ROCKFORD — Rockford stands to gain more jobs in the next 10 years than there are homes available for new workers to buy or rent. But that could change as developers begin taking advantage of the demand.
With fewer residences on the market and 1,900 jobs to be added by the aerospace cluster over the next decade, Realtors and developers are discussing ways to attract young talent to Rockford and keep it here.
Woodward plans to add 1,400 jobs over the next 10 years and AAR Corp.’s planned 200,000-square-foot repair hangar is expected to employ 500 people when it opens in early 2016.
Rockford closed 2014 with an inventory of 1,818 homes on the market, the lowest number in 12 years, according to statistics released Friday by Rockford Area Realtors.
That’s a good sign. A shrinking inventory indicates declining foreclosure numbers, fewer people moving away and more people buying. Last year was the second strongest for home sales since the bubble burst in 2008.
RAR CEO Steve Bois wants to facilitate residential development in Rockford aimed at accommodating the lifestyles of the 77 million working adults born from 1981 to 2000.
According to a Nielson report, this generation, nicknamed “millennials,” comprises 24 percent of the U.S. population, prefers urban to suburban living, drives less than previous generations and wields the most potential buying power of any age group since the baby boomers.
Bois and the Realtors organized the Young Professionals Network to survey millennials, HR directors and “headhunters” (talent scouts) who have had trouble recruiting them to Rockford in the past. The network’s goal: Find out why. What is Rockford missing?
“What we’re trying to do is understand what role we can play as an association in the recruitment and retention of talent,” Bois said. “Part of their decision to move here includes having a lifestyle they want. Good talent has options.”
Making Rockford a more attractive place for young people to live could help companies like Woodward and AAR recruit and keep young, talented employees. Why is that important?
“It all has to do with the sustainability of not only the company but the community,” said Shane Van Sickle, a 39-year-old developer for Landmark Real Estate Group.
Landmark primarily develops big-box stores and industrial parks, but Van Sickle is also a director at Rockford Area Realtors, a member of the YPN and has a keen interest in the future of Rockford’s residential and commercial development.
“People don’t get younger as the years go by,” he said. “If you’re not attracting the younger candidates, the tech-savvy folks … the community starts to wither.”
Van Sickle said YPN doesn’t know what Rockford would look like if it were to become a millennial Mecca. The results of their surveys won’t be available until the end of spring. But once it’s available, the group hopes its data will influence the direction of the city’s residential development.
“One of the focuses of the YPN group is to try to make sure that housing, or a lack of desirable housing, is not the reason that young professionals are not coming to the Rockford area,” Van Sickle said.
Lonnie Iske, 28, has been living on the 500 block of East State Street for five years. She’s a millennial who runs a video production company, Vixen Productions, and shoots everything from local TV commercials to weddings.
“I wanted to have a space where I could live and have my studio,” she said. “I absolutely love it.”
“There are so many great spaces down here. It’s perfect for artists. … It kind of gives you a creative feel, and I think the younger generation would really be able to admire that and do something with it.”
Iske says the neighborhood has changed since she moved downtown. More young people have begun to move downtown — she has friends who have moved into the Haight Village area.
“I encourage people who are afraid of downtown to come down here because it’s not scary. We have all these restaurants. There’s definitely a sense of community. People look out for each other. It almost feels like a neighborhood in a way.”
But a couple things could be holding development back. The monthly rent for renovated lofts and apartments downtown can run $1,000 to $2,000 a month — just beyond the financial grasp of many millennials, who entered the workforce during a period of recession and frozen wages, and are still at the low end of the pay scale.
Another obstacle is the lost neighborhood infrastructure of urban centers. Iske does not live within walking distance of a grocery.
“It would be awesome if we could have a grocery store, even a couple shops to just run into and get some day-to-day things,” she said. “That’s the one thing I miss the most.”
Ben Stanley: 815-987-1369; firstname.lastname@example.org; @Ben_J_Stanley