Urban renewal in smaller cities is about the rebirth of Main Street. But Main Street looks different today. It’s not stores that sell socks and underwear, but instead it’s stores that sell crafts and pottery. It’s not mills that employ thousands, but cowork and keyman spaces that house tens. For example, in Rock Hill, SC, there is a refurbished Cotton Factory that now houses a student-loans collections agency, an upscale furniture store, and a marketing firm. The building houses more jobs today than it ever did as a cotton mill, and they are higher paying jobs, as well.
Urban renewal is about walkability and lifestyle. It’s about living and working in a neighborhood feel with pubs and coffee houses and dog walkers and such. There is a bohemianism about these places that make them compelling. This feeling, this culture, this spirit is why people want to work there, to build there businesses there.
I hear conversations among Economic Development leaders who are tired of hearing that a Pizza Shop is the answer to our unemployment problems, that a Coffee shop with acoustic music will fix our economy. Of course, those little shops can’t solve our problems. We need jobs, feet on the ground, and then these lifestyle businesses can open and be supported by those who are here. Right? We need office jobs and daily foot traffic to support the restaurants during lunch, which allows them to survive and thus be open in the evenings and on the weekends. That makes sense.
But. What the new migration economy is teaching us is that we will lose our students and our youth, and we will not get newly relocated youth and talent if there is nothing for young people to do, no active youthful, cultural center in the town. We will not get jobs here because people will not want to come and work here, and businesses will not start-up here, will not move here, and so on. We cannot underestimate the importance of lifestyle to this upcoming generation. Successful entrepreneurs will create smart businesses, and smart businesses will locate where youth and talent want to be. It’s not driven from the top down; it’s driven from the bottom up.