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Josh Bergeron: Time may be critical party of growth equation for Rowan County

For years, politicians in small cities like Salisbury and even smaller towns have wondered: what would it take to get millenials to move here and add to the diversity and vibrancy of our community?

A critical part of the answer may simply be time.

And a statement by Ron Starner, keynote speaker at the Rowan Economic Development Commission’s annual meeting this week, that millennials would seek to settle down in suburbs piqued my interest.

Sure, I’m a millenial, but I don’t fit the trend. After college graduation, I’ve lived in cities all with populations smaller than 40,000, with Salisbury being the biggest, if you can believe that. And many of my friends still live in larger cities, even if they’ve had children and purchased a house. So, I wasn’t certain about the suggestion.

But millenials are no longer the college-aged students or young adults that they once were.

The millenial generation (born roughly between the early 1980s and mid 1990s) have an age range from early to mid-20s to late 30s — either at the beginning of their adult life or a couple decades in. The oldest among the next group (commonly referred to as Generation Z) are just turning 22.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that millenials are “no longer as rooted as they were after the economic downtown. Many are belatedly getting married and heading to the suburbs, just as their parents and grandparents did.”

The report used data from Realtor.com to note that Apex, near Raleigh, was the fastest growing suburb in America. And, according to the U.S. Census, suburbs represent the vast majority of the fastest growing cities with populations larger than 50,000.

But what’s different from previous booms, the newspaper reported, is that growth is “far more selective,” limited to areas with good weather, good jobs and a commute away from growing, larger cities or thriving corporate businesses.

There’s other data, too, suggesting the millenial generation is less likely to move to the suburbs as their parents and grandparents. So, while millenials are settling in suburbs or creating them, as the case may be, perhaps the percentage is lower than it was with baby boomers and/or Generation X.

So, will Salisbury see any of that outward migration? The clogged roads, crowded public schools and rapid population increases of booming ‘burbs are present in Cabarrus County and the southern portion of Kannapolis.

Here, there are slightly more local residents and cars on the roads, but our public schools are shrinking. In China Grove and other small Rowan towns, there’s growth, but “booming” is far too strong a word.

Maybe Rowan is too far removed from Charlotte to benefit from a millenial move. Or perhaps we just need more time?

The latter seems more likely, and efforts to bring good paying jobs to our county, regardless of whether it’s in the Salisbury city limits, will only improve our chances.

Making it easy for developers to build homes and apartments while still ensuring standards are met will be critical. There’s positive progress on that front in a movement to reform Salisbury’s Land Development Ordinance.

Municipalities also will need to create walkable downtowns. That requires embracing and encouraging local entrepreneurs because it remains unlikely that chain retail stores will move into downtown Salisbury, for example. Town boards and city councils will also need to spend money improving sidewalks and balancing the needs of motorists with pedestrians.

The good news is that Rowan County, collectively, seems to be moving in the right direction.

For example, there are jobs coming to our community like never before in Chewy.com’s announcement that it will build a massive fulfillment center and create more than 1,200 jobs. There are even better-paying jobs on the horizon.

While many Rowan Countians would prefer not to be consumed by suburbia, there will be benefits — new retail options and other amenities — to some job and population growth.

If millenials are continuing the trend of previous generations, even if it’s at a lower rate or a bit later in life, we should welcome them.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post. Email him at josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com.

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