Millennials build communities but seem to eschew politics

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier
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Last month, I spent two days at the 5th Annual Cityworks (X)po in Roanoke, an event for which Virginia Business served as a sponsor.  The founder of Cityworks is Roanoke-based visionary and placemaking developer Ed Walker.

For most people, “placemaking” is probably a new term.  Cityworks defines it as “the process of creating vibrant communities and quality places where people want to live, work, play and learn.”

Walker and others have certainly done a lot in downtown Roanoke, renovating historic buildings into hundreds of trendy new residential spaces.  If you haven’t been to Roanoke lately, it has really come alive — a terrific example of placemaking done well.

To hear Walker tell it, real estate held in the right hands is a powerful game- changing force.  Property ownership rights, passed through English common law into the American legal system, largely determine the path of change, or the lack thereof, in our cities and towns.

The Cityworks crowd’s demographics are a bit different from the typical business-event audience.  They are mostly millennials, many just out of college.  They are interested in the arts.  The Cityworks (X)po actually bills itself as creating connections among social entrepreneurship, art, design, the outdoors, public health and social justice.  And, of course, like all good meetings, there is food and drink involved.  What would networking be without it?

Many in the audience came from outside of Virginia — to see Roanoke!  All in all, I’d say (X)po is a pretty good advertisement for the new Virginia economy, markedly different from what’s in the history books — cool, trendy, unexpected!

The placemaking that’s happening in Roanoke isn’t entirely new or unique.  Redevelopment and gentrification have been taking place for decades — think of Old Town in Alexandria. There also are entirely new livable and walkable places — think of Reston.  Historic tax credits and other programs have aided numerous locales around the commonwealth — Richmond, Danville, Staunton and others.

A new generation is reaching into smaller cities, places like Buena Vista.  As tobacco, textiles, furniture and even apple growing have receded from our economy, dormant properties — factories, warehouses and retail spaces — are ripe for redevelopment.  These are opportunities for this new class of entrepreneurial placemaking developers.

The ongoing evolution of a more entrepreneurial economy makes much of this possible.  Business is rebounding, and jobs lost in the recession are coming back in a different form.  There are more small businesses, many started by displaced workers reinventing themselves as business owners.

Redevelopers like to talk about buildings having “good bones.”  There are lots of properties with good bones across Virginia. 

The suburban lifestyle of the baby-boom generation has met its outward limits and is now on the retreat.  A new generation of millennials — looking for places to simultaneously live, work and play without a commute — is moving into urban-centric environments — cool, trendy, unexpected!

One thing that seemed to be almost entirely missing from my (X)po conversations was politics.  While a handful of people in the audience had actually run for office, elections and lawmakers just didn’t seem to be on the minds of these new placemakers.

Think about it — the millennial generation has never known a time when government was not dysfunctional.  Earlier generations had their Kennedys or Reagan who fomented change on both sides of the political spectrum.  But what has happened since?
In the two most recent presidential elections, the youth vote has tipped heavily to Barack Obama, but promises of hope and change perhaps have given way to a jaded realization that a president without a supportive Congress only leads to partisan gridlock, rhetoric without results.  Low voter turnout in non-presidential elections has further accentuated this problem.

Ironically, government programs have made much of this new placemaking possible.   Historic renovation tax credits on the state and federal level, and the Virginia Main Street community development program are examples of how government has enabled private-sector redevelopment.  If government has the power to help business, we ought to give it serious attention.

This is election month.  By the time you read this column, every elected seat in Virginia’s General Assembly will likely have been decided. 

Next year, we will elect a new president and in 2017 a new governor.  Making your vote count is good for business and good for our communities.  Regardless of your generation or political affiliation don’t miss this opportunity for placemaking.

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