Selling a Vibe: What it Takes to Lure Today’s Talent
By Sharon Fitzgerald
“What’s interesting about Detroit right now is that it’s all about building and growth and redefining things and believing that individuals can make a big difference. That comes through in this building, in the city and the fact that we’re at the front lines for change.”
Those are the words of Jake Cohen, vice president at Detroit Venture Partners. This avant-garde venture-capital firm backs early-stage technology companies and proclaims that its purpose is “to help rebuild the Detroit area through entrepreneurial fire.” Located in a downtown historical theater owned and renovated by the real estate investment company of one of its partners, DVP is in a “cool, trendy, gritty but also refined space,” Cohen says. It is an illustration of the kind of milieu that attracts today’s top, young talent — surroundings that are urban and maybe even a little funky.
“When we sell DVP to people, we sell that they get to be a part of this whole environment, this whole place, this moment in time,” Cohen says.
That vibe is exactly what Michelle Elder is banking on. She’s a program manager for the Michigan Economic Development Corp., and her project is LiveWorkDetroit! It is an initiative launched last year that literally buses college students from their campuses to spend time in Detroit, meeting potential employers, networking with young professionals and enjoying slices of city culture, arts and entertainment. The events even include tours of residential areas. “Young people are interested in knowing where they are going to buy their groceries and where they’re going to go out and have fun, understanding truly what the place is before they commit to it,” Elder says. “In fact, most of them make a decision to move to a particular place before they even start looking at job opportunities.”
It is a new approach to economic development, and one experts say will be essential for communities looking to stay ahead of the curve in the competition for job creating, entrepreneurial ventures and the talent that fuels them.
Elder acknowledges that Michigan “has a problem with young people leaving the state after they graduate.” Yet she notes that most of them land in another state’s urban environment. The idea behind LiveWorkDetroit! is to showcase the Motor City’s metropolitan offerings, from professional sports to its Christmas tree lighting, which was attended by LiveWorkDetroit! visitors in November 2011.
Jon Darbyshire understands the importance of place and space. That’s why he will relocate the offices and the entrepreneurial incubator of the Archer Foundation to Park Place in Leawood, Kan., this year. “It’s really all about community, and one of the reasons we selected that area was that it would be very easy for us to attract employees,” he says.
In 2010, Darbyshire sold his own company, Archer Technologies, and the proceeds are allowing his family to focus on community service in the Kansas City metro area. Thus, the Archer Foundation was established with missions that include scholarships, help for single mothers and assistance to young entrepreneurs working to bring their ideas to market. That support to fledgling businesses includes free space at Park Place for six months to a year.
With professional and Class A office space, residences, shops, salons, a hotel, entertainment venues and even an outdoor ice rink for winter skating, Park Place is the kind of live-work-play community that can contribute to the success of the technology companies the Archer Foundation is supporting. “If you’re a small startup company tucked in the back of a building in a small office with limited windows and just a very poor presentation, when candidates walk through the door, it’s not an environment that’s going to motivate or stimulate them,” Darbyshire says. “Until they have enough money to actually afford the type of office space that does allow that creativity and stimulation, they’ll be housed in our location.”
Growing Creative Economy Clusters
Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley and its three primary cities of Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton are embracing the live-work-play notion as well. “People want to live where they work, and folks are not excited about an hour commute. The closer they can live to where they work, the better,” says Mike Stershic, president of Discover Lehigh Valley, the region’s promotional organization. He adds, “If we can offer amenities to the employees, that’s going to encourage the employees to live closer by. Plus, the companies are going to locate where employees are living.”
Stershic points to the SteelStacks development on the former site of Bethlehem Steel as an example of Lehigh Valley venues that are attracting and helping retain young talent. The arts and cultural campus features a multitude of performance stages (with the blast furnaces as a backdrop), open grounds for festivals, a two-screen independent cinema and the Public Media and Education Center with television studios for PBS39. Also in Bethlehem is the Sands Casino.
Downtown and neighborhood revitalizations are proving popular sites for young professionals in Lehigh Valley. Bethlehem’s charm and walkability are draws, Stershic says, and a “restaurant row” features outdoor dining options and top-quality cuisine. Easton boasts a thriving arts community where a significant number of New York artists have relocated. In Allentown, historic preservation is a priority, as are plans to build a new arena. Lehigh Valley’s 11 higher-education institutions are a lure, too. “Many younger folks are looking for not only the cultural and sports things, but they’re also looking for some intellectual stimulation,” Stershic notes.
Cultivating what makes a locale distinctive is vital to catching the eye of today’s discriminating talent. Mississippi believes it has embraced that philosophy with the launch of its Creative Economy Initiative, which is a partnership between the Mississippi Development Authority and the Mississippi Arts Commission. The idea is to support creative people, enterprises and places, thus boosting tourism, revitalizing communities, inspiring innovation, encouraging entrepreneurs, and growing industry and manufacturing.
In 2005, Malcolm White joined the MAC as its executive director, bringing to the job his experience as owner of a downtown Jackson restaurant and live music venue occupying a 1923 refurbished warehouse. He knew that nurturing the arts and creating jobs could go hand-in-hand, resulting in economic development that could be “more inventive and innovative,” he says.
A 2008 study commissioned to examine the economic impact of Mississippi’s creativity revealed that the sector employed 61,000 people and represented 3.7 percent of the total state economy. “We were blown away that we had this inventory and that we could potentially grow it, develop it, nurture it and create a new economy for us based on our own story,” White recalls. He acknowledges that Mississippi’s Creative Economy was “kind of a tough sell to the traditional economic developers, who had done industry and agriculture and service. This was a new idea to them. Now we’re really building off the momentum.”
White describes the initiative as “a holistic approach that starts with communities telling their own story, and then you build this civic pride.” That is when these communities become appealing places to live. “Younger people today are more mobile,” White says. “These young entrepreneurs can really live, work and play anywhere, and more and more they’re choosing to come to Mississippi.”
For complete details on the organizations featured in this article, visit:
Archer Foundation, www.archerfoundation.com
Detroit Venture Partners, www.detroitventurepartners.com
Discover Lehigh Valley (Pa.), www.discoverlehighvalley.com
LiveWorkDetroit!, a program of the Michigan Economic Development Corp., www.facebook.com/LiveWorkDetroit
Mississippi Arts Commission, www.mscreativeeconomy.com