Kansas City’s love affair with millennials hits a few rough spots

05/14/2014 8:07 PM

05/14/2014 8:07 PM

Some warning lights are flashing even as businesses and elected officials ramp up efforts to attract millennials to the Kansas City area.

The fascination with the coveted crowd of people in their 20s and early 30s makes sense. They inject vitality into a community. They bring new ways of thinking about age-old problems such as where to live and how to get around. They soon will hold many jobs key to the success of this region.

Just this month, several large local businesses announced they would host the “Fiery Stick Open” festival in July at Liberty Memorial, part of a new initiative aimed at attracting millennials away from the coasts and to the Heartland.

Other news, however, provides cautionary tales about what this region is up against.

• Fewer millennials are moving here.

True, a recent Brookings Institution report got a lot of positive attention. It said the area had enjoyed a net annual migration of 2,188 young adults for the three years ending in 2012. That was the 14th highest rate in the United States.

Here’s the rest of the story.

The same Brookings Institution demographer has reported that the Kansas City area’s net migration actually had been

higher

for the three years ending in 2009 — or 2,934 young people annually. That was the 17th best rate in the nation.

In other words, this region was gaining about 750 more young people annually during part of the recession than it has added lately.

All the recent chatter about Kansas City being a great, hip place to be is important for its image. Unfortunately, the demographic numbers aren’t as promising as many people would have hoped.

• The city’s proposed streetcar expansion — highly popular with millennials looking to ditch cars or promote better transit — is in trouble.

The two-mile starter line downtown makes great sense. It could lead to more economic development and is located in a densely populated part of the city, especially during the daytime.

But the costly extensions down Main, and across Linwood Boulevard and Independence Avenue, face big challenges. Church leaders are upset about possible levies on their properties. Residents are concerned about the regressive one-cent sales tax required to help finance the project.

If voters get a chance in November, we will find out whether they will embrace — or reject — a bigger streetcar system. Support among millennials will have to be extremely strong for it to pass.

• Because of a controversy over ride-sharing businesses, Mayor Sly James’ relationship with some millennials has taken a bit of a hit.

To his credit, James has made reaching out to young people and involving them in government two top goals.

But in recent days James has looked more like Old School Management than New School Cool — especially to some of his followers on Twitter.

James has been portrayed as standing in the way of progress, even while offering some sound arguments for wanting to protect the public with regulations on how Lyft and Uber can set up shop.

Many millennials expect that new technology and new approaches to business models will change how cities serve their residents. The Lyft/Uber controversy is a minor issue. Still, it will indicate how City Hall is going to deal with change.

Even taken together, these warning signs don’t amount to a red light telling millennials to stay away.

The Kansas City region has a lot going for it in attracting young people, from a reasonable cost of living to strong arts and entrepreneurial programs.

We still need a lot more success stories to fly up the list of millennial-friendly cities.

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