Saturday, September 6th, 2008

Indy’s Appeal to the Educated

This week’s Indianapolis Business Journal has a very interesting article (“Young, Educated, and Living in Indy“) about the demographics of Indianapolis. The city is actually doing very well at attracting affluent, educated, young families. They say it lags nationally as a singles destination, but is at least beating most regional peers at it.

The research was conducted by Drew Klacik at the Center for Urban Policy and Environment at IUPUI. (I’ll see what I can get from him in terms of the actual research, so perhaps more forthcoming). Working with ESRI, Klacik’s team segmented the population into 12 demographics based on criteria such as age, income, education, and hobbies.

They found that Indy is doing well with two key groups: Family Portraits and High Hopes. The family portraits is the aforementioned young, educated families. High Hopes are younger people, married and single, with less education but aspirations for homeownership and participation in the middle class to the extent that they are willing to move to get it. Indy lags in so-called Solo Acts (young, educated singles), Global Roots (immigrants and expats), and Senior Styles (retirees).

None of this should be surprising. Intuitively, Indy has marketed itself as a “great place to raise a family”. The distribution centers and such springing up around town are a magnet for people who are looking for work in a region with a declining manufacturing base. It should be no surprise that those people look to cities like Indy with a strong economy as a place to go. The lack of education of the High Hopes group, in my opinion, is not necessarily a bad thing. I believe economies like Canada, which are solely focused on highly skilled immigrants, can miss the real secret ingredient, which is an openness to risk taking and a willingness to try new things. The New World, after all, was largely settled by Europe’s rejects, poor Irish, Germans, Italians, etc. But they built the greatest economic power the world has ever known. Similarly, these people moving to Indy in search of work are bringing an attitude with them that is a key part of urban success, as I previously noted. I believe that the signal attribute of a successful city is that it is one in which large numbers of people decide that “this is where I’ll seek my fortune”. What’s more, I believe that a successful city must ultimately be a place that can provide a good standard of living to other than the educated elite. This is where a place like Indy can shine. Self-styled progressive meccas like NYC are great if you are rich or poor, but they are horrible for the middle class. They resemble the third world in this regard. Indianapolis can be a place where all citizens have a chance to participate in the American Dream, and where there can be urban success properly so-called.

On the flip side, we know Indy is lacking in percentage of foreign born, and I believe needs to seriously increase it. Lagging in seniors is not necessarily a bad thing, IMO. Indy is not a Sun Belt retirement haven, and having a generally younger population means a higher ratio of working people to pay the cost of social services.

Klacik is skeptical of the Creative Class notion, which endears him to me. Not that I think Florida is totally wrong or off-base. But his Creative Class is but one component of many needed for a successful city, and overly focusing on a narrow demographic is not good. And creativity is only one value among many.

Anne Shane of Biocrossroads is pleased by the research results, which she believes bodes well for Indiana’s life sciences push. But in her view, because of Indy’s lack of reputation, it has to rely on job creation to attract people. Quoting, “We can’t compete head-to-head with a Chicago, with a San Francisco, with a New York, with a Denver. We can do a good job, but we’re just not in the same class. We probably have to focus more on having the great-paying job here and then get people to the city so they understand that it’s also a good place to live.”

I agree with a lot of this. Indy is not NYC or SF by a mile. And its a false choice between jobs and people. The reality is, you need both. They feed on each other. I also think Biocrossroads is doing the Lord’s work on building Indiana’s bioscience industry.

My own view of this comes from a slightly different vantage point. For things like distribution jobs, I do believe it is a jobs led thing. People are moving to Indy because they need jobs, Indy has them, and other cities don’t have as many. As these people move, this labor force of truck drivers, dispatchers, warehousing experts, etc. attracts still more jobs. But for life sciences and other advanced sectors, I believe that having a qualified labor force is probably the more important of the two. You can’t have a life sciences industry without life scientists.

