Boosting its hip-factor; Wilmington wants millennials [video]

    (Shirley Min/WHYY)

    (Shirley Min/WHYY)

    New housing, restaurants and bars are popping up all over downtown Wilmington, as the city tries to boost its hip-factor to appeal to millennials.

    Much of Wilmington’s housing stock is old and needs updating. But millennials, typically considered 34 years of age and younger without children, are not interested in fixer-uppers.

    “They prefer to rent a certain type of product, a product that has no maintenance, is urban, it’s modern and is in an area, in a building with amenities. And so that’s what you see being developed in the real estate here,” said Jeff Flynn, Wilmington’s director of economic development.

    Wilmington developer the Buccini/Pollin Group was behind a lot of that new construction. BPG’s latest project is The Residences at Midtown Park. The $75 million housing project will have 200 luxury units for rent with amenities that include a pool, parking and even a dog-washing station.

    Since 2001, BPG has developed close to 1,400 apartments and condominiums at the Riverfront, on Market Street in Wilmington’s Central Business District, and places in between. The modern homes have open floor plans, stainless steel appliances and granite counter tops. Rent for a 1-bedroom ranges from $550 to $1150 a month, on average.

    Senior Vice President Michael Hare said 95 percent of those units are occupied.

    “It tells us that as employment continues to grow in the city, in and around Wilmington, the demand for housing grows in and around Wilmington,” Hare said.

    “I don’t think we could’ve projected that we would have so many new residents, so many upwardly mobile residents, living in our buildings in this short of a time,” said Rob Buccini, co-founder of BPG.

    Millennials account for about 35 percent of BPG’s renters. The young professionals, or YPs, are a highly sought after demographic in Wilmington not only for their spending power, but also because of the vibrancy they can bring to cities.

    “Initially, our focus was how can we build a residential downtown living base? And that’s something that we’ve been focused on for 10 years now and that’s occurred,” Flynn said. “In the past four or five years with this national focus, the proliferation of the word, ‘millenials,’ and the focus on young professionals, we’ve also sort of just rolled that in to what we want to accomplish.”

    Wilmington Deputy Chief of Staff Samantha Lukoff said, “Our goal is to keep them here. We want them to live here, we want them to eat here, we want them to go to the bars and go to the theaters and really just see that Wilmington has a lot to offer.”

    The Archer Group

    While The Archer Group wears Wilmington and Delaware like a badge of honor, Chief Experience Officer Todd Miller said Wilmington can be a tough sell for prospective employees.

    “The number one thing that we hear is, ‘Oh, you’re in Delaware,’ ‘Where is that,'” Miller said.

    The Archer Group is a digital agency that helps companies get the most out of websites, social media, mobile apps, the list goes on.

    It’s a young industry, Miller said, and tends to attract millennials, or the people who have grown up with the technology and use it every single day. The average age of Miller’s 74 employees is 28. And the tech industry is cutthroat.

    “We hear across the industry that it’s a 14 to 18 month tenure depending on the type of agency you are, your location and things like that,” Miller said. “So you really have to differentiate yourself and know what you stand for. And for us, we want to show that we want to invest in our employees.”

    So while Wilmington might be viewed as a drawback at first, Miller said when he recruits top new talent, he tries to get them to his office as soon as possible.

    “Once you get here, and you understand it’s not far from Center City Philadelphia or from the ‘burbs, once you get a sense that there’s a little bit more of a community that’s building up around us right now, then it isn’t as hard of a sell,” said Miller, who added Wilmington has changed significantly and for the better in the 10 years he’s been with Archer.

    “Now there’s beer gardens popping up, there’s farmers markets that are popping up, there’s different events that are coming in,” Miller said. “And the win for us is I want more people to say, ‘Wow, maybe I want to live in Wilmington, I want to live closer.'”

    As it is, the vast majority of Miller’s employees live in Philadelphia or the Pennsylvania suburbs.

    Live, work, play

    The employees at the Archer Group are exactly who the city wants — YPs who work here, but don’t live here.

    Lukoff helped spearhead the mayor’s Young Professionals Task Force, where she heard from about two dozen YPs about Wilmington’s pros and cons.

    The upside of living and working in Wilmington, Lukoff said, was you can be a big fish in a small pond.

    “In Wilmington, they were able to make a name for themselves very quickly. They were, you know, moving and shaking with the top leaders,” Lukoff said. “One of the not-so-great things was that they said there wasn’t a ton to do here nightlife-wise.”

    That’s why she helped organize what the city dubbed, “YP Week,” in May of this year, to show off Wilmington’s fun side. Events included a networking breakfast, a lunchtime dance party at the Queen and a happy hour at Merchant Bar, a new bar downtown.

    “There’s always this discussion about the chicken or the egg. How do you get new residents downtown without the services, but you need the spending power of residents in the downtown area to support the services,” said Flynn, who believes if more people live downtown, that that will deter crime and ultimately create jobs, as demand for services grows.

    A population bump also helps fill city coffers, since almost half of Wilmington’s revenues are generated by wage tax from people who live or work in the city.

    “We think we’re probably in the fifth or sixth inning here in the city of Wilmington, in terms of residential development and retail development. So many great restaurants have opened, many more that are going to come in the next 12 months, so we think we’re past the hard part for sure,” Buccini said.

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