Take a walk through downtown Eau Claire, Chippewa Falls or Menomonie and you’ll see proof of a nationwide revitalization trend prevalent in many downtowns across the country.

Mixed use structures featuring retail, dining and service ventures topped with contemporary living space are appearing on the skylines. Unique dining venues and an emphasis on entertainment and culture are around what seems to be every corner. Beautifully landscaped walkways and greenspace give these urban spaces a sense of tranquility.

What was once a struggling area of aging structures and aesthetic challenges is now becoming not only a destination, but a desired place to reside.

This past summer the importance of vibrant downtowns as drivers of economic development was reaffirmed during the Momentum West’s Site Selectors Guild Advisory Tour. The Advisory Tour was a three-day tour of the 10-county Momentum West region. Area utilities, municipalities, development firms, the city and county economic development organizations and others brought six members of the Site Selectors Guild, an association of the premier site selectors from around the world, to the region.

The tours featured the region’s plastics manufacturing, ag production and manufacturing, and the logistics and distribution clusters, as well as highlighted the area’s industrial property ready for development. Focus also included an overview of the workforce, and the quality of the technical colleges and UW System schools in the area.

But what many involved in the planning process thought might be secondary to the Guild members turned out to be very significant — the health and vitality of the downtown urban centers in the region.

Why are downtowns so important in economic development? Yes, the transportation, utilities and other infrastructure are key in locking in a new or expanding industrial venture, but downtowns play a crucial role in attracting and retaining talent.

Take, for example, the generation entering the workforce, the Millennials or Generation Y, born from 1982 to 2004. There is a growing trend among this group to live and work in areas that offer an eclectic and vibrant downtown. For this generation, a quarter-acre lot with a two-car garage is lower on the priority list. These are being replaced by the desire to live and work in a vibrant downtown that offers a strong sense of community and a walkable access to amenities.

Today, having a diverse downtown in terms of space, leisure activities, culture, business and people has replaced the traditional separation of uses commonly found in downtowns throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

As we found out during our Site Selectors Guild Advisory Tour, downtown development cannot be underestimated when it comes to assessing its impact on regional economic development. During the tour we found out that a region is not assessed only on its industrial or business parks and four-lane highways, but also vibrant downtown urban centers. A region’s economic development plans should be well planned and reflect this.

With talent shortages nationwide, we need these vibrant urban areas to retain and attract talent. And if we can attract and provide talent, the doors open wider in terms of attracting new employment opportunities that fit the skills of these younger professionals. Not only can we meet the facility needs of a prospect, but also the human needs of their employee base.

We are on the fringe of a massive change in demographics. Baby boomers are retiring, and the following generations will not be providing the number of workers needed to fill the workforce. A strong downtown core is the center of this shift for reasons in addition to attracting and retaining a much-needed workforce. It can offer a place for these individuals to retire, providing access to needed amenities with a short walk, and cultural and social amenities as well.

It’s a huge plus for our region that we realize and are addressing proactively changes within our downtowns. Hats off to our civic leaders who have seen the importance of this transformation, and the group of younger professionals that have grabbed the reigns via time and financial support to drive the process. They get it!

Steve Jahn is executive Director of Momentum West, a 10-county regional economic development corporation. He can be reached at steve@momentumwest.org or 715-874-4673.


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