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How Local Businesses Lure Best, Brightest

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A young and bright Alan Henderson left his north Jackson home after graduating from St. Joseph Catholic School in 2005. He packed his bags and headed to Howard University in Washington, D.C., to study architecture. It was a great time to be in the nation's capital for a smart student curious about what works well with urban planning and design.

Washington, D.C., has become one of the hottest cities where young professionals migrate for work, play and a fulfilling lifestyle. That transformation wasn't easy. Just a few years ago, Washington was ranked 44th among U.S. cities attracting 20-somethings. Since 2008, it has jumped to sixth place with the help of young, funky neighborhoods, such as the U Street Corridor near Howard, which has claimed its mantel as one of the coolest (and most diverse) urban neighborhoods in the country.

A Brookings Institution study, cited in an Adweek article entitled "Young Adults Choosing 'Cool' Cities," found that between 2008 and 2010, recent college graduates gravitated to cities with a strong college-town vibe. That, in turn, means a strengthened work force.

Henderson witnessed Washington's transformation into a Mecca for young professionals, but he wasn't compelled to permanently join an emerging hip scene in D.C. He wanted to be part of the Jackson buzz.

"I knew as early as my freshman year I wanted to come back," he said. "I saw what was happening in Fondren, in Belhaven and in west Jackson. I saw the opportunity was here." After he graduated from Howard in 2010, he came home to start his professional career and help design a better Jackson.

Strengthening the local business community is no small part of building a better Jackson.

It's About Attitude
It is no coincidence that the "cool" cities where young workers want to live are filled with vibrant communities of locally owned businesses where they can hang out even if they're paying their dues in a boring workplace. The same Adweek article advised: "In recession, they're looking for a hipper vibe."

That hipper vibe isn't found in the chain stores that sell the same items no matter where they're located, and it doesn't come from large developments—especially if they price out the little guys. The vibe is all about the local businesses that help cultivate and spread it—whether small boutiques, vintage stores, coffee shops, record stores, health markets, taquerias and even food trucks.

Locally owned niche businesses in areas like Fondren and, increasingly, downtown and west Jackson, create an authentic experience that talented people in their 20s and 30s want to experience (and that many older consumers quickly grow to appreciate). The community feel at Koinonia Coffee House or Sneaky Beans, the funky consignment shops and art galleries, and a variety of restaurants offer new experiences and an urban heartbeat. That's part of what brought Henderson home and part of what attracts new people to Jackson.

It's not just a population influx; it's an increase in what urban sociologist Richard Florida calls the "creative class." He has written about what's behind this talent migration in "The Rise of the Creative Class" (Basic Books, 2002, $28.99) and "The Great Reset" (Harper, 2010, $26.99).

In simple terms, the creative class includes bright people of all ages, including those who work in high technology as well as traditional creative occupations. This demographic group insists on access to cultural events, and as a result, this group brings with it a better quality of life for a city. In Atlantic Monthly, Florida writes regularly about the amenities—or "creative capital"—that attract creative people, showing the connection between cities with bike trails, vibrant music scenes and higher rates of happiness.

Steven Pedigo is director of research at Creative Class Group, a development-consulting firm that Florida founded based on his urban theories. Pedigo says Florida's explanation of culture includes more than events and festivals—it's also about attitude.

"The role of tolerance and diversity plays a crucial part," Pedigo said. Those attributes add to the quality of a place that makes it a great community, he said.

But people base their decisions to live in a certain community on many factors: Can they meet their basic needs? Is there a social outlet to find one's niche? Are the community's values similar to those of the potential resident?

"What we know is that what one person looks for in a city is different from what another person looks for," Pedigo said. His research, however, shows that creative class types and young professionals flock to cities with strong leadership. The folks also crave aesthetics.

"We all would like to live in places that are beautiful," he told the Jackson Free Press.

Pedigo writes a column for Inc. magazine. In January, he wrote about why a city has a particular impact on any business.

"Your people—not your products or technology—are the driving force of your business, and talented workers go where the opportunities are: to the city," Pedigo wrote.  "And the people living in cities are younger and more diverse than the rest of the U.S. population. The generous talent pool in cities, often specialized and concentrated, offers business owners the opportunity to find the brainpower and specific skill sets they need for their companies."

Pedigo told the JFP that getting hot, young talent to move to town is only a small part of a good economic strategic plan.

"A lot of people focus too much on talent attraction. The question is how do you keep talent at home?" Pedigo said. "Make people stick with strong bonds. That type of talent is less likely to leave."

'College Town'
Blake Reeves, a Jackson native, took his skill set to Austin, Texas. His love of theater and his backstage knowledge about building sets and tracking props led him to a dream job as the properties master at ZACH Theatre.

His older brother, Brad Reeves, 33, stayed home. But it's not that Brad didn't consider moving to a hip place like Austin or Nashville.

"I thought I would move off," he said. After he finished law school at Mississippi College, he took the state bar exam and reconsidered staying in Jackson. In 2009, the young attorney bought Brent's Drugs in Fondren and turned it into a hip eatery and gift boutique that was recently featured in "The Help."

"A local business has more of a connection to that city. Owning a local business can allow someone to be a piece of the community, a part of the fabric," Reeves said. "It allows them to feel that connection."

When it comes to battling brain drain, Reeves thinks Jackson could do a better job selling itself as a college town. A Hinds County Economic Development Council survey from last year showed that the city of Jackson has more than 40,000 college students.

"Jackson can take advantage of some of the sharpest students in the state if we can just keep them here and buying in that the future's bright," Reeves said. "How do we get them excited and wanting to stay here? We've got to listen to their voices. We can't continue to say 'Jackson is great.' We need to step back and listen."

