The snow was piled high in the driveway of her parents’ home. Looking out at it from the kitchen window, Shayla Merritt knew someone was going to have to shovel that snow, possibly she. And she says that’s when she made the decision: Columbia was going to become her home.
“I love you, I love Buffalo, I even love the snow, and, of course, I will always come back to see you and Dad,” she recalls saying to her mother, “but people really do not have to live through all of this every day, unless they really want to.”
Shayla knew firsthand about the advantages of a warmer winter. A New York native, she’d spent a couple of years earning her master’s degree from the University of South Carolina, attracted by the school’s mass communication curriculum — and the promise of good weather. Now in her early 30s, Shayla oversees marketing and communications for the South Carolina office of SSOE|Stevens & Wilkinson, an architecture, engineering, and interior design firm. She is part of a millennial migration to Columbia that has the potential to change the economic outlook for the entire Midlands region.
Columbia ranked second in the nation for population growth among the millennial generation in 2018. But the competition for this demographic is intense, and other midsized cities in the South offer similar benefits. How can Columbia stand out and why is that important to the city’s future?
Why Millennials Matter
Millennials are the last generation to remember the pay phone and among the first to adopt new technologies. The oldest members of this generation are starting to turn 40 now. The youngest are in their mid-20s. The “kids” have become adults, and there are 80 million of them in the United States, according to Pew Research, making them the second largest generation after baby boomers.
Because an educated young workforce is essential for bringing new business to communities, the population of millennials has become an increasingly important element in economic development.
“We have a very large talent base that we’re producing in Columbia, and that’s one of our prime competitive assets,” says Joey Von Nessen, a research economist in the Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina. He’s referring to the thousands who come to the Midlands for their college and post-graduate education and the impact it has on the region’s ability to entice new companies to locate here.
Erin Curtis is the program manager for GrowCo, a nonprofit organization in Columbia created to support small and growth stage companies already here that want to expand. Recruiting and keeping millennial talent is one of her concerns. She sees a challenging cycle: to attract and retain companies requires a young and educated talent pool; to attract and retain a young and educated talent pool requires career opportunities.
Yet, Erin also sees the benefits Columbia offers for millennials because she’s a millennial who grew up in Lexington. Following her experience in the Peace Corps, she moved to Washington, D.C., to further her career. “I’d landed my dream job at 25, doing media production work internationally at the State Department,” she says. “I was having the quintessential 20-something experience, I would say, being in a big city, feeling totally out of my depth. I had a wonderful five years in D.C.”
Like Shayla, Erin returned to Columbia in order to have a different quality of life. “My friend group changed every two years in D.C. because it’s so exceptionally transient. People come and go. So as fun and rewarding as the job was, there was no one to share it with,” says Erin. Returning to Columbia, she decided, would put her close to family and create a life with more balance.
Balance is important to Shayla, too. She had a job for several years in Atlanta, where she felt people were working around the clock because the competition was so keen. “I’m not saying South Carolina isn’t competitive because I definitely tell people all the time, ‘Look, there are people here who could run circles around individuals in New York and Atlanta and Chicago.’ People have a top notch work ethic here,” she says. “We’re smart, driven, and multi-talented. It’s just that we have an appreciation for life, as well.”
A Migration to Small Cities
in the South
SmartAsset, a company that provides personal financial technology, has been tracking the millennial migration and ranking U.S. cities based on their net annual increase in millennial population. Overall, they’re finding that a smaller share of young professionals is moving to the nation’s largest cities. And in the wake of COVID-19, even more are leaving large cities and moving to smaller cities in the West and South.
By comparing the number of millennials who moved into Columbia in 2019 to the number who left, SmartAsset calculated a net increase of 6,554 millennials — the largest percentage increase for any of the 180 cities in their study that year, putting Columbia in the number four spot overall for cities that year. In 2020 and 2021, SmartAsset adjusted the age range of the population they evaluated. They pushed it back by five years in order to reflect the aging of millennials. After that adjustment, Columbia ranked lower — most likely because those high 2018 and 2019 rankings included a college-aged population. Still, says Joey, South Carolina is benefiting from millennial migration.
“We’re seeing that people are attracted to South Carolina for a number of reasons, millennials included,” says Joey. “In addition, Columbia is attracting millennials from other regions within South Carolina. For example, Columbia has a lower cost of living compared to Charleston, which can make Columbia a more attractive alternative for a recent college graduate. So Columbia’s increase in the number of millennials is a result of both in-state and out-of-state migration.”
Even with a strong SmartAsset ranking, it’s not the whole story, he cautions. “One of the things we’ve noticed over the past decade when we look at South Carolina,” he says, “is that even though the state as a whole has been outpacing national growth rates, Columbia has not been taking part in that level of growth. In other words, even though Columbia experienced positive growth during the last expansion before COVID, this growth was relatively sluggish. Columbia was not growing as fast as South Carolina as a whole, and Columbia was not keeping up with U.S. growth rates.”
Increasing Columbia’s Appeal to Young Adults
Keeping millennials here needs to be a deliberate part of the Columbia area’s strategy, says Joey, as does marketing the area to millennials ready to make a move. “With remote work becoming more of a professional norm, we now have an opportunity to focus on both recruiting companies to Columbia and matching graduates already here with companies from around the world,” he says.
He also notes that Columbia lacks a strong identity with people outside the area. “It’s not that we have a bad image. We just don’t have any image. And that can be a bad thing because if people outside the region don’t know who you are, then they don’t know to look for you. Developing a strong brand and then communicating it effectively is an important element in any proactive strategy to increase long-run growth.”
Erin and Shayla see qualities that can market the area to other millennials. Erin describes the city’s rivers as Columbia’s most outstanding feature, one the city hasn’t begun to tap into yet. Shayla says, “I resonate with the energy here,” specifically the arts scene around town.
Both Erin and Shayla are homeowners and say the high cost of housing in a major city would probably have put that out of reach for them. As millennials are aging, marrying, and having families, home ownership is becoming a higher priority. “We are seeing an increase in millennials buying in the Columbia market,” says Lynwood Munsey, chief strategy officer for The ART of Real Estate. While this generation prefers stand alone homes and new construction, Lynwood says, “area outweighs new construction. If you have new construction with the convenience of downtown, restaurants, and shopping, it will be appealing to this buyer.”
That kind of walkability was a factor for Shayla and Erin. Shayla bought her townhome in her mid-20s for its neighborhood feel and has watched West Columbia and the State Street community grow up around her. Erin lives off North Main in Elmwood Park on a street full of millennials. During the pandemic, her block formed a bond, hosting porch concerts and cooking competitions. “I saw I could find the kind of lifestyle I want here, which is a blend of a community in a residential place with a front yard and a backyard and still be able to walk to a restaurant or to get coffee,” says Erin. “I could spend my whole weekend on my block and never be lacking for something.”
Shayla sees another plus of being a young professional in a smaller city that may not show up in rankings and research. “Columbia allows you to really embrace the change you want to see in the community; you have the ability to be as actively involved as you want to be,” she says. “People are just really receptive to that. I think they understand that millennials bring a lot to the table and will work hard for you.”