By Tim Henderson
Stateline.org

Tyler and Alissa Hodge, two of the hundreds of young professionals who have moved to Columbus in recent years, noticed that despite the influx there was not a single city-style coffee shop downtown.

So the couple opened Lucabe Coffee Co. in May, with sofas, baked goods and local micro-roaster beans, adding a play area as a nod to the family friendly culture of this southern Indiana city and their own three children.

“The 18- to 35-year-olds expect something like that,” said Tyler Hodge, 32, who used crowdfunding to help finance the shop at 310 Fourth St.

The same business tactic was used for a rock-climbing gym that opened in September by a group of young engineers who, like Hodge, spend their weekdays working at Cummins Inc., the city’s largest employer.

“There’s not that much to do here for the young people,” said Juan Valencia, a 25-year-old Colombian immigrant who is one of the founders of the Columbus Rock Gym, 1503 Cottage Ave., Suite G. “We think this will help.”

Valencia and four friends from five different countries — fellow Cummins engineers Ilio Gonzalez, Bruno Pinillos, Dimitar Totkov and Micah Uemura — worked together on the business project.

Before the gym opened, aficionados had to drive an hour north to Indianapolis or south to Louisville for an indoor climbing wall.

As the economy improves and millennials move around the country in search of jobs, some are finding themselves far from the youth culture they learned to expect from city life in other parts of the country. But the tradeoff can be a less burdensome cost of living, a more tightknit community, and a chance to make new cities their own.

Fast company

A Stateline analysis of census data showed the Columbus metro area at the top of a list of cities that have attracted young, educated people from out of state, yet are still relatively affordable.

Columbus is among areas whose young, educated populations are growing nearly as fast as some of the most famous youth magnets such as Silicon Valley; Austin, Texas; and Nashville, Tennessee.

In Columbus, the number of people ages 25 to 34 with a college degree has increased 62 percent since 2010, yet less than 20 percent of a typical household’s income goes to housing.

Cummins has been hiring, and young adults from other professions have also gravitated to the city.

An October analysis by ATTOM Data Solutions, which collects real estate data, counted Denver, Austin and Nashville among the meat-and-potatoes markets with looming affordability crises because home prices are rising faster than wages. The firm blames refugees from high-cost states and investors who buy up rental properties.

Still-affordable cities such as Columbus “may be attracting young people but they don’t have that ‘it’ factor yet, like an Austin or a Nashville or an Asheville (North Carolina),” said Daren Blomquist, an ATTOM vice president.

For the young-adult culture to continue to evolve, more artists may need to join engineers in starting businesses, Blomquist said.

“They need a critical mass of creative types doing their thing in these towns.”

Artist saw upside

Jonathan Nesci, who designs metal furniture using some of the metal shops that serve Cummins, may fit the bill.

Nesci visited Columbus from Chicago in 2014 to work on the annual Exhibit Columbus project, which placed temporary art installations around the city in late summer to complement some of the architectural landmarks.

At 33, Nesci decided to move to Columbus with his wife and two children. His rent is less than what he paid in Chicago, and his home has more than twice the space.

“We could live anywhere. But almost as soon as I saw it, I knew this was the place for us,” Nesci said. “The architecture is a huge factor, and the city’s support for it, the way that the city has embraced design.”

Just attracting more young adults is a major accomplishment for cities, said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan think tank, but they may not remain affordable.

“As these ‘real America’ towns become more attractive to today’s upwardly mobile youth, they should come to expect a rise in housing prices along with more upscale millennial amenities,” Frey said.

In Columbus, newcomers will quickly discover Zaharakos, the downtown ice cream parlor with an old-fashioned soda fountain and bow-tie-clad servers.

There are also cavernous bars with live music, the Powerhouse Brewing Company’s “Diesel Oil Stout” in homage to Cummins and a relatively new white-tablecloth restaurant, Henry Social Club.

At times it can be hard to find a parking space in downtown Columbus at night.

