Millennials FINALLY like Cincinnati

Posted at 5:00 AM, Jan 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-11 15:03:14-05

CINCINNATI -- They’re said to be lazy and narcissistic, and jump from job to job. They’re also open-minded, upbeat, always willing to try new things.

There’s no neat definition to describe them, yet organizations of all kinds from all over Cincinnati are bending over backward to attract them: millennials – and by broader definition, young professionals, those who are 45 and under.

Why? Because they have purchasing power, with peak years still ahead. They’re more likely to engage in the heart of their community. They’re the most populous: those born between 1980 and 2000 now outnumber even baby boomers.

But, bottom line, maybe it just makes good business sense.

“They’re the future leaders of our country,” said Jill Meyer, president and CEO of the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber. “It’s just obvious that, if you’re building for a sustainable future, you get them on board – and they have to be believing in what you’re doing.”

For years, Cincinnati has paced behind its peers when it came to attracting and retaining millennials and YPs en-masse. It uses programs like Agenda 360 to compare itself to Austin, Texas; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Raleigh, N.C., and cities like Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis and the like.

Since 2007, the Greater Cincinnati area has experienced only a modest increase, Meyer said. But the most recent data proves 2014 brought the biggest gains – 7,146 YPs were added to the region’s roster in that year alone, nearly three times the 2,600 new YPs tallied in 2013.

That’s a “huge win,” Meyer says. She’s confident it means more aggressive growth going forward.

“There have been ups and downs,” Meyer said. “But in the last year or two, the rate of increase is really taking a nice stride forward. We’re pretty confident we’re on the right path. Some of it happens organically, but a lot of it’s been intentional, people looking at this in different ways, and certainly leadership programs focused on YPs. I think you’ll see more coordinated and deliberate efforts coming out of the chamber, REDI Cincinnati and groups like that.”

One new effort, at least, gives those efforts a little more creative muster – and, figuratively at least, puts money directly in the hands of YPs. ArtsWave, a local arts agency, recently created a young professionals grant program that will fund programs specifically targeted to YPs. Monies could tally as much as $25,000. And award recipients would be handpicked by YPs themselves, members of an ArtsWave panel.

Besides being YP-inclusive, the programming must be participatory, social and recurring. It should also encourage personal investment in the community. In ArtsWave’s most recent 10-year plan, called Blueprint for Collective Action, attracting and retaining YPs is listed as a major goal. The grant program gives that initiative teeth.

“We know there’s a desire (by YPs) to be involved in the action, to make a difference in their community,” said Alecia Kintner, ArtsWave CEO. “The program makes us authentic about saying we want activity that appeals to YPs. How that translates, we don’t know yet. But there are lots of great examples of activities already.”

Like the Cincinnati Playhouse, she said, which created a performance piece called “Selfie the Play” this fall. Part improv, part scripted, it took place in a series of bars around town on a trio of Saturday nights. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Cincinnati Art Museum, and Cincinnati Opera all have YP boards or committees. There are discounted tickets to shows, events tied to happy hours and volunteer opportunities galore. There’s the Young Professionals Choral Collective, a singing group, which has one of the largest rosters of YPs in the city.

That’s no accident. Arts organizations, Meyer said, may be moving the needle more significantly than anything else.

“I think if you just look around, you can see a lot of the energy comes from that whole young, creative artistic population,” Meyer said. “Most of our major arts organizations have a really energetic set of young people who are making things happen in a different way. And this includes arts organizations with a historic population of patrons that aren’t necessarily in the YP set. They were very intentional. It’s working.”

Young Professionals Choral Collective, or YPCC for short, was formed in November 2011 at Below Zero Lounge, when 20 people gathered to sing Christmas carols. YPCC now has 638 singers on its roster, all YPs between the ages of 21 and 45, ranking it among the largest groups of its kind in the city.

Instead of simply engaging in the arts, YPCC creates it. The choir performs four six-week concert cycles each year, making it convenient – millennials and YPs can sign up when their schedules allow but still remain active in the group if not. Members perform in spaces – primarily bars and other venues – in Over-the-Rhine, considered ground zero for where YP’s want to be, The Woodward Theater most recently, and the Transept upcoming in March.

