a vibrant and diverse city to bring people here and keep them here. Without the investments we've made in our own downtown, and our community as a whole, we would continue to simply be an “affordable city,” and that would be the end of our story.
I can confidently say that I would not be living in Fort Wayne today were it not for the quality-of-life improvements that we have invested in. One the biggest and most well-known of these improvements is Parkview Field in downtown Fort Wayne – a project that many looked down on, but it's now one of the crown jewels of our city.
I can't imagine a Fort Wayne where we had merely rested on our affordability and failed to pursue projects that continue to take our city from good to great. I am proud of this community for its vision and willingness to challenge, and even move past, the naysayers, and I am looking forward to the continued growth and development in our future. I know I'm not alone in that. Ever onward and upward – I love Fort Wayne.
Ryan Krueckeberg is president of Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana.
Published in the Journal Gazette on August 21, 2017