No, Indy is not San Francisco. But San Francisco is no Indy either. There seems to be this implicit assumption out there that San Francisco is the paragon of urbanity, its very platonic form, and that the further a place is from that ideal, the less attractive it is as a destination. I could not disagree more. Indy can’t take Chicago, New York, and Boston on head on. That would be a fool’s errand. But you know what, Indy can step up and be a world class Indy. Indy is not a traditional 19th century big city, so it will never have those old urban style neighborhoods, subways, etc. But it can be one of the best cities of the 21st century. The goal shouldn’t be to try to beat other cities at their game. Instead, let them try to you at your game.

I believe Indianapolis can carve out its own unique urban space and become known as one of the most desirable places in America for people to aspire to live in. (I wrote a lot about this in my Urban Aphorisms presentation). Will this be easy to achieve? No. But I believe if Indy wants to realize its ambitions in life sciences as elsewhere, this is what it needs to do. This blog will play a part in trying to articulate what it takes to make that happen. And it is all about not taking on an entrenched opposition head on but craving out a unique niche that it can dominate. As Klacik’s research indicates, the city is already well on its way.

The article itself makes the case for why it won’t be easy. Both of the case studies they mentioned, a couple from Chicago and one from New York, had Indy roots. The key challenge for Indy and other Midwestern cities beyond Chicago is how to become a destination of choice for people who don’t have roots in the area. This is what is so often missing in brain drain discussions. It’s as if these cities have so little belief in their own desirability as places to live that they don’t believe they could ever convince anyone who wasn’t born there to come. That’s a self-defeating view. Ultimately, San Francisco didn’t become what it is by retaining its home grown talent; it got that way by hoovering up everybody else’s talent. Getting a spot in the top tier means being able to attract a significant number of people who have no pre-existing connection to an area.

Austin, Texas is nothing like San Francisco. Neither is Las Vegas or Charlotte. But these cities found a way to build their own unique appeal, each targeting a different population segment. Indianapolis can do the same. Find its own path, and its own ambition. There’s plenty of room for success out there, and no one size fits all model to find it.

13 Comments
Topics: Demographic Analysis, Economic Development, Talent Attraction
Cities: Indianapolis

13 Responses to “Indy’s Appeal to the Educated”

  1. adam says:

    Great article! I think Indianapolis really is on the right track towards becoming a world class Indianapoolis. It has so many assets that aren’t used to their full potential. I’m saying this right now. Once the economy booms again, and with the development that comes with that, Indy will be looking good. The only thing we need to worry about is to not get off track. We can taste a little bit of success and then think that we can compete head on with Chicago San Fransisco, ect. We need to make sure we stay on course as Indianapolis, and not turn into a “could be anywhere” city. Which also ties into your branding articles.

  2. Jon says:

    Aaron,
    I enjoyed this post and your views on Indy. After attending IBEN tonight (sorry I didn’t get a chance to say “hello”) I’m excited and disappointed about Indiana’s life science leaders. I still hear and feel that many in Indy aspire to be the next Boston, San Diego, etc. “We” are reluctant to make a stand–to focus. I think it is noble attempt to be all things life science but not a formula for the best opportunities for success.
    Cheers,
    j

  3. Anonymous says:

    I think its great the couple picked Irvington and not Carmel or Fishers. There is something to be said about having a 20 minute commute. Trending reports are indicating the next generation are moving back into cities to be closer to entertainment, mass transit, better healthcare, and social activties.

  4. thundermutt says:

    …especially if their baby-boomer parents chose to raise them in the city instead of the suburbs.

  5. thundermutt says:

    At a recent public meeting, Mayor Ballard addressed this topic specifically.

    It seems his own 22yo daughter graduated from IU…and moved to DC. He’s pretty sure she’ll be back, though, when it’s time to raise a family.

    And we’re back to Indianapolis’ value proposition, the same one since I came here in the 1980s:

    A good place to raise a family.

