neo's 80-plus young professional groups plug new talent into cleveland

A new job with a growing tech startup lured Andrew Bennett back to Cleveland. But it was volunteering with a young professional group that opened his eyes to the city's potential.

After boomeranging back from New York City to work as marketing manager for Within3, Bennett was delighted to experience his native city with fresh eyes. “I discovered a Cleveland that was completely different than what I expected and when I was growing up,” he notes.

He was impressed with the city’s arts and culture scene, vibrant urban neighborhoods and recreational opportunities. “It has all of the amenities of a big city without big city problems,” he says. But it was the opportunity to get involved that really fired him up.

“I would recommend to anyone that they get involved in the civic sector,” says Bennett, who went on to serve as Social Media Director and Board President of the 20/30 Club. “It will give you an opportunity to interact with upper-level management. You can contribute as much as anyone else, no matter your age and background.”

At just 26 years old, Bennett is the youngest board member of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, one of the most influential business organizations in Northeast Ohio. He is also a board member of Global Cleveland, a regional talent attraction initiative, and is working to launch his own startup company within the next few months.

If that’s not enough, this rising star also is co-chair of Engage! Cleveland, a new nonprofit that will amplify the voice of young professionals in Northeast Ohio. There are over 80 YP organizations here, yet their disparate efforts are all volunteer-led. By acting as a professional clearinghouse for efforts to attract, retain and involve young talent, Engage! Cleveland hopes to ultimately make Cleveland a top destination for young pros.  

“As President-elect of the 20/30 Club, I saw there were tens of thousands of people like me,” says Bennett. “I thought, ‘What if we had full-time staff to capitalize on all of this energy?’ [Engage!] is not about consolidation -- it’s about working together.”

Whether through happy hours, park cleanups or sailing lessons, YP groups play a critical role in plugging college grads and boomerangs into the city. These organizations go well past simply finding a date or making a business connection: They’re about empowering young people to shape the city’s future and giving them reasons to stay.

“Research has found that there’s a 90-day window from when people move to a city to influence them,” Bennett says. “If you get them plugged in, they’re more likely to stay.”

Like Bennett, Michael Christoff is part of a growing number of young professionals in Cleveland who are getting involved in civic organizations not simply to meet like-minded young people, but to advance their careers and make an impact in their community. In 2007, Christoff, an architect with Vocon, saw that Cleveland lacked a public design competition as did many other cities. After meeting with colleagues over drinks at a bar, he decided to create one.

Now in its fifth year, the Cleveland Design Competition has fostered outside-the-box designs for several big projects and is often credited with creating the concept behind the six-acre Ohio City Farm. Funded by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and entry fees, last year's competition attracted entries from 90 architects in 24 countries. This year's event is soliciting bold ideas for transforming the lower level of the Detroit Superior Bridge.

“If you’re willing to start something, the barriers to entry in Cleveland are pretty small,” says Christoff, who was aided by several mentors who connected him to funding sources. He recently met with Mayor Jackson to discuss his ideas. “If you’re a self-starting person and interested in changing something, you can do that here.”

While Christoff likes to joke that he “subsidizes” his interest in civic-minded affairs with a career in architecture, his volunteer work actually has helped bolster his career. Within a week of leaving his last job, he received multiple offers from other firms in part because of his demonstrated leadership, he says.

By marketing Northeast Ohio as a welcoming region for young professionals, Bennett says that Engage! Cleveland hopes to recruit more people like Christoff to put down roots here. He wants to help area companies find and attract top young talent.

“If an employee leaves his or her job for an opportunity in a different city, it costs that company 150 percent of that person’s salary, on average, to replace them,” Bennett says. “Young professional groups connect the dots and keep people here.”

Still, despite its increasingly diverse economy, revitalized urban neighborhoods and at least $2.5 billion in downtown development, Cleveland hasn’t yet earned a reputation as a top destination for young professionals. In fact, according to the recent U.S. Census, the Cleveland metro area was ranked fifth-oldest among 54 areas with one million people.

Will Tarter, the 29-year-old Manager of Business Research and Communications for Downtown Cleveland Alliance, says the city and young professional organizations can help reverse that trend by focusing on civic engagement and policies that attract YPs.

According to research from Next Generation Consulting, “young professionals are two to three times more likely to stay in the community if they are civically engaged”, he explains. He cites developments like the Euclid Corridor Health Line and bike lanes on the Lorain-Carnegie Bridge as the kind of youth-friendly projects that will help rebrand the city.

There are also signs, however tentative, that Cleveland’s image among YPs may be seeing a historic, generational shift. From 2000 to 2010, downtown Cleveland saw a 50-percent increase in the number of 25-34 year olds living here, says Tarter.

Cleveland’s YP groups have more than 12,000 members, and that number continues to grow. Many companies have even launched their own young professional organizations as a means of identifying and cultivating rising talent.
“If you’re smart and driven in Cleveland, you’ll get rewarded,” says Bennett. “The opportunity to get involved here is exceptionally high compared to other cities.”

More than anything, perhaps, YPs are influenced by their peers’ opinions of which cities are desirable. Moving the needle on Cleveland’s rusty image -- even slightly -- could pay huge dividends. 

“There’s evidence that as young professionals live and settle in communities, they attract other young professionals,” says Tarter. “When people ask, ‘Where are you going after college?’ and they say ‘I’m going to Cleveland,’ they become ambassadors.”

Involving young professionals in policy decisions also is a crucial part of keeping them here, Tarter points out. He co-founded the Cleveland Young Professional Senate to engage YPs in community issues such as the future of Cleveland’s schools.

By creating an environment where young people feel a part of the civic community, he adds, Cleveland can slow or reverse the trend of young talent fleeing for "cooler" cities.

Recently, the YP Senate used social media to garner 50 applications in just one week from young people seeking to join Cuyahoga County boards and commissions. Despite that desire, much of the decision-making process remains in the hands of older adults, Tarter and others say. Christoff cites Cleveland’s Planning Commission, whose youngest member is in his late 40s, as one example of the need to diversify.

Involving young professionals in civic decisions won’t come easily, Bennett says, but having an organization with staff and resources will help make it a reality.

Engage! Cleveland plans to officially launch in October under the wings of Global Cleveland, which has established a Welcome Hub in the Huntington Building at Public Square. The merger of the two new organizations already has added youth and diversity to Global Cleveland’s board of directors. Bennett says the collaboration offers a model of nonprofits working together to advance the common goal of talent attraction.

“It’s become a true community initiative,” he says. “It’s not old guard versus new guard, but older and younger people working together to bring Engage! Cleveland to fruition.”

While past efforts to unify Cleveland’s young professional organizations have not always worked, Bennett says that the difference with Engage! is that several area foundations have bought into the idea and agreed to consider startup funding. By fall, he expects the organization to announce funding and a new Executive Director.

As a sign that Cleveland finally is starting to welcome YPs as community leaders, Bennett cites the creation of the Cuyahoga County Next Generation Council. Launched by County Executive Ed FitzGerald to engage young people in policy decisions, the 15 member council began meeting earlier this year to identify its priorities.  

“What do we want Cleveland to look like 50 years from now?” Bennett asks. “As young people get more involved, we have an opportunity to define what the city wants to be.”

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is a journalist, essayist and poet whose work has appeared in many regional and national publications. He is Managing Editor of Fresh Water Cleveland and Editorial Director of Issue Media Group. He has earned Master's degrees in English/Creative Writing and Public Administration from Cleveland State University. Originally from Cleveland Heights, he lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood with his family.
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