Prairie Lights: Cities lead the way in luring millennials home

Martini

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

How do we attract more millennials to Billings? Well, giving them an opportunity to sit on a martini bar patio during a downtown event (this was Saturday’s Strawberry Festival) is a decent place to start.

Here’s some moderately good news, I guess: In a ranking of best states for millennials, compiled by MoneyRates.com, Montana came in fifth, after first-place North Dakota, followed by South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa.

The worst five states were, in descending order, Vermont, California, Arizona and Virginia (tied for second-worst) and rock-bottom Washington.

Ed

Ed Kemmick

MoneyRates considered these factors in its ranking: Unemployment among young adults; percent of state population composed of young adults; in-state cost of four-year public colleges; availability of residential rentals; average cost of residential rentals; percentage of population with access to high-speed broadband; the number of bars, pubs and nightclubs per 1,000 young adults; and the number of fitness clubs per 1,000 young adults.

In a press release, MoneyRates had this to say about North Dakota: “Besides having the lowest unemployment rate for the 20–24 age group, North Dakota earned a perfect score for access to high-speed broadband, and was in the top ten for rental affordability and rather surprisingly, the concentration of night spots.”

What was rather surprising to me was that there was no mention of oil, which explains the low unemployment rate among 20- to 24-year-olds, and explains as well the concentration of night spots. It would have been shocking if market forces had not responded to the influx of flush young people by opening an appropriate number of bars, casinos, strip joints, etc.

Here is the summary comment about Montana: “This is a great place to live if you want to further your education because Montana has the nation’s second-lowest tuition for in-state students at 4-year public colleges. There’s also more to do than just attend classes, as Montana ranked in the top 10 for the highest concentration of both nightspots and health clubs relative to its young adult population.”

To which I will add: Montana also enjoys the distinction of not being one of the Dakotas, Nebraska or Iowa, which to our mind adds up to a hell of a lot of extra points.

Meanwhile, why does Washington come in last? “The state of Washington ranked below average on seven of eight criteria studied, with the lone exception being a relatively decent concentration of fitness facilities relative to the young adult population. The state’s worst attribute for millennials looking to get established? Unemployment. At 14.2 percent, Washington had the nation’s fourth worst rate of unemployment among people aged 20 to 24.”

And yet who doesn’t know a millennial or three from Montana living in Portland or Seattle? Those cities are still among the most popular magnets pulling our young people out of state. This is a little like Yogi Berra’s “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

So, what does this latest ranking tell us about Montana? Well, I recently attended a birthday celebration organized by two of my daughters. The house of their young friend who hosted the party was packed with millennials, most of them living and working in Billings. And a lot of them were Billings natives whom I’d known since they were very young indeed, and many of them had been away from their hometown for some years.

That put me in mind of the main theme of Republican governor candidate Greg Gianforte’s campaign: that Montana’s low ranking in wages results in a constant outflow of young people looking for good jobs.

There is considerable outflow, no doubt, but maybe one solution is to do what Billings has been doing, slowly but deliberately, over the past couple of decades: make the city a more desirable place to live.

How? Keep up with the needs of the public schools, improve our parks, expand the network of bike and pedestrian trails, encourage redevelopment of the downtown and take steps to make our Rimrocks and our riverfront more accessible.

These are not the sort of things candidates for governor talk about much, for the obvious reason that these are the sort of things they can’t do much about. The 10 biggest cities in Montana have a population of about 400,000, approaching half the population of the state.

Cities need help from state government, in a myriad of ways, but many of the things that matter most get done within city limits. The millennials I talked to at that recent gathering did not return to Montana because they think the next governor is going to save Colstrip, or because the next Legislature is finally going to pass a fat infrastructure bill.

They came back because Billings has become a more attractive, vibrant place to live, and it happens to be in the middle of one of the most desirable regions on the planet. Some of those millennials came for specific work, some moved here and stuck it out until they found work, still others made jobs for themselves. Some of them will probably be creating jobs for other people.

The presidential campaign seems to suck most of the air out of the room, this year in particular, and what interest remains usually focuses on big races like the one for governor.

But we shouldn’t lose sight of how much of our happiness and well-being are tied to the things we do right here in Billings, and how much progress we’ve already made.

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