MAKING THE GRADE
Greensboro has a bit of a reputation among many young people in the state. Those who grew up in the city often refer to it as “Greensboring,” citing a lack of things to do and a dearth of job opportunities.
National rankings have consistently labeled Greensboro as one of the worst cities in the country for young singles, the Daily Beast gave the city a “D” for its social life, and Sperling’s Best Places gave the city one of the lowest health scores for activity and lifestyle. Greensboro won first place for the title of “Least Sexy City” based on data from a travel dating website. To quote Cher Horowitz, “Way harsh!” And yet, Greensboro seems to constantly add organizations and community initiatives solely dedicated to growing cool businesses in the city. Action Greensboro, Greensboro Partnership, the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship, ArtsGreensboro, Downtown Greensboro Inc., the Renaissance Center, the East Greensboro Study Committee and the Economic Development Committee are just some of the groups that are examining the city from every angle in order to find ways to grow a colorful economy.
In order to thrive in today’s economy, you must appeal to what urban studies theorist, Richard Florida, refers to as the “Creative Class.” Members of the creative class look for meaning in their occupation. They are drawn to design, technology and the arts in order to create new ideas. They are also the economic force that is rescuing post-industrial cities.
More and more college-educated millennials are drawn to cities with creative economies that give the area an elusive cool factor. These young professionals are looking for cities that not only have jobs in creative industries, but also provide amenities for a healthy and stimulating lifestyle, have leadership opportunities for every demographic, demonstrate an open-minded set of values, and have both an attractive physical quality and a sense of character.
So how is Greensboro doing with these factors? That depends on whom you ask. People working to make Greensboro a better place often express excitement about the city’s untapped potential. Hillary Meadows is the director and marketing manager for SynerG, an active organization for young professionals in Greensboro.
Meadows admits that the old Greensboro lived up to its dull reputation, but feels that those days are behind the city now.
“Definitely when I was growing up and when I was in college, there was a bit more to be desired in Greensboro,” said Meadows. “I think the progress we have made in the last 10 to 15 years, especially downtown, is amazing.”
Meadows points to the walkability of the downtown area and new businesses like LEKKER bikes and The Forge makerspace as entities that are part of what makes Greensboro cool.
Greensboro also offers a lot of access to officials for millennials who want to be engaged in their community. The city and its leaders are incredibly accessible through social media, and as Greensboro works to revitalize the city and downtown, it is reaching out to young professionals and offering leadership opportunities to shape the city.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan was part of a task force that met with young professionals to get a sense of what they wanted to see in Greensboro.
“They wanted different types of places to go out, not necessarily the traditional nightclub,” said Vaughan. “The new House of Blues affiliated venue was received very well.”
Vaughan said that the city is planning to do even more outreach to encourage young professionals to work with community leaders in order to build the kind of city that young adults are looking for.
“There’s a lot in the works here but there’s still so much room to get involved,” said Action Greensboro Director Cecelia Thompson. “There’s all sorts of opportunities to make your stamp on your city and I think that sets us apart.”
It’s hard to objectively measure a city’s potential, and a major obstacle for Greensboro’s advocates is getting the word out about events and organizations. While young professionals downtown are more likely to see things that are going on, people in the suburbs can be out of the loop.
This isn’t the only area where there is a stark divide between the culture downtown and the culture in the suburbs. People downtown enjoy their ability to walk to work, bars, restaurants, the greenways, offices, museums and libraries while those in the suburbs either have to drive or spend hours commuting by bus.
People who live and work downtown tend to be engaged in the community through multiple organizations. The network is striving to create a brand for the city and build a sense of city pride through initiatives such as the new “That’s so Greensboro” #soGSO hashtag. But there still seems to be less city pride for Greensboro than other urban areas in the state. It’s hard to find a car in Durham than doesn’t have some sort of Bull City bumper sticker, while cars in Greensboro seem to have more love for OBX than their hometown. Greensboroians definitely show off their state pride, southern pride, and school pride, but city pride is noticeably less visible.
Perhaps it’s not fair to compare Greensboro to other cities because many people consider it to be more like a sprawling small town. And if Greensboro isn’t urban or hip by some standards, it still wins top spots in rankings for families and for senior citizens. It might not be a magnet for the young creative class now, but good things are coming to ole Greensboring.
“I think as a city we’re making strides,” said Vaughan. “I think we have the bones, we just need to put a little meat on them.”
GRADE REPORT FOR GREENSBORO
TOLERANCE – B+
Millennials tend to lean on the socially progressive side. According to studies conducted by the Pew Research Center and the Center for American Progress, people born after 1980 are more accepting of LGBTQ communities, more supportive of gender and racial equality, and more tolerant of other religions than older generations. Young professionals are looking for cities than reflect these values.
Even though Amendment One passed by a small margin in Guilford County, the ultimate outcome made a strong statement to LGBTQ communities and allies.
Greensboro currently has one gay bar, Chemistry Nightclub, and one gay/lesbian bar, the Q. Many young LGBTQ youth look to their schools for resources and support. UNCG and Guilford County both have very active and visible student organizations. For non-students there are groups like the Triad Equality Alliance and Alternative Resources of the Triad.
