Where do millennials go when they want the advantages of a big-city economy, job market and lifestyle but they can't afford the higher cost-of-living?

Some are choosing Owensboro, Ky., according to a study published by Millennial Tracker and highlighted by USA Today on Saturday.

Owensboro was ranked 11th in the nation for millennial home buyers in the national newspaper's weekend edition, just behind some unlikely places like Dickinson, N.D., and Pottsville, Pa.

Millennial Tracker, a product of the mortgage processing software giant Ellie Mae, measured the percentage of a city's home mortgages closed by individuals from 18 to 37 years old. Almost half, or 48%, of Owensboro's new home buyers fall within that millennial category, the company found.

For cities such as Dickinson or Pottsville, with populations that don't even reach the 15,000 mark, those percentages may account for just a handful of long-term residents. But adjusted for population, Owensboro had the fourth best turnout among cities that are attracting young people, behind El Paso and Odessa, in Texas, and Oshkosh, Wis.

That's big news for the growing river town, say local economic development officials, but it's not all that surprising.

Historic District in downtown Owensboro.
Historic District in downtown Owensboro.

"This is exactly what we've been working so hard for," said Candance Brake, president and CEO of the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce. "We're seeing millennials moving here, millennials moving back here and millennials finding a way to stay here."

Brake and others say that the joint, public-private investment in downtown Owensboro and the Kentucky 54 corridor are examples of projects that may convince younger Americans that the city is worth a long-term stay.

City Commissioner Jay Velotta is a mortgage broker and president-elect of the Greater Owensboro Realtor Association. He's had first-hand experience in helping shape policy that may have played a roll in attracting young people and investing in their local success.

Many millennials qualify for Housing Finance Agency, or HFA, mortgages, he said, which can mean smaller down payments and federally-backed loans. Owensboro and Daviess County weathered the last decade's financial slow-down remarkably well, Velotta added, meaning development continued, paving the way for a step ahead other similar communities when home sales picked up again.

"The Owensboro home market is very aggressive," he said. "Our inventories have actually been really low because of that lately. Even when we had a downturn in the economy, Owensboro was protected from losses because we have diversified our economy. I guess the bigger you are, the harder you fall."

Where millennials are buying homes matters because they're already driving the economy, research shows. Older millennials, aged 25-37, only make up about 13% of the U.S. population, but they're 30% of new home buyers, according to Ellie Mae.

That means communities such as Owensboro who want to maintain relevant need to be in tune with what younger people want. Andrew Howard, president of the Chamber Young Professionals, and Joe Berry, executive vice president of the Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corp., are both millennials themselves. What kept them in or brought them back to Owensboro was a willingness on the part of city officials to invest in future growth.

Both agreed that progressive cities that think outside the box matter in an evolving service- and tech-based economy. You don't have to be the biggest or the best or the most strategically located, they say — you just have to act like you are.

"The fastest growing part of the workforce in the country is millennials," Berry said. "The trends we see is that they want access to technology, amenities like a thriving nightlife and entrepreneurial opportunities. A lot of them are congregating in larger cities for that very reason."

So does Owensboro have what it takes not only to attract young people but to keep them?

That's where Mayor Tom Watson said his focus remains.

"I'm convinced that, if we don't create careers for these people, they won't stay," he said. "That means education and continued economic development."

Monday was Mark Snell's first official day in his new job — president and CEO of the Greater Owensboro EDC — and it came with the good news in the form of a USA Today article, but that's not the end of the story, he said. He echoed the mayor's comments.

Many of the same thing that attracts millennials to Owensboro will likely keep them interested. It's about making them not only buy their first home in the community but their second and third, too.

"The baby boomers, and I count myself among them, have to realize that this is no longer our world," he said. "The world doesn't revolve around us anymore. We have to be ready to make decisions that benefit our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. For years, I heard about the intellectual flight from Owensboro — young people would move away for college and then they'd never come back, and I think that's starting to reverse. But if we want that to continue, I think we have to be prepared to do what is in their interest."

That means a younger, diversified economy can benefit everyone, Snell said. The EDC knows Owensboro got where it is because it's made up of independent-minded people who won't necessarily take "no" for an answer.

So Owensboro doesn't have a major interstate highway running through it? Who cares that there isn't a large public university in the middle of town," Berry asked, rhetorically. Owensboro's still one of Kentucky's largest cities and fastest-growing economies for a reason.

"There’s a resiliency in this community and a can-do attitude that is unique," he said. "We had to take the bull by the horns and do it ourselves. It’s a prevailing. attitude that has served us well in this community."

Tribune Content Agency