That’s the chicken and the egg economic development question cities like Duluth are increasingly asking. As I reported on All Things Considered, Duluth Mayor Don Ness has set a goal for Duluth to grow to 90,000 people by 2020.
To get there, Ness acknowledges the city has to come up with specific arguments for all age demographics “about why Duluth is a great place to live.” For instance, Ness wants to position Duluth as a “premier place for active retirees” to relocate.
But the sweetspot, both in terms of population growth and long-term economic development, is luring and retaining educated young professionals.
There are a couple reasons why it’s so important for cities like Duluth to target that 21-35 year-old demographic, according to Brookings Institution economist Joe Cortright.
First, “the peak demographic for moving in the U.S. is basically a 24 year old with a bachelors degree or more education,” explains Cortright. That’s when people are up for grabs. By your 35th birthday, your likelihood of moving across state lines drops by about half, and then continues to plummet. People get married, have kids, buy homes, get settled in careers, and it’s much harder to convince them to uproot,
Second, young professionals are needed to replace the baby boom generation as it retires. Cortright says we’re moving into a period of much slower labor force growth. As a result, “places that have a lot of talented workers, or to which it’s relatively easy to attract others, are more attractive to growing businesses.”
UMD senior Brian Spiese gets help with his LinkedIn profile from two student workers. Spiese is graduating in the fall with a degree in organizational management and wants to stay in Duluth, IF he can find a good job.
So how do you attract those workers that will in turn attact those growing businesses? With jobs, right? Mayor Ness points to companies like Maurice’s that are growing, creating jobs, and investing in their facilities.
But Ness also relentlessly touts Duluth’s quality of life. The growing network of hiking and mountain bike trails. The thriving arts and music scene downtown. The beauty of Lake Superior.
Ness says there are entrepreneurs in town who’ve started successful businesses (like GeaCom and Loll Designs) “who’ve chosen to live in Duluth and start their business in Duluth because of the trail system, because of the natural beauty of the city.”
Economist Joe Cortright says there’s truth to that. “We know that talented folks have lots of choices about where to live,” he says. So cities need to sell their strengths, what differentiates them from other communities.
It seems to be working in Duluth. The 2010 census showed the city gained 4,000 people between the ages of 20 and 34.
Don Ness isn’t satisfied yet. He wants Duluth to compete, not with Rochester and Bemidji and Morehead, but with thriving mid-size cities like Boulder, Colo., and Asheville, NC.
“Those are communities that have that strong sense of place, a strong university community, and young, creative entrepreneurs want to live in those communities because of the quality of life elements that they bring.”
“Duluth has all of those variables in spades,” Ness argues. “Now we just need to culminate that into one common vision, and start to be a growing community.”