Reeves listens to visitors from cities like Asheville, N.C., Columbia, S.C., and Charlottesville, Va., as well as friends in Birmingham, Ala., New Orleans, La., Nashville, Tenn., and the ever-popular Austin. He constantly considers what those other cities are doing that Jackson isn't.

"It's the little things like kickball leagues and social events for young-professional types," Reeves said. Events like the Crossroads Film Festival and FIGMENT pull young folks together, he says. He laments the demise of the once-annual Jubilee!JAM music festival, but points to other cultural gems such as Arts, Eats and Beats in Fondren. Jackson needs to keep building on this momentum, he said.

"Otherwise, you end up with people saying, 'There's nothing to do in Jackson,'" he said.

A larger variety of restaurants and entertainment can help prevent brain drain, Reeves said. Eateries like Parlor Market raise the bar, and when the competition takes notice, the creative class benefits from lots of great choices. Reeves sees the same thing happening with music and entertainment. With more people come more activities any given night, he said.

"Then we need them to show up," he said.

On the Front Line
When you mention the word "brainy" to Nicole McNamee, she jokes that the first image that comes to her mind is someone who wears suspenders and oversized glasses. McNamee is on the front line of preventing brain drain in Jackson. As director of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce's Young Professional Alliance, she knows many of the city's best and brightest.

"The YP Alliance for 21-40 year olds started out as a social group—those who just graduated from college or who just moved here," she said. McNamee organizes luncheons for the group with CEOs and experienced business owners. She also puts together socials that are a little less structured. "They can meet people in their own age range," she said.

McNamee is looking for other organizations to partner with, so her group can expose young professionals to other aspects of Jackson besides the business community. She mentioned the Mississippi Creative Economy study that came out in August.

The study was a joint effort of the Mississippi Development Authority and the Mississippi Arts Commission. It identified that 61,000 people in the state work in creative occupations.

The study also addressed some of Brad Reeves' concerns. One of the specific strategies the study suggests is promoting cross-disciplinary efforts that encourage "more networking opportunities and activities, particularly those that involve young creative people."

That Urban Feel
Alan Henderson, the St. Joe soccer player who studied architecture at Howard, now works at the Mississippi Development Authority. He is part of the Assets Development office. His job includes traveling to different communities in the state to evaluate their existing assets.

"We go around and help communities through asset mapping. We look at what they have to offer a community," Henderson said.

He maps the historic and cultural treasures as well as energy and transportation assets. Then, he analyzes what's there and points out what is needed. One town he would rather not name needed garbage cans downtown. He makes suggestions about vacant buildings, facades, future parks and more.

"These are the intangibles, the things they don't know they are missing," Henderson said.

His time in Washington, D.C., taught Henderson much about what good urban design looks like. His father's construction company, New Concept Builders, has taught him about building in Jackson. He's putting his visions into a new venture, BlackWhite Development, with his business partner, Matthew Bolian. They already have a downtown project in the works.

Henderson, 24, isn't ready to talk about the details. "It's still in the feasibility stage," he said.

He will freely talk about the bigger picture of smart growth and placemaking, though. He envisions a Jackson where people can bike or walk to work. He sees placemaking as integral to modern urban design.

"With placemakers, you know where you are. Fondren has done that with public art, festivals and its iconic buildings," Henderson said. "Diversity is multifaceted. We shouldn't have to go to Fondren to feel like we are in a different place."

Henderson wants to do his own placemaking in downtown Jackson. He understands the appeal of small, locally owned establishments that are de facto community centers where residents meet and connect. "That's how you create nostalgia and memories," Henderson said.

"I love Jackson. There's real-estate development and design work in D.C. or New York, but the market is so saturated. It takes high amounts of capital," Henderson said. He's found opportunity here at home. "I know people who are aspiring to change." He sees it, and he says it's what brought him home.

Henderson is concerned about convincing other young creative professionals into sticking around long enough to make it happen.

"For people my age, it's a daily struggle. It's hard for me to stay in Jackson. I won't lie. It's a struggle," Henderson said.

Some of it is about entertainment; some of it is attitude. "What's missing here are the universities. Jackson is not building around its universities. In other cities, that's where people mingle. They want that urban feel. It has an energy," he said.

Henderson uses Millsaps College as an example. It's so close to Fondren, but really a world apart. "The students are confined to the gates," Henderson said. "They lose that energy and drive. If they want to leave campus, they get in a car and drive 10 miles. And then they lose the urban experience."

Steven Pedigo also stresses that cities where the universities and colleges are part of urban life are the cities where young talented adults want to live and work and play.

"It creates an ecosystem," Pedigo told the JFP.  

"Universities and colleges play a critical role in the economy. Twenty years ago, Austin was just a college town."

One of the biggest draws colleges offer cities is access to arts and culture. Pedigo said that cities that build on that become magnets for the creative class as well as the young professionals who enjoy being near intellectual centers.

While Henderson continues to study the feasibility of his semi-secret downtown project, his business partner, Bolian, is working on his master's degree at London School of Economics in the United Kingdom. A West Point graduate, Bolian could probably go to any city and succeed. He is planning to come back to Jackson when he finishes his studies and gets the prestigious international degree.

"He sees what I see in Jackson," Henderson said.

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What new business would you love to see in Jackson? Let us know your ideas using #jxnbiz on Twitter, and follow us on @Jxnfreepress.And be sure to visit the Business Blog to find the latest developments and ventures in Jackson.

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