For small cities that want to build a thriving tech hub, the first step is getting more startups to set up shop. But the second, sometimes trickier step is getting Millennials to come to town to work for said startups.

While many towns are trying to lure younger talent by branding themselves as cheaper places to live, the city of Erwin, Tennessee, (population 6,000) decided that it needed to give Millennials a stake in the rebranding process. So it created a Millennial focus group to help advise the city.

Erwin's mayor, Doris Hensley, recently gave an interview with Governing magazine where she explained the city's approach to recruiting Millennials. Erwin's troubles began to accelerate in 2015, when one of the city's major employers, CSX railroads, shuttered its presence there, cutting 360 jobs. Then, Erwin lost another 180-some jobs when "another industry saw substantial layoffs," Hensley told Governing.

Hensley first turned to the city's remaining business owners, asking them what concerns they wanted the city to address. Their answer: help us find ways to bring more young workers to town. So Hensley contacted some of the remaining manufacturers in town and spoke with some of their younger employees--most of whom didn't live in Erwin--about what the city could do to convince more Millennials to make Erwin their home. Hensley told Inc. that the Millennial focus group also went in "groups of two or three" to meet with local business owners in towns like nearby Asheville, North Carolina, and Arbingdon, Virginia, to pitch them on scoping out Erwin. Hensley reported some of her findings to Governing:

Their [the millennials'] concern was that there was no activity in town where they could get out after work and relax and do things. We have [hiking] trails, but a lot of them wanted to come to town and have a nice beer or sit-down meal someplace. Now restaurants are able to sell liquor drinks, and you don't have to go to a neighboring county for alcohol.

They also wanted mixed-use zoning downtown and a place where they could play or listen to music. They mentioned jazz bars. Mostly what they want is restaurants, breweries and entertainment to keep them occupied as well as bring in those from outside. They wanted for us to be recognized as a destination.

Hensley told Governing that since the Millennial focus group first met in 2015, approximately nine new businesses have come to town. She told Inc. that she estimated four owners of those businesses relocated from other places to Erwin. She also pointed to a newly added annual outdoor festival, weekly farmers market, and loosening of liquor laws as changes that were suggested by the focus group. Her goal is to recruit a business to town that could provide somewhere between 150-400 jobs. Beyond helping to attract more businesses, Hensley says the Millennial focus group has been vital to creating a pipeline of young leaders in Erwin.

"They are the future leaders of the town, so you need to not only get them involved and makes them feel like they are invested in their neighborhood, but it will also teach them about civics, and what goes on in their local government," Hensely told Inc.

Many cities big and small have found that, like Erwin, it often takes more than just branding themselves as a less costly place to live to convince the younger set to come and visit. In 2015, the Columbus, Ohio, Visitors Bureau launched a campaign called "Life in CBus" that featured--as Mother Jones described it--"warmly filtered collages of Instagram-culled images from Columbus--bikes, craft beer, friendly dudes with beards."

A 2016 survey of 2,000 Millennials conducted by apartment hunting site Abodo found that respondents listed a thriving job market and affordable rent as their most desired features in a city. But they also indicated quality-of-life factors like proximity to parks or hiking trails, and a number of local, non-chain restaurants were almost just as important.

The biggest question is just how many more Millennials these campaigns will actually bring to town. A June study from the Urban Land Institute found that it is smaller cities like Virginia Beach and Memphis, Tennessee, that saw the largest percentage increase of Millennial residents from 2010 to 2015. That may indicate that there's some hope for the Erwins of the country.

Published on: Jul 18, 2017