Millennials choosing area because of family

Progress being made to create destination city

Most millennials moving to Owensboro have some family connection to the area, outside the lure of high-paying jobs or a better quality of life.

That’s according to an informal survey the Messenger-Inquirer conducted this week involving more than two dozen young people between the ages of 18 and 37 who call Owensboro home. The results come after months of high-profile news coverage naming the city among the top destinations for millennial homebuyers.

Other American cities also making that list, which is a compilation of mortgage data by processing software giant Ellie Mae, are coming to similar conclusions about who is buying up available real estate and why. That may come as a reality check for some city institutions eager to capitalize on what is believed to be a growing market.

Mayor Tom Watson has been vocal about his concerns with young people leaving the community for better jobs or educational opportunities elsewhere; perhaps there still remains an allure for some people to return in their youth. But Watson and other city leaders with the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce, for example, have also showcased the millennial trend as a return on public infrastructure and social investments.

They say Owensboro is attracting millennials because of its low cost of living, good jobs, short commutes, schools, parks and more. Millennials participating in the M-I survey this week often did note those pluses. But they didn’t say that’s why they moved to Owensboro.

Rather, that’s why they stayed.

It may seem like an insignificant distinction, but it could mark an important roadblock in defining Owensboro as a destination city.

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” said Chamber Young Professionals President Andrew Howard. “But I don’t think it reflects poorly on us. You can look at that from the aspect that, through people’s connections and experiences they’ve had here, Owensboro was basically a diamond in their hearts.”

And Chamber President Candance Brake agreed. She said she understands why family ties or deep roots to the region may be the only reason a young person moves to Owensboro, but ensuring that they stay is great news and certainly worth building on. The next step will be marketing the region as worth the chance on merit alone.

“That’s been our goal for a long time,” she said. “That’s why we’ve consistently capitalized on innovation strategies … Now is the time to engage millennials and make them a part of those conversations. They should help in deciding what makes Owensboro a cool place to live, and I think they are beginning to.”

So what would make Owensboro a place worth moving to for millennials — despite, say, a family connection? Over the course of two days and in four local bars and restaurants, the Messenger-Inquirer asked 26 young people born between 1980 and 1999 what brought them here and what they liked and disliked about Owensboro.

More than 90 percent of the men and women surveyed said they wanted more and higher quality entertainment options. Many noted outdoor destination districts such as Fourth Street Live in Louisville or Newport on the Levee in Newport.

“I grew up in Nashville,” said 27-year-old Seth Barron, a restaurant manager in Owensboro. “I didn’t like the hustle and bustle and crowded spaces of a big city, and I appreciate the different kind of atmosphere this place has, but it’s definitely lacking entertainment options.”

Dave Roberts, a 37-year-old married man with children who works in business development, said he loves the people in Owensboro, but he wishes some of them wouldn’t be so narrow-minded. He owns a home here, and sometimes he wishes he had more choices or places to go on a Friday or Saturday night.

Marie Norris, 21, who was raised in Owensboro, said she doesn’t think she’ll be coming back when she finishes her college degree.

“There isn’t that much to do, really, she said. “I don’t feel like there are opportunities for me here at all. Plus, it’s too familiar. It’s not like Louisville or Nashville or anything.”

According to Ellie Mae’s Millennial Tracker, about 45 percent of the home buyers in Owensboro are millennials, mainly men relying on a mix of conventional loans or federally-backed mortgages. Exactly 50 percent are married. They’re buying homes appraised at an average of $137,000 and taking out about a $123,000 mortgage loan with a 4.2 percent note rate. They are about 28 years old, on average.

Many of the U.S. cities that routinely make the list are hardly metropolitan at all, with populations well below Owensboro’s 60,000. But one city — Aberdeen, South Dakota — is quite similar. It’s metropolitan area is about 42,000 people. It’s largest employer is a regional health care provider and it even has several smaller to mid-sized post-secondary educational institutions.

Not unlike Owensboro, Aberdeen Mayor Mike Levsen recently oversaw the activation of tax increment financing districts in the region, not to build on retail losses but to house a growing demand for employees in the area. Levsen said he doesn’t put much stake in reports that his city has become a destination for millennials.

“A lot of times that’s probably just due to a quirk in the numbers,” he said. “We try to attract anybody to move here, because we’ve had a shortage of employees and it’s limited our ability to attract new businesses. We don’t have the luxury of attracting one particular group of people over another.”

The mayor warned against trying to prevent young people from moving away from their hometown to go to school elsewhere or find better jobs. It’s an inevitability, he said.

“The idea of keeping your own young people home is self-delusion,” he said. “What you need to do is decide on how to replace them. People don’t want to talk about it, but I think you replace them with first-generation Americans and minority workers. If you don’t make your community welcome, friendly and accommodating to people who need assistance to get started in this country and economy, you’re missing the boat.”

Why? Levsen said birth rates paint a dire picture in communities who want to remain shielded from diverse demographics. That’s the quickest way to die out, he said.

Back in Owensboro, Andrew Howard and his wife Brittany, who are millennials, are celebrating the birth of their first child, Kensington, who was born last week. Owensboro, Brittany Howard said, becomes an even more welcoming place when you’re a parent, because it seems like it was built for young families like her own.

But the couple, hundreds of miles away from South Dakota or the problems the “millennial destination” may face, has the same, eerie advice for Owensboro’s future: “Owensboro has come a long way,” Andrew Howard said. “But perhaps it could be more accepting to new ideas, new trends, innovations, and, most importantly, people. Maybe that’s what creates growth.”

By Austin Ramsey Messenger-Inquirer