True Confessions of a former mayor: Why local government engagement with millennials matters to cities.

. During my time in office I was very blessed to have a strong connection to the younger generation of citizens here in Augusta and I sought to engage their input and their views on the city every chance I got. I always saw great value in doing this as I found their views to be unique, refreshing, open minded and outside the box. I also found their input to be invaluable for another reason: in seeking to build a city that could recruit and retain the best and brightest young minds it simply made perfect sense to engage younger Augustans to ask what the city should look and feel like in order to keep them here as well as to recruit their friends to live here. The analogy I always used when describing why I felt so strongly about engaging our local millennials was a pretty simple one: when you’re looking to sell a product you don’t tell somebody what they’re going to buy, you do research to see if there’s a market for what you’re selling. Basically in order for the overall sustainable health of any city, recruiting and retaining those bright young minds is a must but its also a very competitive business for cities all over the planet.

. There are obviously tangible factors that go in to the decision making process as to where to locate for our younger generation including things like access to good paying jobs, good schools, healthcare and an affordable cost of living. However there are also the intangibles like a sense of place, being part of a scene with a cool vibe and being able to be a valued part of helping to shape the future of a city. So often I’ve heard discussions amongst leaders, elected and otherwise, with regards to how the city can engage this generation without anyone under the age of forty even sitting in the room. I also discovered that for the most part its tough to get input from millennials by having public meetings that, while well intentioned, often can be like watching paint dry with the average age of the participants getting towards retirement age. Wonderful folks by all means but not exactly the type of crowds you’ll find hipsters, techies or artists hanging out in for sure.

. With this in mind, I always felt it was best to engage the younger generation in the places they were comfortable: online through social networking, in restaurants, in coffee houses, in bars or in any type of relaxed, more laid back and less institutional atmosphere. Another thing I found was that this generation can smell a phony a mile away so if you’re not genuinely interested in what they have to say its probably best not to try to engage them in the first place.

. As we live in a fast-moving, ever changing society the ability of cities to keep up with current trends, new technologies and being open minded to seeking the input of millennials and the generations to come after them will become more and more important in order to stay viable and competitive for recruiting and retaining those bright, young minds. In the end I always found that they’re willing to talk if you’re willing to listen.

Principal, Copenhaver Consulting LLC, former mayor of Augusta, triathlete, writer & runner focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.

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