Jordan delivers task force report
“If you are lucky enough to live in Aiken, you are lucky enough!” That phrase has become the unofficial slogan of the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce and was the opening statement of Dr. Sandra Jordan’s keynote presentation, Aiken: A Compelling Place to Live, at the Chamber’s State of Our Community Luncheon held yesterday.
Jordan is the Chancellor of USC Aiken and served as the chair of the Compelling Place to Live (CPTL) Task Force appointed by Aiken Chamber Chair, Charlie Hartz in February. The charge to the CPTL Task Force was to develop strategies and recommendations to effectively develop, attract, and retain young professionals with and without families to the local Aiken area to meet the workforce needs of business and industry.
“Aiken is a wonderful place to live, work and play, but changes are on the horizon,” Jordan emphasized in her presentation.
Aiken and the CSRA region are at a time of a significant workforce transition according to the CPTL Task Force. In just three to five years many workers in the region will reach retirement age. Baby boomers will begin to move into “active lifestyle retirements,” industry and small and large businesses across many sectors will be seeking new talent.
Businesses deciding between locating in Aiken or elsewhere will be assessing the talent pool and workforce availability. Businesses who wouldn’t dream of locating anywhere else, and businesses already here will be looking for talent.
Since 2014 the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Partnership have produced a Regional Economic Benchmark Report for Aiken. The last two reports point to an unmistakable fact: Aiken’s retirement age population is growing, but Aiken is not retaining, nor attracting new young people in large enough numbers.
Jordan reported that every study on community vitality that the task force reviewed indicated it is critical for communities to attract and retain a working-age population to prevent a crippling declining population. Depopulation of working individuals aged 22-49 and young families creates steadily decreasing tax revenues/financial resources, and erodes the city’s ability to retain and attract new business and industry. This triggers the “domino-effect” resulting in a crisis in the tax base that supports health care, city services and our schools.
The task force concluded that while Aiken is currently failing to retain its working age population and young families, other counties near us are the beneficiaries of the flight from Aiken.
As the SRS Community Reuse Organization’s Economic Impact and Workforce Transition Report indicates, the number of job openings between now and the near future is staggering, and recruiting a younger replacement workforce will be necessary.
Where will that new workforce live and play? Where will their children go to school and church? Which communities are offering the lifestyle amenities to recruit and retain a younger workforce? Is Aiken currently well-prepared to meet the workforce needs created by impending retirements and job growth? Is Aiken well positioned to attract and retain young families and a younger workforce to our community? Will Aiken be ready? These questions and the group’s recognition that change is occurring in Aiken were the foundation for its work.
The CPTL Task Force is confident Aiken can act now to shape the results of time and change into a compelling future for the Aiken community.
Aiken is not currently attracting or retaining young professionals below the age of 49 and young families with children in sufficient numbers. The CPTL Task Force believes Aiken is blessed with a wonderful community so with thought and strategic action Aiken can certainly position itself to appeal to a younger demographic.
Jordan noted that even though the CPTL Task Force worked to establish recommendations to attract and retain individuals 22-49 years old, it does not change the importance and value of Aiken’s retirement community.
“The fact that we need to give thought to what attracts a younger demographic is not an assault on our current assets, traditions, and those things that make Aiken so charming,” Jordan said.
The CPTL Task Force met over a four-month time frame and during those meetings reviewed research; discussed assigned readings; and waded through articles and studies related to trends, preferences, and habits of young families with children and young professionals. Local experts on education, housing trends, and entrepreneurship were invited to provide information on how those trends relate to Aiken. Additionally, a panel of human resources officers from local businesses and industry shared their experiences in hiring and retaining employees with the group. Characteristics of communities that are ahead of Aiken and already enjoying growth among this younger demographic were studied.
The group asked the question, “What does it take to capture the attention of the younger workforce and attract them to a community?” According to the CPTL Task Force’s review of the research, there are several traits communities can focus on that will have the younger workforce sitting up and taking notice:
- Walkable neighborhoods
- Ease of mobility with multimodal transportation systems
- Live-work-play communities
- Proximity to well-paying work and high performing schools
- Community that encourages healthy living, not simple medical care
- Vibrant third spaces like cafes, patio bars, interactive public spaces, community events, maker spaces or entrepreneurial centers
- Proximity to arts and culture
- Revitalized urban and industrial spaces
- Strong, local independent business base
- Safe communities and schools
Providing these amenities is crucial to compete in the modern economy and maintain a high quality of life in Aiken. Jordan noted with interest that Aiken already has many of these traits and that the traits desired are the same as those desired by any age group, younger or older.
Jordan remarked that millennials, like every generation before them, strive for a life well-lived. Young professionals are seeking towns where interactions are made easily through spaces that connect diverse peoples.
The CPTL Task Force found that while there is a lot of “buzz” around millennials seeking cool urban areas, the fact of the matter is that most people, including the millennials want to live where they can work and play. The studies that were reviewed pointed to affordable, interesting, mixed-use areas that offer hubs for gathering and proximity to good jobs were highly attractive.
It surprised the CPTL Task Force to learn that since the quality of life is so important to this younger generation, they are often selecting their place to live first, and then finding a job. Thus, to address the economic needs of this region, cities, towns and communities should be thinking strategically and together about how to attract these individuals.
The approaching wave of retiring workers and the significant challenge it poses for regional employers was noted by Jordan, but she also thinks the challenge does not solely rest with the regional employers. The replacement and growth of our resident populations is extremely important for economic revitalization and sustainable growth for the long term. And as Aiken goes, so goes the county and the smaller communities in the region.
The failure to effectively attract and retain young families and working adults could well result in population decline as it has in so many small towns and cities nationwide. The CPTL Task Force feels this would be a tragedy for all who live in and love the Aiken community.
“Stepping into a bright and prosperous future will require bold and sustainable leadership and community cooperation and support,” Jordan stated.
“Letting go of the old that no longer works, and taking up the new and less familiar, requires citizens to be patient and collaborative. It also requires bringing together people who have a stake in the enduring success of this community with those who are willing to be part of the transformation,” concluded Jordan.
The Compelling Place to Live Task Force Full Report is available at www.aikenchamber.net/CPTL