  6. The Urbanophile says:

    thunder, I agree to an extent. But “a great place to raise a family” only takes you so far. It is the exact same value proposition that Louisvillle, KC, Cincy, Columbus, and Milwaukee are selling, not to mention many of the cities of the south and west like Salt Like City. It provides very little in the way of differentiation. It’s not that I suggest the city should become less family friendly – indeed, that is an asset – but that’s not a sufficient base upon which to build a city for the 21st century.

  7. thundermutt says:

    Ah, but how many of those other cities also have (real, and good) structural factors, economic development initiatives, local strategies and institutions that support the generic value proposition?

    How many consistently rank in the top 5 for affordable housing? That is a key for young families.

    How many of them draw their expats back after a few years elsewhere? (You have suggested the “diaspora” model for recruiting new residents.)

    How many have major institutions aimed at children? (I can think of only two with national reputations: COSI in Columbus and The Children’s Museum in Indianapolis.)

    I think the pieces are in place to actually SELL that value proposition and beat the competition.

  8. Da Ville says:

    thundermutt…all of the cities mentioned: Louisvillle, KC, Cincy, Columbus, and Milwaukee…and Indy (along with scores of others, large and small)would promote themselves as ‘family friendy’. Speaking specifically for Louisvillle, KC, Cincy, Columbus, and Milwaukee…and Indy they all have real and good structural factors, economic development initiatives, local strategies and institutions that support the generic value proposition.

    All are considered affordable housing markets; most/all can claim succes with drawing expats back; all have their own cadre of family attractions which include museums, zoo’s, performing and visual arts, major/minor sports.

    Who has the ‘best’ or is ‘ranked the highest’ balances out among this group of cities.

    A possible differentiator is public elementary and secondary schools along with the availability/affordability of private elementary/secondary schools….but even there you would find not much that differentiates as all can claim there public schools are ‘improving’ and/or the availability of magnet/charter schools.

    Another possible differentiator is natural resources/geography/weather. That is a preference driven thing…I prefer rolling hills to flat prairie; prefer sea coast to no coast; prefer mountains to flatlands. I also prefer warmer weather.

  9. thundermutt says:

    I disagree, Da Ville. Indianapolis “wins” the way a NASCAR driver wins the championship: consistently finishing in the top five and winning one or two outright.

    I think Urbanophile’s migration numbers of a few weeks back, along with the IU study and IBJ article, at least anecdotally document Indy’s preeminent position in attracting young families.

  10. Da Ville says:

    Thunderpants…I am quite sure that Indy would win any race you might choose to enter it in.

  11. thundermutt says:

    Da Ville, I am far from a booster. I have lived in several of the other “comparable” Midwestern cities and a couple of larger coastal ones too.

    I just happen to disagree with Urbanophile and you on the marketability and the backup for the “good place to live and raise a family” value proposition. It’s not empty words; the difference are measurable and significant.

    Perhaps that’s because I’ve actually made the choice and done the job (moved here and raised kids here).

  12. Da Ville says:

    Thundermutt, I have lived in Dayton, Chicago, Columbus, Cinci and Louisville. Raised a family here in Da Ville. Have also traveled extensively and regularly throughout the US and elsewhere. I base my ‘rankings’ more on what I have seen and experienced vs the other ‘rankings’. Da Ville is far from perfect but it has proven to be an excellent place to raise a family.

    I am sure there are families in each of the cities cited who would claim the same…and it is not boosterism; rather the reality of their experience.

  13. thundermutt says:

    Here’s the thing, Da Ville: those without direct personal experience rely somewhat more on those (perceived) “objective” rankings when considering relocation, as well as on sales pitches from people like you and me.

    I looked at housing cost and cost-of-living indexes, average commute times and traffic congestion numbers among other things before settling in Indy. Also job, income, tax and population growth numbers. Back in the day, those things were harder to dig up than today.

    I’m pretty sure numbers-oriented people look at the same things today, but I could be wrong.

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