For Sam Johnson, childhood friends leaving Columbia has pretty much been the story of his life.
“I’m a Columbia boy,” says Johnson, 30, who went to Spring Valley High School, attended the University of South Carolina, and worked first for S.C. Rep. Anton Gunn’s office, then Mayor Steve Benjamin’s first campaign and later Benjamin’s office at City Hall. He now works at Nexsen Pruet’s public relations arm.
When Johnson graduated from high school, he says, most of his friends left town on the “first train smoking.”
“Everyone,” Johnson says. “The only reason I still see some of them is for homecoming.”
Kaitlyn Flake has another version of the same story. Raised in Irmo, she went to Clemson University. Now 23, she’s living back in Columbia and working at Capgemini, a tech firm at BullStreet. She worked first as a business analyst; she’s now the campus recruiter for the company’s Columbia office, trying to convince people to come work for Capgemini.
“To be 100 percent honest, I did not want to move back to Columbia to save my life,” Flake says. “My entire family’s here. I didn’t know if I wanted to start my life being in my parents’ backyard.”
She says the draw of a multinational company like Capgemini having an office here was key. The company’s Columbia office features glass-walled meeting rooms named for the homeplaces of famous Scotch whiskies, and it’s buzzing with frenetic but laid-back energy.
“Capgemini is not typically in a Columbia-type place,” she says. “Typically it would be in Atlanta, New York,” she says.
Finding the right job was also key for Stephanie Campbell, 30. She moved here from Greenville to attend USC and be near her now-husband. She worked at College Grounds Café and the Nickelodeon Theatre while in school. Now she works as an interactive designer for a tech firm in the Vista.
“I am extremely fortunate in my job,” she says. “It’s the kind of company that could exist in Los Angeles or New York, easily. We get flexible time, unlimited vacation, we can wear what we want. I just don’t think a lot of corporations in the South do business like that.”
Campbell points to the city’s vibrant, tight-knit arts and music scenes as a draw.
“There’s a real sense of community, which weirdly enough doesn’t happen in Greenville,” she says. “Columbia feels much more like a small town than where I grew up. I like the people here; I like the things we do as a community like the music and the festivals.
“There’s a little bit more to do than there used to be, things like the Main Street revival, North Main and Cottontown, breweries and new restaurants,” Campbell continues. “But I was really struck by the sense of community when I first moved here, period.”
These days, residents like Johnson, Flake and Campbell aren’t so unusual. That wasn’t always the case.
For years, the line on Columbia was that young creatives and entrepreneurs tended to move away after high school or college. Free Times regularly wrote stories about the Midlands’ brain drain problem. We mourned the loss of talent, and the persistent idea that Columbia wasn’t a place people chose to stay.
But lately, there’s some evidence that things are changing. More millennials — generally defined as people born between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s, so currently aged 23-38 — are either moving here or staying here.
The sexiest indicator that millennials are sticking around comes from a company called SmartAsset, which earlier this year crunched U.S. Census immigration and emigration data for 217 cities. Columbia ranked second for net influx of millennials, with 6,937 more young people moving here than moved away during 2016.
The SmartAsset study puts the Capital City second only to tech- and culture-rich Seattle in retaining millennials — certainly a big change from the brain drain days of yore.
Jeff Ruble, Richland County’s director of economic development, offers up some other data specific to Richland County, where the current median age is 32.9, compared to a national median age of 37.7. Out of 3,142 counties in the United States, Richland ranks as 203rd youngest, putting it in the 94 percentile when it comes to youth.
In other words, the Columbia area is pretty young these days.
Certainly the growth of USC, and the continuing vitality of other area schools, accounts for some of the number of young people here. Meghan Hughes Hickman, executive director at EngenuitySC, suggests the area’s student housing boom may have something to do with the growing numbers. Students living off campus may be more likely to list the city as their permanent address while they’re here for school, even if they move away when they graduate. But plenty of cities are home to universities, so it’s hard to attribute the growth entirely to college students.
In any case, it’s not just the data. Anecdotally, it feels like people aren’t all bailing on Columbia in favor of greener pastures as often.
The city’s arts and culture, as well as its affordability, play a big role in people staying. So, too, does the fact that Columbia is in some ways a low-stakes city, where the cost of living remains reasonable and there are opportunities to try things. Increasingly, too, there are role models for young people from diverse backgrounds who want to stay.
But people Free Times spoke to for this story also say that if Columbia is going to seriously retain young people, it needs more jobs.
“A Place You Can Fail”
EngenuitySC, Hickman’s organization, compiles an annual competitiveness report that tracks Columbia’s performance against similar Southern cities on a variety of metrics, from talent retention to the entrepreneurial environment to livability.
It’s that livability factor that looms large for millennials, Hickman says.
“We’re not specifically tracking millennials, but there’s something we’re doing right” in Columbia, Hickman says. “We are continuing to see an enormous amount of growth in arts and entertainment culture; we know that is an enormous contributor to why millennials are making decisions as to where they want to be.”
Columbia also does pretty well on other livability factors in the EngenuitySC report, with a low cost of living and high employment in the arts, entertainment and recreation — though it struggles with factors like crime and community health.
“The millennial generation is really choosing where to live based on livability features even more so than based on job opportunities,” Hickman notes. “They are taking very seriously where they want to be before what they want to do.”
Hickman also says young people don’t see Columbia the same way they used to.
