In Brown County, almost any public conversation about economic development includes the need for housing for young professionals and families.
That’s a subject Brown County and town redevelopment commissions are talking about and will continue to talk about until they can figure out what, exactly, those buyers want and how to make more of it available in their preferred price range.
But there is far more to the subject than buildings.
A recent study the city of Bloomington did about what attracts millennials shows they want the familiarity and convenience associated with an urban-style neighborhood, said Scott Rudd, Nashville town manager/economic development director.
While generational lines can be fuzzy, millennials are generally defined as those born in the 1980s and ’90s; that group now accounts for 1 in 3 American workers, the largest generation in the workforce today, according to the Pew Research Center and U.S. Census Bureau. In addition to being defined by their birth years, millennials also often have many other characteristics in common, including their lifestyle expectations.
“They want walkability and entertainment and music and outdoor activities,” he said.
However, there’s more to building a neighborhood than building houses next to each other. People may live a mile apart and consider themselves neighbors, or share a wall and never meet, said Bruce Gould, a member of the Brown County Redevelopment Commission.
“I got to thinking, you know, a neighborhood is a state of mind, like so many other things,” Gould said.
Brown County Purdue Extension educator Alyssa Besser is a millennial by age (she started the job after college and two years with the Peace Corps in Ghana) and in her tastes as well.
She wanted to live close enough to her job in Nashville that she wouldn’t have to drive.
Growing up around the Fountain Square neighborhood on Indianapolis’s south side, her family biked everywhere, and often brought their bikes to Brown County.
“That’s one of the big things that brought me down to Brown County,” she said. “I kind of grew up biking these trails.”
Besser’s ideal living situation would allow her to ride or walk to everything she needed. Some of that is personal preference, but economics, environmental concerns and staying healthy also motivate her.
Though he grew up here and moved away after school, Rudd and his family came back to Nashville with a similar mindset.
“We didn’t want to have to commute to work very far at all,” he said. “We wanted a healthier lifestyle, and when you’re in a car all the time, that doesn’t promote a healthier lifestyle.”
Millennials are also interested in keeping life simple, demonstrated in trends such as tiny homes — houses with a footprint similar to a small apartment — Rudd said.
Besser was already interested in tiny homes before she came to Brown County. With the cost of housing — it took her four months to find a place to rent in her price range — she looked at lots that might suit such a house.
Yet, the county’s zoning ordinance left her uncertain if she could legally build the home she wanted here.
Looking at studies such as the one from Bloomington, and the work being done by other communities, it becomes apparent that creating a community where young professionals want to live and raise their families has become integral to economic development, Rudd said.
Changes in technology free many people from having to be in an office. Professionals are prioritizing where they live over where they work. Jobs are starting to follow workers, not the other way around, he said.
Communities such as Bloomington and Columbus are already funneling economic development money into “quality of life” projects, such as the free indoor playground in downtown Columbus that attracts Brown County families, he said.
As a tourist destination, Nashville and Brown County already have many of the urban-style amenities that the Indiana University Public Policy Institute identified as essential to keeping rural communities alive, Rudd said.
“On any given night, we could have five bands playing in town,” Rudd said. “We’ve got live music, we’ve got the Playhouse, movies, entertainment. We’ve got the largest state park. We have these huge resources available to us that most rural communities don’t have.”
The new play space coming to the Village Green downtown is an example of ongoing improvements, Rudd said.
“We have to invest in those public spaces and park spaces, if nothing else, just for the quality of life of our residents,” he said.
Besser is now the Purdue Extension representative on the Brown County Area Plan Commission: one of the boards tasked with helping to plan and implement rules that will shape Brown County, such as zoning and land use.
She brings perspective from her roots in Indianapolis.
She appreciates amenities such as the local music scene and biking trails, and she understands the desire to attract businesses and new residents.
Yet, she also understands firsthand the conflict that comes with change — and the responsibilities of community leaders in charge of leading those changes.
In a little over a decade, the neighborhood she grew up in — the same neighborhood her mother grew up in — has been completely transformed. Besser appreciates the music, art and things to do that came with the renewal and rebuilding of Fountain Square, but she also loved the Fountain Square that helped to shape her before it was a trendy hot spot.
“Nothing annoys me more than someone coming into your neighborhood and saying, ‘We’re bettering this. You should be happy; we’re bettering this,'” she said.
“I know what it feels like to sit in that crowd and be really passionate about what you’re saying, and really wanting the people on that board to hear you,” she said.
“We want to be pro-business and bring people in, but you certainly want to respect what was there before.”
NEXT WEEK: Learn what ideas town and county redevelopment leaders have to make more entry-level or affordable housing available in Brown County.