Keeping Our Cool

Seemingly every week, a new poll or report comes out ranking Charlotte at or near the top in the number of people moving here, airport growth, housing gains, office building increases, best place for this, great place for that. It’s the kind of news that excites boosters. They’re excited, all right. Perhaps a little too excited.

Two local initiatives are under way to strengthen Charlotte’s appeal to young professionals. But we already attract more young people than all but two cities in the country. So what’s all the fuss about?

Seemingly every week, a new poll or report comes out ranking Charlotte at or near the top in the number of people moving here, airport growth, housing gains, office building increases, best place for this, great place for that. It's the kind of news that excites boosters. They're excited, all right. Perhaps a little too excited.

There's a growing concern within some civic organizations and business circles about Charlotte's appeal to young professionals. "What can we do to get them to move here?" "And once they're here, how do we keep them?" Questions like those sometimes lead to focus groups, which often lead to committees, which then become initiatives. Two separate efforts have launched within the last six months. The Charlotte Chamber formed Engage Charlotte to help the city attract and retain young professionals. And Charlotte was selected as one of three pilot cities to work with the Knight Creative Communities Initiative to develop an environment where it believes creative people can contribute to the city's economic success.

Reports show that this city is doing very well attracting young people. The 2000 census placed Charlotte as the third fastest-growing area for people ages twenty-five to thirty-nine. Even Ivanka Trump, the twenty-six-year-old daughter of Donald Trump, said recently during a visit to Charlotte, "We noticed a lot of our college friends were moving here from New York to start families. Now we see why they are coming." So why all the concern? Hey, this is Charlotte. If we're known for anything, it's for striving to be someplace better. Charlotte isn't satisfied with being third in attracting young talent. So the committees are meeting. They may not know exactly what they're up to (buzz words like "engage" and "cultivate" come up a lot), but at least they're putting in the work.

Eleanor Raispis is pumped. She says there are a lot of people who want to get involved in their city but don't know how. She plans to help them. Raispis is one of thirty-one volunteers chosen to be catalysts for the Knight Creative Community Initiative in Charlotte. About eighty people applied when the project began accepting volunteer nominations in January.

"The application was thought provoking and creative," says Raispis, forty-one and a senior project manager and vice president for Wachovia. She says even the survey questions for the bio were different. [They] fostered creative thinking right off the bat. One of the questions was ‘Name three of your favorite sounds.' "

The Knight Creative Community Initiative is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a private nonprofit that works within twenty-six cities where its founders ran newspapers. Charlotte was chosen as one of three cities nationwide to participate in this pilot program (Tallahassee, Florida, and Duluth, Minnesota, are the others). To spearhead the project, the Knight Foundation has hired consultant Richard Florida and his Creative Class Group for $585,000. The Knight Foundation has also partnered with several influential local organizations, including the Arts & Science Council, Charlotte Regional Partnership, Foundation for the Carolinas, and UNC-Charlotte Urban Institute. In addition to ongoing support, these organizations contributed about $15,000 to a two-day seminar featuring Florida that was held in April to launch the project.

"The first day was very inspiring, hearing [Florida] talk about our possibilities as a city," Raispis says. "We're recognized as a great place to foster these things, bring in new ideas, and also celebrate, promote, and engage what we already have."

Florida, well known for his talks and books on economic competitiveness and demographic trends, is founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Creative Class Group. His team is often hired by companies and civic groups to implement strategies for economic growth. Florida emphasizes that four Ts are critical to economically successful communities: talent, technology, tolerance, and territory assets.

"Richard Florida has a very interesting idea about economic development, and it's based on the rise of the creative class—people who use their creativity and their minds instead of their muscle," says Susan Patterson, program director for the Charlotte region of the Knight Foundation.

The thirty-one volunteers have been divided into six teams, and the initiatives they are working on include promoting environmentally friendly businesses, assessing how people are working outside of their homes and offices (known as "third places"), connecting local artists, and evaluating the redevelopment potential of fledgling parts of town such as the Eastland Mall area. Admittedly in its early stages, the work of the six teams remains vague.

 "They're in the process of doing due diligence—research, information gathering to flesh out these initiatives," Patterson says. "We want to see if they'll have legs. The intent is for this team of thirty not to do the work alone, but to engage other members of the community. That's why they're called catalysts."

Amanda Styron, project director for Creative Class Group, oversees the operation of the Knight project. She says the key to its success will be community involvement, and young people play an important role. In other words, it's not important what young folks are doing, as long as they're doing something.

"I see young people today taking on civic initiative, often with their own new creative spin," Styron says. "Each generation learns and builds from the previous one. Our parents' generation was involved in a way that made sense for them, and still is. So are today's young people."

Young professionals should feel special. A lot of effort is going into determining what they're looking for in a city they decide to call home. Engage Charlotte, an affiliate of the Charlotte Chamber, is attempting to be the go-to organization for young professionals. If this group, which held its kickoff in January, sounds a little familiar that's because it probably is. Engage Charlotte picks up where Charlotte City Committee left off—fell off, rather.

Inspired by a visit to Indianapolis, members of the Charlotte Chamber launched City Committee in late 2002. Organizers were adamant, however, that this committee not be like the typical chamber committee. This one needed to attract young people. This one needed to be cool.

"The idea wasn't to be a structured group, to have agenda items," says Stacey Brown-Randall, director of workforce development for the chamber and past executive committee member for City Committee. "The purpose was to figure out some things we can do to help grow this city, like encourage people to visit the new Whitewater Center, help the Bobcats sell suite tickets."