“Anecdotally, we have seen a shift in perspective relative to how people view Columbia.” Talking to students at USC over the past five years, she says, “Now I’m hearing consistently ... they love what they see here, love how affordable it is, love the diversity of our entertainment districts and they want to stay.”
Caitlin Bright, Tapp’s Art Center’s executive director, agrees that the city’s cultural scene has expanded and diversified in the last several years, offering more opportunities for young, creative people.
One reason, she says, is that Columbia is “a place you can fail.”
“The incentives here are causing people to try more things out,” she says. “There’s enough tiers now, which wasn’t the case. It was shows in your house — whether that’s visual culture, musical culture, book clubs, whatever — or museums. So now we have a spectrum of access points in the community. And I think that specifically offers opportunities to the millennial demographic.”
That’s no accident — in fact, Tapp’s has tried to facilitate those opportunities with its Cultural Entrepreneurship Incubator Program, in which people can partner with the art center to put on events and exhibitions. Bright’s staff helps partners develop a risk matrix for their project, a budget, some communications strategies and more.
“We’ve created these partnership programs that help emerging artists and cultural producers,” she says. “We’ve created a structure that allows them training wheels to give them what they might not have gathered in their academic worlds,” in the process teaching them about accountability, project management, and other entrepreneurial skills.
“It’s fun to see those shared assets being tossed around in the space. When one person fails another person succeeds and tries again. … I joke at Tapp’s and say it’s life-autocorrect, because millennials are so used to being able to Ctrl-Z.
“There’s a lot of closed doors still in this community. And I think having a few key spaces that are willing to say, ‘Yeah, that’s super weird — let’s see if it works,’ allows for people to try.
Someone to Look To
For Sam Johnson, one key to getting people to stay in Columbia has been showing them there’s a path forward here. That’s particularly true for young African-Americans.
When he took office in 2010, one of Mayor Steve Benjamin’s goals was to increase the visibility and viability of young black professionals in Columbia, in part by founding the Talented Tenth, of which Johnson served as chair.
There haven’t always been prominent young black role models in Columbia’s business community, Johnson says.
“No shade on any of the older folks, but if you were a black professional in Columbia, if you were to look at people who were doing really well, you were looking at [bank executives] James Bennett, Nate Barber, [DESA founder] Diane Sumpter, folks in that generation,” he says, name-checking several older successful black Columbians.
Meanwhile, younger black people left Columbia: “A lot of African-Americans were still migrating north and feeling like that’s where opportunities were. Or going to Atlanta.”
These days, Johnson says, there are more entrepreneurial role models for black Columbians across a variety of scenes, from high-profile food industry people like KiKi Cyrus of KiKi’s Chicken and Waffles and Ramone Dickerson and Cory Simmons of 2 Fat 2 Fly to World Famous Hip-Hop Family Day organizer Fat Rat da Czar. They may not all be millennials themselves, but they’re younger — and they’re making it here.
“If you feel like you’re the unicorn ... it’s tough to try to reach out and grab something you don’t think is possible,” Johnson says.
“We’ve done a better job of showcasing that you can make a living and become a leader,” Johnson says. “The mayor helps with that – the first black mayor, [now the head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors]. That you can be the top leader in Columbia and be black helps. But we’ve got to showcase that there’s the ability for there to be five black leaders who are kicking butt, taking names, five white leaders who are kicking butt and taking names.
“I think it’s much better than it was, but when you start looking at different sectors — lawyers, bankers, architects — you want to be able to say there’s a diverse talent pool in each bucket throughout Columbia.”
Keeping People Here
Perhaps the most surprising thing that emerged in speaking to people for this story is the idea that young people are choosing Columbia because it’s, well, Columbia.
“I think there’s a goal for identifying the appeal of Columbia, but I think Columbia is the appeal,” says Bright, who moved back here from New York City. “People keep saying we could be the next Austin, the next whatever. I keep saying, ‘We could be the next Columbia.’ We have so much to offer. So I think people are understanding that. The skeleton here is great for making a community what it wants to be.”
Another strength of Columbia is that it’s a city, and Americans are increasingly choosing to move back to urban areas.
And it’s a city that people are appreciating more on its own terms, Hickman says.
“For so long there’s been a little bit of an inferiority complex that has plagued this region, and I think we are starting to see that shift. It’s no longer about being two hours from the mountains and two hours from the coast and that’s our biggest selling point.”
Still, while more young people seem to be staying. Bright wonders whether some of that retention is “default retention” — that people simply can’t afford to move, or have a “good enough” job here and aren’t sure how to move forward.
If Columbia is going to keep attracting and retaining millennials, Hickman says, it needs more and better jobs.
“Once they decide they want to stay, where our challenge as a community is, is can we find a job to keep them here,” she says. “I think we’re doing so many of the things to make this the kind of community they want to live in — are we doing all the things to make this the kind of community they can live in? Especially to create entry-level jobs bridging the gap between graduation and the job place? That’s where the next level of focus needs to turn on.”
That rings true for Campbell, the designer.
“I do think we need to have more economic growth,” she says. “One of the things I think about often is when it’s time for me to move on from this job, what can I do here in Columbia that’s not just start my own business? It would be nice if there was a larger tech community, a larger design community here. It is here, it’s just small and it’s pretty saturated. Especially with the university turning out 20 new designers every year that want jobs.
“People my age I know who have similar backgrounds, they’ve moved for jobs. And the people I know that have stayed managed to find a job they don’t hate. That’s the real dividing line.”
For years, young people were looking for a way to leave Columbia. Now, it seems, they may be increasingly looking for a way to stay.