In last month’s Ingram’s Industry Outlook general assembly, as we plotted the future of metro Kansas City around the needs and wants of its younger residents, it slowly dawned on those gathered that we had no real idea what those needs and wants are.
The median age in the room was north of 50. In introducing himself, UMB’s Jim Rine, who is in his mid-40s, observed that he was filling in for CEO Peter deSilva. Then came the punch line: “He asked me to come to bring down the average age of this group.” Rine paid for his insouciance—the group ragged him about it unmercifully for the rest of the session.
The question of what do the younger folk do sprung from a discussion of why people in Kansas City seem nicer than people elsewhere. I suggested there was a very tangible reason for our niceness, namely that Kansas City has more freeway lane miles per 1,000 people—1.26 to be precise—than any metropolitan area in America, 50 percent more than any metro outside Missouri.
I argued that the easy flow of traffic that results from plentiful freeways lessens stress considerably. It has also resulted in the dispersed distribution of entertainment venues—the Country Club Plaza, Downtown, Zona Rosa, Village West, Towne Center Plaza, the stadiums, and the like. Thus, we rarely find ourselves in fights for traffic lanes or parking spots.
In fact, the closest I have come to getting in to a traffic-related fight as an adult was in the compressed quarters of now-fashionable Brooklyn. After circling the block for 20 minutes to locate a space, I started backing in—and was promptly cut off by someone lacking in vehicular courtesy. But he knew what he had done. He promptly locked his doors and sat there with his arms crossed until I grew weary of pounding on his roof. That incident made both of us less nice.
Had I left the discussion here, no one would have objected. But I proceeded to lament that whenever I boasted about our bounteous freeway miles to city planners—a disproportionate number of them soft-core Marxists at heart—a few in the assembly cringed. From their perspective, I might as well have been boasting about a bounteous rat population.
At this point, someone tried to explain the city planners’ point of view. Apparently, as the planners see it, the bright, creative young people that all cities seem desperate to attract don’t much like freeways or the automobiles that ride upon them. They prefer urban living with the in-evitable lofts, light rail, coffee shops, jazz bars and walkable spaces.
As the conversation proceeded, I found myself quietly humming the Lerner and Loewe classic from Camelot, “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” In this nicely clever song, King Arthur and Guinevere question each other about the pastimes of their subjects. The only problem is, they have no idea what those pastimes are.
“They whistle?” asks Guinevere. “So they say,” Arthur answers indecisively. Arthur concludes, with some humility, “And that’s what simple folk do, I surmise.” That afternoon, we were doing a lot of surmising.
My own knowledge of what youn-ger folks do, I admit, is based squarely on a two-person focus group: my daughters. Born just a few years apart, both are arguably “Millennials.” I say “arguably” because, as Wikipedia concedes, “There are no precise dates when the generation starts and ends.”
One—let’s call her Red Daughter—is married, has a child, drives a car, owns a home in the suburbs, belongs to the Junior League, and votes Republican.
Blue Daughter is single, lives in the city, rides a bicycle, has a better chance of playing in the major leagues than joining the Junior League, and votes something distinctly other than Republican. From this data set, as you might imagine, generalization is a bit difficult.
They do, however, have something in common. Each owns her own home. The unspoken virtue of the freeway-friendly city is that it pulls the population pressure off the core city. It is nearly as convenient to live in Lenexa or Lee’s Summit as it is in Hyde Park, where Blue Daughter lives. This dynamic makes housing stunningly affordable in the center city.
In the “hip” cities, almost no one can afford to buy a home, young or old. In Austin, a family of median income can afford to choose from about 58 percent of the homes on the market. In Portland, that figure is 42 percent. In Tucson, 34 percent. San Francisco? Just 8 percent, still considerably looser than Santa Barbara and its 3 percent figure.
In Kansas City, by contrast, that same family can select from roughly 85 percent of homes on the market.
This brings us to the essential marketing question: How do we sell Kansas City to the Millennials? Projecting back to when I was of that age and group, my wife and I, then in our mid-20s, chose Kansas City precisely because we could afford to buy a house in the middle of the city. For some years, we had one VW bug and one bicycle between us, and those served all our needs.
Other than Blue Daughter, of course, what young person would not want to have a home they could afford and a car they could easily park? Then too, is it not much more likely that our blue children will turn red than our red children will turn blue?
In recruiting young talent, would it not make sense to show how Kansas City can uniquely accommodate their maturation? Blue Daughter bought her house, just a mile or so from the Plaza, for $110,000. The roommates who foot her overhead can park right in front of the house. Try finding a deal like that in Seattle or Chicago.
Between the river and the Plaza, State Line and Troost, there are thousands of such houses, lofts, condos, and apartments. There is also the youth-oriented infrastructure to support them along 39th Street, Westport Road, in the Crossroads District, and elsewhere. But then again, I surmise.
The best suggestion of the day was that, before we lay out billions for Millennial-oriented amusements, we stop surmising and ask the city planners to stop surmising and we gather the Millennials in an assembly like the one we were staging and ask them what they want.
One question remains: What do we have to give them to get them there?