The New College Try: How Our City is Reinventing the College Experience to Lure and Retain Talent | Opinion

Guest writer: Jay Revell

According to a recent survey of C-suite executives, nearly half of U.S. CEOs see a lack of talent as the biggest threat to their future plans. Only 1 in 16 are optimistic of the availability of a talent pool in their communities. Until recently, we perceived the notion that education was the best pathway for growth in our towns and cities. However, it’s not enough to just focus on education, but effectively drawing talent to hubs of opportunity and ensuring that those who have been highly trained in their chosen niches have a place to put it to good use.

So what does a city need to do to rise up and meet that challenge, to turn itself into a magnet for talent? Florida’s capital city may already have found a winning strategy, leveraging its most obvious asset — its talent factories — by reinventing the college experience and establishing itself as a place where newly minted talent can establish roots.

(Photo: Aerial Tallahassee)

Tallahassee has long been a favored destination among college students. A top-ranked public university sporting a fanatically popular football team and nationally recognized law school and performing arts program, one of America’s most prominent historically black universities offering chart-topping STEM and pharmaceutical programs, and an outstanding state college and vocational school provide the academic lure. This is boosted by the allure of elite college athletic programs, a climate where shorts are worn year-round, and the ability to check every charming box required for status as a quintessential “college town”.

What’s changed lately is the growing recognition within Tallahassee’s business sector that this competitive community of talent-in-training is a force that should be courted to stay in Tallahassee. Just one piece of evidence can be found in the sudden uptick in student housing developments near campus.

Gone are the days where students were expected to gratefully live off ramen noodles and spartan accommodations. Student housing now reflects a new lifestyle made for modern times, and this past fall there were more new private student housing apartments opened in Tallahassee than anywhere else in America. The areas around this housing have gone similarly upscale, providing the kind of amenities that can keep top students in place as they begin their professional careers.

Confirmation of a movement to attract young professionals can also be seen in CollegeTown, an area entirely transformed within the academic life of many FSU and FAMU students. Five years ago, Gaines Street was an industrial stretch of road with many vacant warehouses and other under-utilized properties peppered with long-standing local bar, gym, and gallery favorites. Today, it sports the nation’s first Greenwise Market, funky stores offering avant garde vintage clothing and classic vinyl records, and award-winning breweries. This transformation was fueled by $13 million in government funds and significant private investment. But what’s maybe more important is this transformation was possible because of a movement to unite college-centered and local forces to breathe life back into a beloved and deserving neighborhood that serves both spheres.

(Photo: Aerial Tallahassee)

Every new freshman at Florida State University, Florida A&M University, or Tallahassee Community College is experiencing Tallahassee in a way never known by students before them. CollegeTown and other nearby developments will beckon them to become part of the broader community around them, the first step in converting these Tallahassee part-timers into full-time residents. This spill-over of college life into a shared community space now allows students to develop a relationship with the community at large as a Tallahassee resident, instead of adopting a cloistered identity isolated to campuses and stadiums.

Tallahassee is not the only traditional college town in America to get in on the game of building new housing and entertainment options for students, but the example being built here may just see the most potential. The cohesive nature of the infrastructure that has been developed between two of Florida’s top universities is a rare feat for planners and developers. The on- street experience (i.e. the shops, restaurants, bars, and living quarters) has created an exciting shared belief that growth is not just possible, it’s inevitable. And this spirit goes beyond just gameday and Friday nights, the energy and excitement extends to the entrepreneurial culture that is growing in the same neighborhood.

New research by The Florida Chamber Foundation shows that by 2030, the U.S. will have primarily a “gig economy” – one with fewer traditional jobs and more focus on entrepreneurial, freelance and contract work. Tallahassee has the opportunity to position itself as an entrepreneurial hub, setting the example of what a thriving city looks like for the future.

Examples of this model include places like Domi Station. Domi Station is a home for Tallahassee’s rising entrepreneurial class. More than ever students are stepping out of the class room and into a business venture. Domi was created as a home for those seeking to build on their bright ideas. Today, students living in the CollegeTown area or just off Gaines Street can walk to Domi and open up the virtual doors to a new business.

The student entrepreneur is the focus of many new ventures that have been created at local colleges and universities in Tallahassee. Most notably, the new Jim Moran Building in Downtown Tallahassee is home to both the Jim Moran School of Entrepreneurship at FSU and the Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship, both named after the legendary entrepreneur Jim Moran. The organizations are funded by a $100 million gift from Jan Moran and the Jim Moran Foundation.

Despite these resources, there still has to be a destination for students to land in after they walk with their cap and gown beyond the halls of the universities and the streets of CollegeTown. For an example of a thriving model, one need only to follow Gaines Street to its eastern terminus at Cascades Park. Local governments spent tens of millions of dollars to turn a brownfield environmental contamination site into a world class park that features trails, open space, and an amphitheater. The amphitheater hosts shows with bands like the Avett Brothers, Wilco, Dawes, and many other festivals and events year round. Now, a company that has been at the forefront of revolutionizing student housing in Collegetown is clearing an adjacent site to build its most ambitious project yet.

Overlooking the park, North American Properties is preparing to build a new housing development that will be aimed at landing recent graduates and other young professionals. Included in the development will be housing, retail, office, health facilities, and of course entertainment. Anchoring the development there will also be a new AC by Marriott hotel. In Tallahassee, as students continue to find the city more and more appealing, the possibilities for what can be built near the downtown and universities is seemingly endless.

Evidence of Tallahassee’s economic progress is sprouting up all the time. The latest is the newly announced Washington Square development in the heart of downtown, a 19-story, $90- million mixed-use project that includes 84,000 square feet of office space, more than 30 condos, and a sizable parking garage. The centerpiece of the mega-structure will be a 19-story Loews Hotel bringing top-tier hospitality to the city’s ever-growing skyline.

Students and graduates in Tallahassee have never had more resources available to them to start a venture that can lead to becoming a successful company or a career, or a city more ready to provide the infrastructure young professionals need to adopt the city as their home.

All of these attributes are part of a changing narrative for Tallahassee, but they are only the beginning of what can, and should be done to attract talent and put Tallahassee on the map. A number of storytellers participating in the marketing of the city to young professionals agree and are endeavoring to this end. Organizations like the Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce have tailored programs like Access Tallahassee to provide an easy transition from student life to the experience of starting a career. Recently the Chamber launched a Talent Lives Here campaign aimed at showcasing real world stories of professionals who chose to build their life after college in Tallahassee.

(Photo: Aerial Tallahassee)

The city is reinventing itself, transforming into a competitive option for incoming college students – and an exciting, opportunity-filled community to remain in after graduation. This growth doesn’t have to mean growing pains. We are clearly moving beyond our self-assumed image, but now we’re doing it on purpose.

With an eye toward growth and opportunity, Tallahassee is heading toward standing as a shining example to other cities of how to take the right steps to retain a steady supply of fresh and eager talent – and the only thing that can hold it back is the community itself. The effort is real and the energy being created because of it is sparking an entirely new appreciation for Florida’s capital city. What once was a college town is now a city on the brink of building a bold new image fueled by growth and progress.

Column by guest writer, Jay Revell, Vice President of the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce.

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