Good economic news for the Richmond region: Medical supply giant Owens & Minor Inc. announced plans Thursday to open a client engagement center in downtown Richmond that will employ 500 people. Jobs will average about $53,700 in annual pay.
In making the announcement Governor Terry McAuliffe made much of the fact that Richmond competed against 60 other cities in a year-long search process. Less was made of the fact that Owens & Minor, which is located in the Mechanicsville suburb of Richmond, chose to locate in the central city rather than one of the region’s outlying counties.
The reason? “We want to attract the millennial generation,” CEO Cody Phipps told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We did our research. The millennial generation is going to be 50-plus percent of the workforce in the next few years, and they want to live in urban areas. They want to be downtown. They want to work in a state-of-the-art space. We like that we can draw from the universities around here.”
I don’t know who conducted Phipps’ research, but I know of one outfit in town that does specialize in generational marketing — The Institute for Tomorrow, which is affiliated with the Southeastern Institute of Research (SIR). (I worked for SIR about ten years ago.) Two days before Owens & Minor’s announcement, Managing Partner Matt Thornhill tweeted presciently, “Winning communities of tomorrow are 15-minute livable communities.”
By way of elaboration, he blogged about recent research conducted for the Virginia Secretary of Transportation. In a survey of 600 people around the U.S. who had just moved or were considering moving more than 100 miles, four out of five agreed with the statement, “Having access to stores, restaurants, and services close to my home (within about 15 minutes) is very important to me.” Almost as important was living withing a 15 minute commute of work.
It is often said that Millennials want to live “downtown” where it’s hip and cool and there are coffee shops and microbreweries. According to a recent Urban Land Institute study, though, only 37% of Millennial consider themselves to be a “city person,” wrote Thornhill; 36% classified themselves as “suburbanites” and 26% as “small town/country” people.
While there is nothing inevitable about Millennials wanting to live and work downtown, they are “hard-wired to be in community with each other,” Thornhill observed. “Thanks in part to doing school projects in teams from their middle school years onward, Millennials like to collaborate and trust in decisions made by the wisdom of the crowd. … They want neighborhoods where they can walk, bike, and use transit to get around.”
This community mindset, opined Thornhill, will drive the growth of “activity centers” of 15-minute livable communities. Activity centers don’t have to be in traditional cities (although most are). “Builders, developers, urban planners, and government officials are now catching up to the changing preferences of consumers and looking for ways to in-fill activity centers across their metropolitan landscape.”
Thornhill stops his analysis there. But as I think about the Owens & Minor decision, it’s not clear that urban planners and government officials actually have gotten the message. While most of the City of Richmond fits the definition of a 15-minute walkable community, there are only flyspecks of walkability in neighboring Henrico and Chesterfield counties. In Henrico County the one area that potentially has the critical mass to compete with downtown Richmond, the Innsbrook Office Park, was rezoned for urban mixed use back in 2010. But re-development has stalled for more than six years due to inflexible application of the zoning code.
Absent a dramatic change of thinking and practice in the suburban counties, it looks like the future of the Richmond metropolitan region belongs to the city. Everything old is new again: Richmond possesses the key elements of walkability — moderate density, mixed uses, grid streets and timeless architecture — inherited from a past era of urban grandeur. The counties are stuck with suburban sprawl. Expect to see more headlines like Owen & Minor’s in the region’s future.