Greensboro may have a history of religious tolerance dating back to the original Quaker communities, but it is still a very churchy city. Men’s Health ranked Greensboro as the second most religious city in the country in a 2010 poll. The city has less than five Islamic centers and a handful of active synagogues, so most of the congregations in Greensboro belong to Christian churches, specifically Protestant ones.
Just because a population is predominately Christian, doesn’t necessary mean it’s less open-minded, but the visible imbalance in a city like Greensboro could prevent some young adults from feeling like they can be out and open about who they really are.
OPPORTUNITIES – D
Two of the hottest cities in the country for people under 30 are San Francisco and Seattle. These west coast havens for creative tech bubbles attract the best and brightest college graduates. For creative millennials, an innovative business atmosphere is a major draw.
According to the Triad Business Journal, the top employers in Greensboro are Cone Health, United Parcel Services and Time Warner Cable. These companies aren’t exactly Amazon or Google, but they are relatively modern for a city where the major source of income was once cotton, textiles, and more cotton.
Greensboro, High Point and Winston- Salem were built on blue collar manufacturing economies. We used to make things here, and a lot of them. Now Greensboro is experiencing a slower economic recovery than other cities in the state as it struggles to find a post-denim identity.
Greensboro’s largest economic sector according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics is “Trade, Transportation and Utilities.” This is followed by “Manufacturing” in second place, and the millennial-grabbing “Professional and Business Services” in third. Greensboro’s manufacturing sector is significantly larger than that of nearby Charlotte and Raleigh, while its professional sector dwindles in comparison. The good news is that even though the manufacturing sector is shrinking in the Triad, professional services are growing.
Millennials also look for networking and professional development opportunities in their city, and Greensboro has made a conscious effort to create young professional networking groups such as SynerG to foster an emerging web of community-engaged young adults in the area. The Forge, a community makerspace, just opened downtown and a coworking space next to Elon law school is expected to open the fall.
Creative community spaces are great, but young adults are also looking for jobs that pay well. With a median household income of $41,000 a year, Greensboro residents unfortunately earn $10,000 less than the national average.
AFFORDABILITY – A
Even compared to the rest of North Carolina, Greensboro is very affordable. For a young post-grad trying to pay off college loans with an entry-level job, a lower cost of living can be extremely attractive.
According to Area Vibes, the cost of living in Greensboro is 12.6 percent less than the average in the state, and 15.7 percent less than the national average. It’s cheaper to live, eat and drink in Greensboro than most cities of its size, meaning millennials can enjoy city amenities at a small town price.
The current national housing market may be better for buyers, but the average cost of rent is rising higher than a trendy downtown condominium. Greensboro’s median rent of $717 per month is still well below the national average of $801. So even if Greensboro isn’t exciting enough for a resident cool young professional, they can still afford the gas money to get out of town for the weekend.
WALKING AND BIKING – C+
College campuses create walkable communities that millennials look for in their post-grad lives. With rising fuel prices and a growing awareness of global warming, fewer and fewer young professionals own cars. While Greensboro has made steps in the right direction, it is still a terribly inconvenient city for anyone who doesn’t own a car.
Walk Score gave Greensboro a 28 rating for walkability, making it a car-dependent city. The most walkable zip codes were the 27403 and 27402 areas near UNCG, with a score of 50, indicating that some errands could be accomplished on foot.
According to the League of American Bicyclists, only 1.67 percent of people in Greensboro walk to work. This is well below the national average of roughly 3 percent The League does recognize Greensboro as one of 11 bicycle friendly communities in the state, and awarded the city a bronze level medal in 2009. But the League also notes that less than 25 percent of the streets have dedicated facilities for bicyclists.
The further someone is from downtown, the harder it is to get around without a car. Young professionals in Greensboro are starting to flock to many of the new apartment complexes downtown where they are able to walk to work during the week and stagger home from the bars on weekends.
The Downtown Greenways and BiPed Plan should improve all of these ratings, but the massive projects will most likely take several more years. Until then, the GTA bus system will continue to be a lifeline for many residents.
LIFESTYLE – B
This category is obvious, yet subjective.
Young, single adults like to go out and have fun. But where?
For daytime fun, you can’t beat Greensboro’s parks, unless you would rather spend some green than commune with it. Area Vibes gave Greensboro an “A” for shopping amenities, and the city has just about every store a millennial could want.
Nightlife is where people have their own biases. Compared to other cities in the state Greensboro has a higher ratio of clubs to bars. For people who enjoy clubs, this is great! Beer enthusiasts looking for new bars with darts and pool tables could find it less appealing. For a city that is home to Natty Greene’s Brewery, many bars in Greensboro tend to have a relatively small selection of local and craft beers. For the microbrewery loving 20-something, this can be pretty lame Things become even more idiosyncratic when considering the live music scene. After years of competing with Raleigh and Charlotte for top contemporary acts, Greensboro has settled into a different niche and has become a go-to destination for country, hip-hop, and classic rock acts. There is nothing wrong with this, but if you’re an indie music loving millennial then you’ll probably have to travel in order to catch a show by almost any band with a song that Pitchfork Media has deemed a “Best New Track.”