That type of community engagement sounds fun and seems like the kind of thing young people would be eager to get involved in. But without the structure the group was trying to avoid, participation dwindled. "These people were already getting together and running in the same circles," Brown-Randall says. "Their intention was never to do a lot of events. What City Committee tried to be is what Engage Charlotte is. The chamber stepped up and said, ‘We'll pay for staffing for City Committee,' and it became Engage Charlotte." Brown-Randall served briefly as the chair of Engage before taking a new position at the chamber.

One beneficial thing that did come out of the work of City Committee, however, was research it commissioned in 2004 by Next Generation Consulting to see in what areas Charlotte was doing well and where it was lacking in attracting young professionals. According to Brown-Randall, one of the major points that came out of the research was that the city needed more young-professional organizations (YPOs). Additionally, a survey by Next Generation Consulting revealed that three out of four young professionals under age twenty-eight place more importance on the quality of the community than the availability of jobs.

With Engage Charlotte, the chamber is giving it another go at forming a YPO. And this time it is structured. "The steering committee meets once a month," says Shannon Polson, the chamber's director of member councils and support staffer for Engage. "We have an agenda and we stick to task. We run it like a formal business meeting."

This type of structure may be good for the group, but is it good for the people? If a volunteer effort becomes too much like work, those efforts could decline. But Polson says Engage Charlotte won't be all work and no play.

 "We're offering programming that's not a repeat of anything out there, and that's important," Polson says. "If Young Affiliates of the Mint are doing a wine tasting, we're not going to do a wine tasting." She also says one of the primary objectives of Engage Charlotte is to find a way to put the city's few young-professional organizations in touch with each other. Engage's Web site, e-mail list, and monthly newsletter are some ways they are hoping to accomplish that. A meet-and-greet is planned for June 28 for the boards of Engage Charlotte, Young Affiliates of the Mint, Urban League Young Professionals, and the United Way's Young Leaders.

In March, Engage Charlotte hosted "Speed Officials," in which fifteen elected officials from the county commission and city council spoke to an audience of about seventy young professionals about the importance of getting involved in the issues facing the community. Polson says the event was a hit all around. "A lot of people walking out of the door were asking, ‘When is the next one?' There was a lawyer there who signed up all of the young professionals in his office."

Polson says that Engage Charlotte currently has about 300 members and that you don't have to be a member of the chamber to be a member of Engage (though so far the majority is members of the chamber, many through the companies they work for). "We wanted to make it easy to become a member," she says. "Simply join our e-mail list and you're a member."

The group has a first-year operating budget of $25,000. Its goal is to sell five annual sponsorships of $5,000 each. They have two sponsors so far, and the chamber covers the deficit.

Still, it's not entirely clear what Engage Charlotte is supposed to accomplish. But here's a clue: In a business plan submitted last September by Engage Charlotte to the Charlotte Chamber to explain how Engage would function as a council of the chamber, there was a section titled "Why Support Engage Charlotte?" It listed three reasons. Number three: "This will allow the Chamber to tap into the city's young professionals and start cultivating future members, leaders and supporters. Currently most young professionals may not understand the function of a Chamber, think it relates to them or that it is cool. Engage Charlotte will work to change the perception." But even those who are leading these initiatives, when asked, don't think that calling ourselves cool is very, well, cool.

"It's very easy to say we want to be cool, because that's an easy description," Brown-Randall says. "But if you ask people what cool means, you'll probably get several different responses."

Raispis says she sees the word come up a lot also. "That might be something I would say, ‘I think Austin is a really cool city,' " she says. "Is that where I think we need to be, for people to consider us cool? Sure. But my preference would be for people to say, ‘Man, they have a great Whitewater Center, they have some great biking trails, some great nightlife, great places to eat.' Those are the things we should be known for."

While Charlotte and its chamber are hard at work figuring out how to keep attracting and retaining young professionals, Atlanta is taking advantage of its bragging rights.

Last fall, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce released a study called "The Young and Restless: How Atlanta Competes for Talent." The study found that Atlanta led the nation with the largest increase in the number of college-educated twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-olds between 1990 and 2000. The Atlanta chamber is promoting it full force.

"We realize that talent is probably the most critical factor in economic success, attracting the twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-old age group," says Jennifer Zeller, vice president of research for the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. "Why it is very sensitive at this time is because of the shift in the labor force, the baby boom is retiring. Whoever gets this talent is going to have economic success."

In the fifty-nine-page published study, Charlotte appears in several sections as a close statistical competitor to Atlanta. According to the study, Atlanta ranks second in metropolitan areas with 17.6 percent of its population being made up of twenty-five- to thirty-four year-olds. Charlotte is fifth at 16.6 percent. While a 1 percent difference might not seem like much, if you factor in that it is a percentage of the total metropolitan population (Atlanta at 4.2 million in 2000 and Charlotte at 1.3 million), the difference is more than half a million young people.

Along with the "Young and Restless" study, the Atlanta Chamber also conducted focus groups to see why people had relocated to Atlanta within the last two years. The leading reasons, the report says, were because Atlanta is diverse, affordable, and brimming with professional and social opportunities.

"Once you have that coveted talent base, businesses will follow," Zeller says. "Charlotte is compared in many circles to the Atlanta of yesterday."

Not for long, though. Our committees are meeting today.

Want More?
For more info on the Knight Creative Community Initiative, visit or . To learn more about Engage Charlotte, which is sponsoring Amazing Race Charlotte, an eight-week outdoor exploration of some of the city's cultural amenities beginning with a kickoff party June 29, check out .

Jarvis Holliday is an associate editor at this magazine.