Once-upon-a-time, St. Louis was a classic Rust Belt city with a foundation in manufacturing and shipping products from its convenient perch along the Mississippi River.
But that was then – before Google, Apple, Amazon, Tesla, Uber and others changed the game. While young minds pine to work in the startup cultures of Silicon Valley, Austin or Boston – the home of the famed Gateway Arch is a region that remains a mystery to many coastal U.S. residents. That is, of course, outside of analysts following trends on economic development, small business growth, and most recently, Millennial migration – a generation that has apparently found much to love about St. Louis and its potential.
And while it might be too far a comparison to delve into lyrical poetry of LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out,” in which the rapper and actor shouts, “Don’t call it a comeback” – St. Louis’ recent track record is yet another brick in the wall of an economic renaissance beyond its Rust Belt roots.
“I moved here in 2005 and this was a Fortune 500 town,” said Aaron Perlut, co-founder of marketing communications firm Elasticity, which launched in 2009 and today has 35 employees in its St. Louis headquarters and offices in Dallas, Chicago and Connecticut. “And while we still have a large corporate presence, today’s St. Louis has hung its hat on the promise of entrepreneurship and innovation in software, health science and plant science.”
Indeed, over the past five years St. Louis has garnered an impressive share of accolades, particularly as it relates to a culture of entrepreneurial growth – from Forbes’ Christopher Steiner citing St. Louis as “The Right Way To Build a Tech City” and ranked as the top startup city by Popular Mechanics in 2015, or being recognized as the fastest growing startup city by Business Insider and the "new startup frontier" by FiveThirtyEight in 2016.
But the golden ticket today for many economic developers – what really drives the hunger of employers worldwide – is the digital native and Millennial worker of tomorrow’s economy.
“Communities that engage Millennials in the creation of spaces to work and live will be rewarded, especially cities,” said Ginger Imster, Vice President of Innovation & Entrepreneurship for St. Louis Economic Development Partnership. “Millennials have the potential to breathe new life back into cities, specifically the urban core.”
St. Louis’ latest citation – this one from Business Insider in the form of a republished examination by The Penny Hoarder of the “25 coolest and most affordable places for Millennials” – has the region’s officials excited.
“This is a list for the rest of us twenty-and-thirtysomethings who can't afford to spend $2,500 to live in a closet in Bushwick,” author Alex Mahadevan notes. “The Penny Hoarder has developed a definitive list of the top 25 coolest and most affordable cities for millennials…based on a rigorous analysis of housing and local price data, economic statistics, and something called a Coffee Fanatic Score.”
In a 25-city-deep listicle that includes a top five of Pittsburgh, Columbus (Ohio), Indianapolis, Grand Rapids – you guessed it – St. Louis finished in the top spot.
"I think St. Louis in a lot of ways is underrated," Elizabeth Semko, digital editor for the culture-paper The Riverfront Times, is quoted in The Penny Hoarder’s report. "You always have something to do no matter what you're into."
The argument is strong. A bike trek through Forest Park to summer off-Broadway performances at The Muny theater, taking in a Cardinals or Blues game or fried chicken at Byrd & Barrel, hipster destinations like the Cherokee neighborhood, music in “The Loop” at the Pageant Theater or Blueberry Hill, vibrant craft beer scene anchored by Schlafly Beer along with new upstarts like Earthbound Brewing, and quirky destinations like The City Museum. There’s a lot going on for the 20-something set in a region home to some 2.9 million.
“Communities that adapt to create opportunities for Millennials to engage civically and live vibrantly can essentially ignite movements for public benefit as Millennials tend to align their philanthropy and volunteerism with community development that has tangible outcomes,” added Imster. “Millennials do not perceive leadership as title-driven. For them, leadership is results oriented. As a result, community development agencies must strike a balance between managing good governance and modeling best practices while at the same time engaging Millennials around leadership that is more informal and less institutionalized. A successful balance will shape a more resilient future for our local, regional, and national economies and inspire a whole new generation of leaders excited to motivate others.”
Don’t call it a comeback. Call it one more step in an economic renaissance.