Affordable housing

Houses in the Columbus area typically cost less than $150,000, which is lower than the median value in two-thirds of the nation’s metro areas. But the influx of young professionals has started to put pressure on prices. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $750, in the top 27 percent of metro areas, according to 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Young newcomers described rents between $850 and $1,200 in the coveted downtown area near the Cummins headquarters.

Kyle Hendricks, 33, said he feels fortunate to have a one-bedroom apartment for $600 a month about a mile from downtown. Before moving to Columbus four years ago from Los Angeles, he said he was paying $1,000 a month for “literally a single room in a house.”

Continued affordability may depend on how quickly housing can be made available to new residents, said Deirdre Pfeiffer, an associate professor and urban planning expert at Arizona State University who has studied the migration of millennials.

“Places where the housing market is slow to respond, or government is more restrictive in terms of zoning, will have greater affordability issues,” Pfeiffer said.

Hundreds of apartments are under construction in Columbus, said Cindy Frey, president of the Columbus Area Chamber of Commerce, with some set aside for low- and moderate-income residents that will rent for less than $400 a month.

Manufacturing jobs

Cummins has a large and growing need for engineers, said John Burnett, a former Cummins recruiter who now runs the Columbus-based Community Education Coalition.

While engine manufacturing was once a manual, blue-collar task, Burnett said many of today’s jobs require computer programming and other engineering skills.

“People say we’re a manufacturing town, but the work that goes on now is very different. These are knowledge workers,” Burnett said. “There are a lot of engineers and other professional young people coming to the community because they possess that knowledge.”

Many of the young professionals who work in Columbus have come from out of state, or from abroad. Burnett’s group is working with local high schools and colleges to get more locals a share in Cummins’ success.

Welders, technicians and equipment-repair specialists can make annual salaries of $50,000 to $80,000 with two years or less of college training, he said, and the coalition is getting those courses into local colleges and helping high schools prepare students for them.

Homecoming

The relatively new youth culture in Columbus has even drawn some native sons and daughters back home from bigger cities.

Jessie DeWeese, an attorney in her 20s who has lived in Chicago and Cleveland, had job offers in several cities but opted to move back to her hometown about 18 months ago.

“As soon as I arrived, just random acquaintances were saying, ‘Oh, you want to practice law? Go talk to so-and-so.’ And now I have a job,” DeWeese said. “When you’re in the big city, people didn’t care about each other that much. Here, everyone holds each other up and cares about the city.”

Tyler Hodge, the coffee shop owner, is a Tennessee transplant who’s lived in Florida, Washington, D.C., and Brazil.

Columbus, he said, has “really been a draw of young talent into an area that wouldn’t ordinarily be sought after — in the middle of the Midwest, surrounded by cornfields and soybeans.”

Hendricks, a United Way marketing coordinator who like DeWeese moved back to his hometown four years ago, said the change in Columbus has been radical as more young people have moved in, but it has yet to evolve into a real youth culture.

But as more young adults arrive in Columbus, Hendricks helps them connect with others and feel comfortable in the community. He serves as president of the Columbus Young Professionals, a networking group that fosters personal and professional development, and has about 140 members.

Emerging metro areas

In a Stateline analysis, these metropolitan areas ranked high in affordability, education and growth in young professionals.

Columbus, Indiana

Midland, Michigan

Bloomington, Illinois

Idaho Falls, Idaho

Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Bismark, North Dakota

Morgantown, West Virginia

Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Blacksburg, Virginia

Rochester, Minnesota

About Columbus Young Professionals

  • Columbus Young Professionals is a network of young adults that fosters personal and professional development. It has about 140 members.
  • Columbus Young Professionals offers members opportunities to enrich their lives through work-, community- and life-related programming.
  • Executive committee members include Kyle Hendricks, president; Katelyn Ice, events/marketing vice president; Brock Biehl, resource development vice president; Leslie S. Martinez, community outreach vice president; and Jacob Martin, membership vice president.
  • For information on membership or events, visit columbusyp.org or facebook.com/columbusyp/