A task force comprised of millennials has enthusiastically taken up a city council’s charge to bring more of their peers to High Point.
Sarah-Belle Tate, a Greensboro native, lived on campus for her first four years as an undergraduate at High Point University. It wasn’t until her fifth year, as a grad student, that she really got to know the city.
“If I stepped off campus it was go to another city,” she recalled of her undergrad years. Renting an apartment off campus and taking a marketing and communications internship with Wells Fargo Advisors that fifth and final year changed her relationship to High Point.
“Through that I met some wonderful people,” Tate said. “I saw the generosity of the people of High Point.”
Tate graduated with her master’s from High Point University in 2015, and by June 1 of that year she had a job as director of communications and community relations for the High Point Chamber of Commerce.
During a retreat in March, members of High Point City Council identified the attraction and retention of active, engaged, entrepreneurial and working millennials as one of three priorities, along with the creation of a catalytic downtown project to boost economic development and the city’s tax base, and proactively attacking blight in areas with concentrated poverty.
Tate immediately stood out to City Manager Greg Demko as a candidate to lead a task force that would identify ways to increase the city’s number of active millennials.
“I’ve had the opportunity to watch her work probably for the last six months,” he said. “I’ve been impressed by the quality of the work, ambition and dedication. She’s an accurate, clear communicator.”
Identifying three priorities was a notable step forward for a city council that seemed paralyzed by indecision and indifference when urban planner Andrés Duany visited in 2013, and that balked a year later at proposed investments like narrowing North Main Street to make it more pedestrian friendly.
“For us to have a focus was important,” said Councilman Jason Ewing, who chairs the council’s Prosperity and Livability Committee. “We’ve kind of flailed around the past couple years in identifying what we’re going to do. We’ve done a number of studies and put those studies on the shelf. Having three identifiable priorities was imperative to us in getting something done.”
The clout of millennials, the generation born from 1981 to 2000, makes them a coveted demographic as the city seeks ways to increase its tax base, Ewing said.
“We have come to find that we have a problem with people going to Greensboro and Winston-Salem to do stuff socially,” he said. “Our population has been somewhat aging. We have a senior center that we need to look at replacing. At some point we’re going to start losing tax base due to people aging out and dying.
“Millennials are a unique demographic,” Ewing continued. “A lot of cities are trying to attract millennials. They represent a very large piece of the population, and we’re trying to get our piece of the pie. We will have a more entertaining and lively city that is more attractive to millennials and, of course, others. We need to attract millennials who are in their twenties and early thirties who enjoy shopping, eating and entertainment to live here for the next several decades.”
When the city council commissioned the Millennials Task Force, it was conceived as playing an advisory role, but when Tate started recruiting members it quickly became clear that the group was going to take an action-oriented approach. Tate’s initial conversations with the 10 members, who include two High Point University students, a representative of United Way of Greater High Point, a nonprofit executive director, a supermarket owner and a landscaper, a common theme emerged.
“When I asked each of them if they would take time out of their busy schedules, every one of them asked me if this was going to be a committee that just talked,” Tate said. “That to me spoke volumes about their commitment.”
Inspired by plans to link the Bicentennial Greenway and High Point Greenway, task force members batted around the idea of hosting a run to showcase the new connection, with local breweries serving beer at either end, and a “Plant the Greenway” day to beautify the corridor.
But the task force’s first order of business was to identify what makes the city attractive to their generation and figure out how to build on the city’s pre-existing strengths. The city’s central location in the Triad, the state and the East Coast came up, Tate said. So did affordability and the city’s small-town feel. One member, Philippe Duvall, who had been commuting from Elon to work in High Point, mentioned that he took advantage of the city’s Core City Homebuyer Assistance Program, which provides $7,500 in financing as a downpayment on a house.
Discussion about amenities that make High Point appealing soon turned to restaurants, coffee houses and bars: Bluewater Grill, Lulu & Blu, Blue Rock Pizza & Tap, DeBeen Coffeehouse, Tipsy’z Tavern, Alex’s House, Liberty Steakhouse & Brewery, Sammy G’s, 98 Asian Bistro and Penny Path Café.
“We had a good laugh,” Tate said. “All the things we love about High Point are restaurants.”
Discussing some ideas for attracting millennials during an interview in her office at the chamber of commerce, Tate touched on the two other priorities identified by council.
“Walkability — being a pedestrian-friendly city — is important,” she said. “We need a walkable downtown. It needs to be well lit and safe.”
She also cited the importance of addressing poverty in the Core City, noting that the 27260 ZIP Code, which runs through the east-central portion of High Point, struggles with food insecurity.
“Urban agriculture we figure is going to be a big factor in revitalization,” Tate said. She added, “We don’t want to leave those who are in hardship in the dust.”
The combination of factors that make a community attractive to millennials is different from what drew him to High Point, acknowledged the 39-year-old Ewing.
“When we moved here it was more or less for work and proximity to work,” Councilman Ewing said. “So again, I’m in that generation outside millennials. I’ve been more focused on working than playing. A lot of things that are attractive to millennials are not things I looked at. Now that I’ve got younger kids I’ve started to pay more attention.
“From an economic development and job standpoint many millennials are picking a community that has the social things they want and then finding a job,” Ewing added. “In decades before, people found a job and then socially figured out how they’re going to fit in.”
In contrast to their parents and grandparents who might have worked for one company for most of their careers and dedicated their lives to that company, Tate said millennials are more interested in living fulfilling lives and giving back. She cited BuzziSpace, the Belgian furniture maker that recently opened a factory in the city’s southwest quadrant, as an example of a company that is attractive to millennials.
“They chose a building in a low-income area of the city,” she said. “They’re putting in a community garden that their employees work in. They get a couple hours a week to do that. Employees and community members can harvest food from the garden. High Point will have success if we find a way for companies to implement those kinds of programs.”
Tate gave an upbeat assessment of the city’s prospects for increasing its cohort of active and engaged millennials, noting the recent opening of Brown Truck Brewery and plans by the South Africa-based winery Rickety Bridge to expand to High Point.
“When I grew up in downtown Greensboro, me and all my friends called it ‘Greensboring,’” she said. “Just to look at the changes between when I was growing up and now, it started with the ballpark — bringing it downtown. It was two to three blocks from my house. It was great: We could watch the fireworks from my porch. Once the ballpark came, so did the apartments. With the apartments came the wider sidewalks. Then came the brewery. Now, there are a handful of breweries. I’ve seen it all happen. The transformation didn’t take 40 years. It just takes one thing. It might be a ballpark. Whatever it is, I’ll get behind it.”