Ideas on the Next Generation attractiveness of Northeast Ohio

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Sun, 06/05/2005 - 20:55.

The June 2nd WVIZ Ideas TV program explored what makes a city “cool�, by considering the former “Rubber City� of Akron's efforts to understand Generation X (folks born 1961-1981), which is the “Gold Standard� in the knowledge based economy. Akron is the first city in this region to analyze this critical economic development sector, with their Chamber of Commerce hiring the world-experts on the subject, Next Generation Consulting, of Madison, WI. Led by their Gen X CEO, Rebecca Ryan, Akron is comparing its Generation X appeal versus that of many of America’s most vibrant cities, like San Francisco, Seattle, Denver and Minneapolis.

Ideas asked Next Generation’s
CEO Rebecca Ryan to share some insight from their ongoing analysis. She
pointed out that of the seven categories of her analysis, Akron is average
for five and well above average for two – nighttime activity and
vitality (which considers number of park, trails and recreational
resources). She highlighted that one Gen-X she interviewed about Akron
said “Akron isn’t a city with a park – Akron is a city in a park�. Ryan
says “knowledge workers spend their days behind a desk and a computer
and then want to stretch their legs after work�.

They also want
a vibrant urban experience. When asked “is there enough growth going on
in Akron to attract the Gen-x� she responded there is growth in area
suburbs, but “you can’t be a suburb to nothing�, meaning we need to
grow the urban core that is the reason the suburbs exist. The Next Generation Consulting website
points out “Today, three out of four Americans under the age of 28
first pick a place to live and then find a job. With a shrinking pool
of talent from which to pick, companies go where the talent is. How is
your community positioning itself to attract talent and the companies
that follow it?� For communities that care, like Akron, Next Generation
conducts a seven category, 43-factor comparative analysis of Gen-X
appeal that is comprehensive and actionable.

pointed out some opportunities that Ryan’s analysis surfaced are free
to implement, like changing city restaurant ordinances to allow outdoor
Al Fresco dining, while others will require investments, like hiring a
Generation-X liaison for the city.

33-year-old Ryan is dedicated to the study of Generation X, having interviewed more Xers than anyone else on Earth (over 10,000) in her work supporting regions and corporations that realize their futures depend on success with this “Gold Standard� population. As REALNEO reported in May, when Ryan’s work for Akron was first made public, only 4% of NEOs 18-24 have loyalty to this region, vs. 25% nationwide, and only 35% of NEO residents in general feel there is good opportunity here for the young, vs. 69% nationwide.

Ryan points out Akronites tend to talk down about their community. She
says, “of people who recently moved to Akron, Akronites ask, “why did
you move here?�… tend to look down at their feet� – “but, outside
Akron, there is no stigma of Akron as the Rubber City or as rust
belt� – “we’re working with a blank canvas, which is good�.

Being the southern anchor of 4.5 million person Northeast Ohio, what
works for Akron matters for the whole region. Akron is at the forefront
of the region in strategizing how to develop, retain and attract Generation-Xers, which is exactly what all of NEO needs
to learn.

How Akron has articulated a Generation X vision is exciting. A few
months ago, their arts and young professional leaders hosted
world-renowned artist and musician (founder of the Talking Heads) David
Byrne to speak on “Why I Love PowerPoint� – reported on REALNEO here and here.
This event was held at Akron’s stunning new downtown library, which on
a Saturday was packed with patrons – 100s of computers in use by the
public. Across the street one saw the expanding, renowned Akron Art
Museum rising up. And in support of young professionalism, Akron hosts
many public parties downtown.

Ryan spoke of a recent such public event,
where she reported “there was a beautiful mix of people who came
together to celebrate Akron through the eyes of the next generation�.

When asked about leadership in Akron, Ryan points out Mayor Donald L. Plusquellic says “we are open to do things differently here�, as proven by the fact Akron was first city in region to look at appeal to Gen X, and having a young professionals association is leading edge. As a consultant to corporations, as well as communities, Ryan says the argument she makes to businesses is, when rolling out a new product “you study everything in the market – employers need to recognize what their next generation of employees want, and most employers lag in this.� Cities must think and do the same way.

Ryan further points out, cost of lifestyle is one index that matters to Gen Xers and Akron is good. When Ideas asked Ryan “if you couldn’t live in Madison would you live in Akron�, she responded she enjoys Akron - is always struck by what’s happening – "yeah, I’d live here�.

While not to be released in full to the
public until late this summer, Ryan's work is already driving a
culture change in Akron that is transformational. David Giffels, who covers the metro beat for the Akron Beacon Journal, and knows Ryan and her work well, told Ideas that “Ryan has been a good mirror for the people of Akron to see their lives through different eyes�. But, he admits a lot of people in Akron bristle at the term "cool", saying “we’re the cool nerd of mid-size Midwest cities – we can’t be a mini-LA".

David points out that because of Ryan's work in Akron there has been healthy dialogue about who we are and should be, saying Akron needs to look at Gen X opportunities in three phases: 1. Keep college educated natives here, 2. Attract back those who left, 3. Attract strangers. David says lots of leaders jump to the 3rd phase but he suggests taking care of the first two phases first.

Ideas quoted David as writing that at a recent Gen X party for young professionals in Akron he saw “punk, prep and pastor� mingling together. David said that 10 years ago such a party would have failed, but through grass roots promotion it attracted a huge and very diverse cross section of Akronites and that at this party all types of different people interacted. David also pointed out that Akron’s too small a place to be elitist or exclusionist.

When asked if Akron leaders are leading the Generation X movement well, David said Ryan’s work has become subject of conversation at all levels, all over town. Further, he explained, 10 years ago area leaders talked about how to fill empty storefronts downtown, whereas recently several important, large-scale downtown commercial and multi-use projects were launched, each featuring strong public-private partnerships. In every case, the Mayor has stressed these are very attractive projects for young professionals.

Read more on this on REALNEO here.

Read more on this from Giffels at the Akron Beacon Journal.