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Living for the city: Vibrant urban cores lure young talent

Detroit and Milwaukee have a shared history as blue-collar, manufacturing, shot-and-a-beer kinds of towns.

In recent decades, the two Midwest cities also have shed population, factories and much of their beer-making capacity.

But while Detroit’s population continues to plunge, Milwaukee’s population is rising as the city is becoming a magnet for recent college graduates looking for a cool place to live.

Milwaukee features a diverse economy, a Lake Michigan setting, a renowned art museum and plenty of bars and restaurants.

Sixteen percent of Milwaukee’s population is made up people age 25 to 34. Just 12 percent of Detroit’s population is in that age group.

“There’s always a renaissance going on and if you don’t have young people who are engaged in helping a city grow, the city starts getting stagnant,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said recently.

Major corporations and entrepreneurs have been moving to the greater downtown area of Detroit in recent years and have added more than 10,000 jobs since 2010, according to a study by the Hudson-Webber Foundation.

But the city continues to lose population – more than 10,000 people between 2011 and 2012, according to new census estimates released last week. And job growth in the city as a whole has been tepid.

Detroit and Cleveland were the only two of the 20 largest cities in the country to lose population since 2010, according to the census estimate taken on July 1, 2012. The city had 701,475 people on that date.

Milwaukee, by contrast, has gained about 3,750 residents since 2010, boosting its population last year to 598,916, according to census estimates.

Experts say major cities are growing primarily because young people are moving into them to take advantage of urban amenities, including bars, public transportation, and sporting, entertainment and cultural events.

Some say the trend will likely accelerate as the economy improves, allowing recent college graduates to move out of their parents’ basements in the suburbs.

“That’s the connection that people still don’t understand,” said Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc., an Ann Arbor-based think tank. “A large city with lots of young professionals is a component of a strong state economy.”

A USA Today study earlier this month found that nearly 25 percent of all U.S. jobs landed by recent college graduates between 2006 and 2011 were in just four metro areas – New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles.

Milwaukee recorded the second fastest-increase in the nation in job growth for 20- to 30-year-olds with bachelor’s degrees, growing 45.3 percent.

San Antonio topped the list with a job growth rate of 48.5 percent between 2006 and 2011.

The USA Today study used data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the University of Minnesota Population Studies Center to determine job growth in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas.

Metro Chicago saw a 27 percent increase in jobs for recent college graduates between 2006 and 2011. Metro Pittsburgh posted a 24.7 percent increase. Jobs for recent college graduates in Minneapolis-St. Paul grew by 22.6 percent.

Grand Rapids boosted jobs for college grads by 30.6 percent, but other large Michigan metro areas lagged far behind in the USA Today study.

Lansing jobs grew by 5 percent while Ann Arbor employment rose 2 percent. Detroit jobs for recent college grads fell 0.6 percent between 2006 and 2011.

It’s important for Detroit to boost the number of young people – especially college graduates – some say because a strong city correlates to a strong metro area and state.

Research by Michigan Future has found that the most prosperous states mostly have large metro areas, anchored by vibrant cities, and a highly educated population.

David Egner, president of the Hudson-Webber Foundation and executive director of the of the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan, said the suburbs will benefit from a more vibrant Detroit, if the city can attract more young college grads.

Many young people living in the city will move to the suburbs as they age and start families, he said. That could create a virtuous economic circle if those leaving for the suburbs are replaced by more young people moving in to the city.

“If we don’t have a strong urban core, we won’t have the young talent that will move to the suburbs when they have children, and the financial distress will continue,” Egner said.

“We’ve been fighting the wrong battle,” he said. “It’s not about Detroit versus the suburbs. It’s about Detroit versus Chicago.”

Rick Haglund has had a distinguished career covering Michigan business, economics and government at newspapers throughout the state. Most recently, at Booth Newspapers he wrote a statewide business column and was one of only three such columnists in Michigan. He also covered the auto industry and Michigan’s economy extensively.

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