what it will take to bring millennials like me back home

Editor's note: Gabe Fedor grew up in Cleveland Heights and graduated from Gilmour High School in 2014. He was an intern with Fresh Water from May through August.

A few months ago, I headed off to college for the first time. As I thought about my new four-year residence at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, I also began to think about what it was like to grow up as part of the millennial generation in Cleveland. This unique place has had a major impact on me, and as I leave it for the first time, I’m realizing how large that impact is. 

It’s officially no secret that Cleveland is a city on the rise, one that’s shedding its rusty reputation. Yet of course, it wasn't always like that. When my generation was coming of age in the 2000s, the city was hitting some of its hardest times during the Great Recession. Just as we were at the age of exploring our unique place of birth, Cleveland was having a hard time just staying afloat. And now, right as we’re leaving, it’s experiencing a long-awaited renaissance. 

Rust Belt kids off to college are not the oldest, wisest or smartest Clevelanders, but we do carry with us a unique perspective, one that involves seeing Cleveland in its most downtrodden state yet also full of potential. In high school, my peers made negative comments about Cleveland constantly, saying things like “There’s nothing to do here!” or “Ohio is nothing but corn fields.”

Yet something’s changed. The desire to diss Cleveland at every opportunity is being replaced with enamor for the city. There’s new energy here, and millennials are changing their views.  

But will this newly positive outlook on Cleveland be enough to bring our generation back after college?

What it's going to take

After talking with a number of my peers and discussing population changes in Cleveland with Richey Piiparinen, a senior research associate at the Center for Population Dynamics at the Levin College of Urban Affairs at CSU, it became obvious to me that if the development in Cleveland stays on its course, then those leaving for college, including myself, will return down the road.

What are the things that will bring us back? They include career opportunities, redeveloped neighborhoods and urban amenities, and an environment that’s attractive for raising a family.

These factors are just beginning to come together, which has led to a 23 percent spike in residents ages 25-34 with a college degree in the Cleveland metro, according to new research by Piiparinen. That’s a huge “brain gain,” adds Piiparinen, who believes that the number shows how Cleveland is truly redefining itself. 

Young people from my generation who still have a negative mindset about Cleveland actually don’t reflect the prevailing attitudes, Piiparinen maintains. “It’s generational – what you hear in the house is what you are,” he says. He explains that some kids will always “feel much more comfortable in their bubble and won’t want to leave it to move to Cleveland.”

As I thought about what Piiparinen told me, I reflected back on my suburban-dwelling peers who expressed negative attitudes towards the city. Are the millennials who are more comfortable in the enclave of the suburbs really the outliers in an otherwise progressive-thinking group of young people?

I spoke with five peers to see what they thought about eventually moving back here. Most said they felt increasingly positive about Cleveland, and they all said they would have a strong urge to move back here at some point in their lives.

Paige Anton of Shaker Heights, now a freshman at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, says that “there are more things going on here than meets the eye.” She’d love to move back to Cleveland if future job opportunities are available in her chosen field of neuroscience.

Will Sullivan of Cleveland Heights, a freshman at Ohio University in Athens majoring in business, explained that for him, family would be a large draw to come back to Cleveland.

The city’s newfound energy, exemplified for many by the return of LeBron, is also a motivator. Doug Weisman of Shaker Heights, a business major at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said that new development and the great Cleveland “vibe” would lure him back. At college, he talks up Cleveland with his friends from around the country, countering stereotypes by saying it’s a great place to live. 

Feeling the love for CLE

Piiparinen explains why my generation of 90s millennials has recently sent so much positivity and love back to CLE: “The Millennials born in the 90s weren't exposed to Cleveland in its heyday, so they don't carry the baggage. They aren't bogged down by the change of the past.”

One way to look at it is that millennials born in the 90s simply don’t have very high expectations. It might sound bad, but the bar was set pretty low when we were growing up. Yet that results in a positive outlook on Cleveland’s future, more so than with older generations. Every little development that is added to Cleveland is a huge step in the right direction. We aren't constantly comparing the city to the days when “Higbee’s was always bustling.”

Many Cleveland neighborhoods are improving, and we're picking up on that. The city has taken huge steps to create the amenities that will attract college graduates to live in and around the city. For example, Cleveland previously had very outdated public spaces, yet plans are in motion to fix that. Public Square will receive a major renovation in the coming years. More green space, an embedded concert hill, a reflecting pool, and a cafe are all planned for the makeover – this is a world away from the concrete-filled, car-congested square of my youth.

This is just one example. The development of new apartments, nightlife, arts and culture and retail amenities are also helping attract new residents. Yet undoubtedly, when my four years at college draw to an end, there will only be one thing my mind: a job. What brings young people to cities most is opportunity.

While my peers didn't express concern about lack of opportunity in Cleveland after college, they all agreed a job would be the largest factor influencing their return. Yet they were optimistic given the gradual return of Northeast Ohio’s economy. They had the feeling that finding a job pertaining to their interests in neuroscience, business, and economics would not be difficult. 

Maintaining momentum

We know that 90s Millennials are beginning to feel the love for Cleveland. But is this positive outlook naive? Can we really support all these college-educated young people moving back? 

In a report titled “A Newer Geography of Jobs: Where Workers with Advanced Degrees are Concentrating Fastest," Piiparinen shows that Cleveland already is supporting a growing young population. In fact, in recent years, Northeast Ohio’s high-skill workforce has grown at a rate that ranks fifth in the nation, according to the study. That’s right up there with San Francisco.

So what does this have to do with Rust Belt kids looking for jobs in four years? It means that knowledge jobs in Cleveland are being added at a rapid rate. The knowledge economy is growing here. So by the time we’re straggling out of our dorm rooms for the last time, there will hopefully be fresh opportunities.   

There are less hopeful indicators, of course. Cleveland has been continually shrinking and losing residents every year to more popular destinations like the Sun Belt. Yet Piiparinen writes in a Plain Dealer editorial that Clevelanders shouldn't look through rust-colored glasses: "From 2000 to 2012, Greater Cleveland gained one college-educated resident for every undereducated resident lost. The metro added 40,000 people with college degrees from 2006 to 2012, with 41 percent of those gains coming from the 25- to 34-year-old age group."

“The problem here is that population growth is an ineffective, broad brush measure when trying to understand regional underlying dynamics,” he adds. While the numbers showing that Cleveland is shrinking are undoubtedly important, he believes the fact that college educated, young people are moving back to the city tells the story of the direction that Cleveland is headed.

On a personal level, I see the trend of boomerangs moving back unfolding within my own family. Two years ago, my brother and his wife, who are in their early 30s, left Boston to return to Cleveland. Both had great careers in Boston, so why move back to a city where, according to the old narrative, residents just hop on Interstate 90 every day to escape it?

Because there was opportunity here and they wanted a place to start a family. My brother, like me, had fond memories of Cleveland. He loves the teams, people and places. He was able to quickly find a job in his desired field, which was the final push he needed to move back. His wife also quickly found a job advising medical startups. Both fit into Piiparinen’s 23 percent “brain gain” of people with a college degree or higher who are moving to the City of Cleveland.

A generation of 90s millennials who grew up hearing the city called “The Mistake on the Lake” now have an increasingly positive outlook on the future of the city. It’s this unique historic perspective, combined with a sense of fresh possibilities, the revitalization of city neighborhoods, the lure of family and maybe even the thought of winning a championship that will bring us back to Cleveland for good.