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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Lone Star envy: Spokane business group takes a peek to see what it takes to look like Austin

Aerial skyline shot of Austin, Texas (Shutterstock / Shutterstock)

Most U.S. cities want to be like Austin.

The state capital of Texas often tops lists of “America’s coolest cities.” Its image as young, trend-setting, educated and culturally diverse has made it a magnet for millennials.

Just under a million people live in Austin, where the median age is 32.

“We are one of the youngest, largest cities in the country,” said Molly Alexander, executive vice president for the Downtown Austin Alliance.

Alexander is the keynote speaker for the Downtown Spokane Partnership’s annual meeting on Thursday. She’ll talk about what millennials want from urban environments, and Austin’s transformation from a sleepy college town into a city known for its music festivals, tech companies, foodie scene and outdoor recreation.

As cities think about ways to stay competitive, millennials have become a sought-after demographic, said Juliet Sinisterra, Downtown Spokane Partnership’s business development manager.

“By 2025, 75 percent of the workforce will be made up of millennials,” she said. “From an economic perspective, there are many reasons to attract them.”

As Spokane works on recruiting and retaining young workers, “we’re doing a lot around creating authentic places for people to live, work and play,” Sinisterra said.

Austin has been an innovator in that area, she said.

Millennials are the generation born between 1980 and 2000. By and large, they were kids who grew up in the suburbs, but who are drawn to urban living as adults, Alexander said.

TV sitcoms, such as “Friends” and “Frasier,” were influential in shaping their views of young adulthood, she said. In the shows, young adults are apartment dwellers who hang out with friends at neighborhood restaurants and bars.

“Instead of a nice house, the generation today is really looking for a nice ’hood,” Alexander said. “They want to be in a cool place. When they knock off from work, they want to grab a bite to eat with friends and then walk to a bar for a drink. … Not having to drive somewhere makes life simpler.”

Austin’s growth has occurred organically, Alexander said. The city is home to the University of Texas, one of the nation’s largest public research universities, and its 50,000 students. Over the past 15 years, a growing tech and biomedical sector has kept more of those students in Austin after graduation. For employers seeking young, well-educated workers, Austin has a lot to offer, Alexander said.

The city in Texas’ hill country also gets its identity from Lady Bird Lake, part of the Colorado River that flows through downtown, and 10 miles of trails along the waterfront. A thriving arts, music and restaurant scene is part of the lifestyle that makes Austin attractive to employers.

Austin advertises itself as “the live music capital of the world.” About 250,000 people attend South by Southwest, a global interactive, film and music festival, each year. Another 150,000 attend the Austin City Limits music festival in local parks.

Austin is also known for its cuisine and restaurants. The city has about 1,200 food trailers, where aspiring restaurant owners get their start.

“When we go out to recruit companies, or to grow them from within, we have this great story to tell and the demographics to back it up,” Alexander said.

“We’re really a lens for the next generations,” she added. “This generation is huge and very powerful. … They are really shaping our cities and it’s in very interesting ways that all generations like.”