“Word’s gotten out about Over-the-Rhine now, but when YPCC started, the cat wasn’t quite out of the bag,” said Jenny Spring, chorus manager. “We try to stay on top of what’s new and exciting, and they like that.

“I grew up in Cincinnati. I’ve lived here my whole life, and there was a time I did not want to stay. But now, Cincinnati is cool, and the arts are a big reason,” she added. “Arts vitalize communities, and in order for the arts to be sustainable – or anything really – younger people have to buy in.”

The Symphony relies largely on its flagship YP program, called Encore, but CSO Ignite and MusicNOW also have a YP focus. CSO Ignite offers $12 best available tickets for those 30 and under or full-time students. MusicNOW is a festival that merges classical, rock and indie genres. A majority of Encore members are transplants to Cincinnati, said Meghan Berneking, communications director, and this is the way they make friends and discover something new.

“It’s about increasing awareness and attendance for the CSO. It lets people know how cool the CSO can really be,” Berneking said. “We’re always going to play Beethoven and Mozart, because it’s amazing, incredible music that’s attractive to all demographics. But things like MusicNOW, using these different genres, something like 35 percent of that audience had never attended a CSO event before. That’s huge for us. People come to hear music they want to hear.”

Back at ArtWave, roughly 10 percent of its 42,000 donors in a recent campaign self-identified as 40 and under, and they contributed about $700,000 in all. Kintner wants to hit $1 million in the next two years. She expects other stats to improve, too, but doesn’t think Cincinnati has tipped the scales just yet.

“We have to do some catch-up,” she said. “Compared to ‘hot cities’ like an Austin or New York, we’re just totally different, so how do we capitalize on what we have? We have many positive attributes, but not necessarily the same reputation. We’re fighting a little bit against what people don’t know about us. How do we keep people here? How do we increase (a YP’s) connection to the community? How do we make them feel like this is a place they can give back? Through the arts.”

That's not to say arts are the only driving force. At 84.51°, for example, the consumer analytics firm formerly known as dunnhumbyUSA but acquired by Kroger in 2015, roughly 45 percent of its 600 employees are millennials. GE has said it chose The Banks as the site for its new U.S. global operations center because the location – and proximity to transit, including the streetcar – would be attractive to millennials and YPs.

Meyer admits it’s a generation that often get a bad rap, but the changes they’re ushering in can be “refreshing.”

“There’s all this conversation about how ‘different’ millennials are,” Meyer said. “Millennials grew up with technology, there’s this edginess that they’ve come to expect as the norm. That’s really different from boomers. But I believe millennials are no different than any other generation,” she added. “Everybody wants meaningful work. Everybody wants to be happy and to feel like they’re making an impact. The difference is millennials have the luxury of saying, ‘No, thank you,’ when they’re not getting that. I think that’s actually a plus, because it forces every business and every community to say, ‘What are we doing to be purposeful?’ ”

Mark Wilson, HR rep at 84.51°, says millennials make great employees. The company is using some of the same theories behind its innovation with Kroger to avoid the notoriously high turnover rates their generation is known for churning. It seems to be working.

“If you think about what we do for Kroger, trying to define what drives customer loyalty, we’re on the cusp of doing that for our employees. You almost need to take the same approach,” Wilson said. “Now it’s just a matter of how do we execute it? We have all the supporting pieces: a great new building (at the corner of Fifth and Race streets), support from an organization that’s had tremendous success in terms of Kroger. Millennials want to work in a more collaborative environment, and they really want to be part of a company that puts an emphasis on giving back to the community in a variety of ways.

“I think the city has finally got it right," Wilson continued. “When I graduated school, the only reason to come downtown was to go to a Reds or Bengals game, and that was about it. It was a ghost town after 5 or 6 (o’clock). I think between the mix between restaurants and nightlife, really everything from The Banks to a revitalized downtown, it’s a perfect storm of events to make this a destination, and we’ve seen some of the results of that. From 84.51’s perspective, we’re very appreciative to be part of that.”

Follow Liz on Twitter: @_LizEngel