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Millennials come of age

New London gains perspectives on new generation

By John Faucher

The millennials are here.

According to a recent Goldman Sachs report, the millennial generation, 92 million strong, is the largest generation in U.S. history, and members are about to move into their prime spending years.

Born between 1980 and 2000, the millennial cohort is larger than even the Baby Boomer generation of 77 million people.

Dr. Karen S. Widmar, director of Small Business and Economic Development at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, visited New London on Tuesday, Nov. 24, to discuss attracting young entrepreneurs with the city’s economic development committee.

Widmar used the Goldman Sachs report as an anchor for the discussion.

Widmar has worked in the field of economic development, marketing and business leadership for nearly 20 years. Her doctoral dissertation focused on growth-minded entrepreneurs.

Much of her presentation focused on creating an entrepreneurial spirit and embracing culture in our community.

“I want to have an open dialogue with you tonight as we ask ourselves some important questions,” said Widmar.

She challenged the committee to look outside the traditional model of economic development from the past.

“You have a lot going on in this community of 7,200,” said Widmar. “You have a really good foundation here. It might be a bedroom community, but it’s not sleeping for sure.”

Prior to the meeting Widmar traveled around New London, and viewed the committee’s recent videos and other marketing materials.

She cautioned the committee about focusing all of its efforts on attracting large corporations and industry with large tracks of land and rail accessibility. She said that while those things are important, the committee should not ignore the economic shift and impact that millennials will have on the economy.

“You want to take a serious look at what message you are conveying,” said Widmar. “If we’re doing a video and you want to attract young people, you really want to make sure that your imagery and visuals are resonating with them and are relevant to who they are.”

Different priorities
Millennials typically carry more debt and have less money to spend; therefore, they are putting off commitments like marriage and home ownership as compared to previous generations.

“They do want to get married and want to have kids, but they want to wait,” said Widmar.

The percentage of young people married and living on their own has dropped by over 50 percent since the 1960s.

“The median marriage age is now age 30, as compared to age 23 in the 1970s,” said Widmar.

More and more millennials are staying at home longer, and when they do leave the nest, they are not buying, they are renting.

“Housing is another concern for our communities,” said Widmar. “We need to look at what types of housing are available.”

In some communities, millennials are having a hard time finding places to live.

“While there may be plenty of lower income or subsidized rentals available, young professionals often don’t qualify for that type of housing,” said Widmar.

That can be a challenge when trying to attract and retain young people.

Young professionals and entrepreneurs can also face challenges when seeking traditional financing, because of their educational debt. Widmar said this could be a big hurdle for start-up businesses.

Communities can offer technical assistance, mentors, matching grants, micro loans, and revolving loan programs to help attract start-ups.

“It’s important though that they have some sort of ‘skin in the game’ with these types of programs,” said Widmar.

Spending differently
When it comes to shopping and brand loyalty, millennials use the tools at their fingertips to compare prices in stores and online.

“Millennials typically look at maximum convenience at the lowest cost,” said Widmar.

“That doesn’t mean that retail is going away. There is still that human connection that people like. What’s happening with retail stores are that it’s not only now about ‘buying this cup’ it is about my experience when I go into that store to buy that cup.”

People are willing to go there because of the experience, atmosphere, or friendliness of shopping there.

Interesting car fact
According to Goldman Sachs, the ‘must haves’ of previous generations are not as important for millennials.

Thirty percent do not intend to purchase a car in the near future, and 25 percent said it may be important, but is not a big priority.

“For Millennials access is important, but not ownership,” said Widmar. “They will rely more on the economy of sharing. Twenty-five years from now car sharing will be the norm and car ownership an abnormality.”

That stirs an interesting economic development question for a possible future start-up.

“How do we put together car sharing programs for the rural areas?” Widmar asked. “That would be an interesting question to pose for students at the high school.”

She encouraged committee members to have a dialogue with younger people in order to gain their perspective.

“Ask them what they want, or what they’d like to see, and then wait. Listen to what they are telling us,” she added.

Some of them may be surprised, because no one has asked them before, she said.

“You have to be ready for what you’re going to hear,” said Widmar.

Healthier generation
Wellness is important for millennials. When surveyed, less Millennials approved of smoking, and a majority chose to eat healthier and exercise on a daily basis.

“These folks want to be healthy, they want to live that healthy lifestyle and they want to be in a community that embraces that healthy lifestyle,” said Widmar. “They want walkable communities, outdoor opportunities, and places to meet each other and socialize in groups.”

Less government roadblocks
“One of the reasons a lot of people aren’t going into business anymore is because of government regulations,” said Widmar. “They’re often tight, and so challenging for small businesses.”

Widmar encouraged the committee to look within and examine the city’s own policies and restrictions. he provided a few example questions.

“What businesses can you encourage that don’t require a lot of licensing and permits? Does your community embrace variances for your zoning ordinances? How receptive are your board members to people who want to start a business in their home?”

Widmar explained that while she understood there is a need for some zoning and ordinances to be in place for signs and truck traffic and other concerns, she asked, “If it’s somebody working on a computer in their home, why stop them?”

She gave an example of a multi-million dollar marketing firm that built in a small Upper Michigan community of 400 people. It purchased an old church rectory in a residential district in order to open an office workspace and it was almost stopped by the village. Ultimately they granted a variance and the business thrived in the neighborhood without any problems.

Widmar gave the committee several examples of ‘makerspace’ buildings that were developed in other communities with success.

She noted there currently is one in Appleton, Green Bay, and another in Milwaukee. There is also a Fabrication Lab at FVTC.

The maker’s space concept typically brings in tools and equipment for the trades such as wood working, metal, sewing, art, engineering and design and often operates from some donated and some purchased equipment and goods. People can rent space and share equipment to create new things.

“It’s kind of like bringing all these individual garages into one big one with shared equipment,” said Widmar. “Sometimes it’s about businesses being spawned from it but sometimes it just about people getting together, being creative and creating things. These creative people get together and it’s like their own little lab.”

Widmar told the committee it may be something worth looking into if the city could find a building to do it in.

“It doesn’t really cost a lot of money, it gets you exposure and helps you develop the champions in your community,” said Widmar.

At the conclusion of Widmar’s presentation, committee chairperson Dave Morack stated, “Wow, there is certainly a lot of food for thought here.” Committee members agreed, and asked to place further discussion of the presentation on the next agenda.

Alderperson Ron Steinhorst said, “I don’t think we’ve really dealt with the idea of age at all in the past.”

Mayor Gary Henke said he thought it might be a good idea to continue the discussion and invite a group of high school students to a committee meeting for an open dialogue.

Widmar encouraged them to talk with parents and college or technical college students as well, and she offered to come back and help facilitate the discussion.

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