Richmond: Why Being Hip is More Important Than it Seems

Apr 20, 2016

The after-work crowd gathers at Virginia's Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
Credit Eli Christman/Flickr

Nashville is known for its music. D.C. for its politics. Austin for just plain being weird. Cities have identities -- and it’s part of what attracts people to live and work there.

Here in Virginia, Richmond is trying hard to be one of those hot spots, and it’s not doing too badly. Between 2010 and 2013 the city’s population of young professionals grew by almost 5-percent --- more than San Francisco or New York City.

Looking for young professionals in Richmond? Look no further than Friday night happy hour at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Mary Mahoney and Anna Menser share a table and bottle among the after-work crowd. Mahoney is 25, and hasn’t lived in Richmond long.

“My company in Ohio, opened up a Richmond office and I was willing to transfer,” Mahoney says. “It just seemed to have a lot of young people, a lot of cool restaurants, a lot of outdoor things. And I’m like, I’m never going to be bored.”

Menser is also new to the city. She’s been here since February.

“I’m from Columbus Georgia. I lost my job there, and my fiancé broke up with me. So, I was like -- you know what -- I need a change of pace,” Menser says. “My stepmom called me up and said ‘Come stay with us for a little while in Richmond.’ I was like ‘Done!”

She originally thought Richmond would be a good place to stay while she looked for work in Northern Virginia or D.C., but she’s quickly refocused her search to stay in the city.

“It was really like a few weeks ago, when I actually came here to the VMFA, on a bad date -- well, it wasn’t bad but it was boring,” Menser says. “I looked around and I was like ‘Wow, there are so many people here who are just wanting to get together at a museum of all places, not a bar, it’s a museum.’ And I was like ‘I think I could really stay here, I think I could make an impact and do something fun here,’.”

Mahoney works in environmental consulting, and Menser is a geologist by trade. Convincing them, and all the other young professionals here tonight, that Richmond is a fun place to live and work isn’t just about winning some popularity contest between cities. It’s vital for Richmond’s economic future.

Americans are aging, and that has consequences for the workforce. As more people retire, companies will be scrambling to replace them. Experts say cities need to compete now for young people, if they want to thrive later.

Three years ago, an organization called Richmond’s Future decided to figure out how the river city can stay in the game. They hired the Southeastern Institute of Research to survey young people across the state. Rachel Burgess led up the effort.

“We decided to get together a number of young professionals in Richmond, so that this was a study about young professionals done by young professionals,” says Burgess.

For the study, they surveyed people in Richmond and peer cities like Raleigh, Charlotte, D.C., and Atlanta. Richmond ranked high for its food scene, art community, and outdoor recreation. Those who lived here also valued the city’s sense of community and history.

“Take a city like Charlotte, they tend to knock things down and rebuild,” Burgess says. “We tend to renovate, and so we have this really nice authenticity, there’s grit. And so I think that that’s something that is attractive.”

It’s certainly something Michael and Allie Parsons like about the city. They’re a young couple, recently married -- drawings of Richmond’s classic neighborhoods adorn their apartment. Their wedding invitation, a small heart over the city in a line drawing of the state, hangs on their fridge. The two have even convinced friend Fernando Perez to join them here from Boston. 

But they, like many their age, want more than brick buildings and cobble-stoned streets in the city they call home.

“Many millennials who I know want to have some kind of sense of connectivity, real relationship with people. And some kind of sense of community,” Michael Parsons says. “I moved around a bunch before this and I feel like I was kind of looking for something like that.”

Michael and Allie Parsons in their apartment, along with their friend Fernando Perez who they convinced to move to Richmond
Credit Mallory Noe-Payne

Michael Parson is from Williamsburg, Allie is from Herndon. They came to Richmond three years ago for graduate school at VCU. They stayed, says Allie, for the community.

“Even when we lived in an apartment in Northern Virginia we only knew neighbor and she was awesome -- but that was the only person. And she was 80,” Allie Parsons laughs. “Now we know almost everyone on this entire block. We’ve met all of them sitting out on the porch, have a glass of wine or talk, and everyone knows each other.”

According to Burgess’ research, almost half of Richmond’s young professionals say the most important thing to them in finding a home, is the people.

A close second though is jobs. And that’s a weak spot for the city. Read the second report in our series here, for a look at what Richmond lacks and how it needs to step up to convince millennials to stay.

Tell us what you think: What do you think is important in a place you call home? 

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