Manatee, Bradenton feel sense of urgency to staunch local brain drain

While our exact definitions of 'home' may vary from one person to the next, there are some basic requirements and universal commonalities we all share in the search for a place to call our own: access to affordable housing for our families, job opportunities and ways to experience a sense of ownership and pride in the spaces we share with our neighbors.

Members of the Manatee Millennial Movement (M3) -- young professionals employed by the Manatee County government -- insist that each of these elements does exist locally. Statistics indicate, however, that while Manatee faces a 70 percent turnover in the local workforce due to retirement over the next five years, millennials aren't sticking around to fill the job openings.

These demographics reflect a troubling reality that M3 aims to address and alter: Manatee and Sarasota Counties -- home to no less than four colleges within a six-mile radius -- are seeing their young, trained workers fleeing in droves, degrees in hand, for presumably greener pastures.

"Manatee and Sarasota governments are thinking about the very important fact that in five years, the workforce is going to look 70 percent different," says Ogden Clark, AmeriCorps/Ambassador Programs Coordinator with the Manatee County Neighborhood Service Department, and member of M3. 

Clark says that the second annual Millennial Conference, which took place in the final week of March, seeks solutions to Manatee's millennial exodus through a combination of outreach, education and actionable engagement with 20- and 30-somethings residing locally to encourage a sense of place in Manatee County -- and, hopefully, staying power. 

"Our main objectives are to attract and retain the talent we have locally because the truth is this: right now, millennials are leaving the area," Clark says.

Street Team: Cyclovia Bradenton celebrates multimodal transportation 

Expanding from a three-day conference in 2016 to a week-long series of events, Mcon 2017 kicked off on March 26 with Cyclovia Bradenton near the State College of Florida campus in southwest Bradenton.

Simone Peterson, Manatee County Neighborhood Services specialist and M3 member, leads the Cyclovia movement, which she says is inspired by the 'Open Streets' tradition that originated in Bogotá, Columbia. 

"People always say they want a more walkable or bikeable community, but you don't see them getting out on the streets because they're afraid. We know it isn't very safe to bike or walk on our streets," says Peterson.

"People who are operating both cars and bikes don't necessarily know the rules of the road. Part of the goal here was to give people awareness that there are other ways to move around Manatee County than by car, to reduce traffic and pollution -- but also to spread knowledge about the rules of the road and how to drive safely with a bicyclist sharing that road," she explains.

Peterson applied for a Knight Foundation Emerging City Champions grant, which allowed M3 to close 57th Avenue West to cars -- allowing for a bike rodeo, zumba and yoga classes, and dancing in the streets on a balmy Sunday afternoon. The Cyclovia bike loop continued for a block around campus, where cyclists also shared the roads with drivers -- providing an opportunity to practice riding in traffic -- but in the safety and visibility of numbers with dozens of other cyclists. An estimated 175 people attended the Cyclovia.

With its first Cyclovia at Mcon 2017, Bradenton joins neighborhoods in St. Pete, downtown Tampa and Temple Terrace in hosting temporary road closures so that folks on bikes and on foot can enjoy the streets without vehicular traffic. Bradenton Cyclovia was a collaborative effort between M3 and Public Works, the Manatee County MPO, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, and United Way of Manatee County. 

"There's an opportunity for Manatee County to start looking at places in this region, and the interest of these college students, to learn: how can we combine better multimodal transportation with other factors -- like job and housing opportunities -- for an area that needs it?" Clark muses.

Reaching the collegiate crowd: MCon 2017 at SCF

Clark says that reaching college students is a primary goal for M3 in 2017. To that end, the group held its second annual conference sessions on campus at SCF on Thursday, March 30. The day-long pop-up conference included an outdoor hiring fair, food trucks and breakout discussion sessions in the SCF gymnasium. 

"A lot of people who attended last year's events were young professionals, but we noticed that we didn't really engage college students. Most of our discussion is centered around affordable housing, leadership training and ways to network" -- topics, Clark notes, that should be of concern to students as they plan for the future.

"The problem is that we haven't engaged with [college students] enough, or spoken with them about their role in shaping the future, locally. We realized that for a lot of students -- who perhaps don't have transportation or aren't sure how to get involved -- asking them to come outside of their element to attend a government forum was not going to work. So we wanted to bring the conversation to them," Clark says. 

The conversation Mcon brought to SCF included panels on how to become more civically and sustainably engaged -- including topics ranging from the rules of participation in county commission meetings to the ins-and-outs of recycling, and tips on entrepreneurship. 

Elma Felix, from the Sarasota County Planning and Service Department, highlighted the concept of placemaking as it relates to the millennial generation. She encourages college students and young professionals to become actively engaged with their local planning municipalities in their efforts to shape cool neighborhood spaces -- and to bring their own ideas to the table.

"Great spaces foster interactions: they're diverse and inclusive. A great city should be designed to be walkable, accessible and comfortable for everyone," Felix says, citing community-led placemaking efforts in cutting-edge neighborhoods such as Miami's Wynwood arts district and the Atlanta BeltLine. 

"Some of the places we find are our favorite places were something entirely different before; something which has been revitalized and reinvented over time. That's what makes placemaking so special," Felix adds.

Nonprofit organizations including Realize Bradenton and United Way of Manatee County also joined M3 and the Manatee Young Professionals (MYP) in Mcon conference panels.

"We want to get across the message that there's economic opportunity here. There are groups like us -- the Manatee Millennial Movement and Manatee Young Professionals -- and organizations like Realize Bradenton and United Way, who are strong partners that are stepping up and saying, 'We need to engage millennials, too.' Even for-profit private sector businesses are coming to the table and saying, 'We need to figure out a way to get young people to stay here and be part of our workforce’," Clark says. 

He adds that Manatee County currently has up to five job openings and internships available, and hopes to draw from a pool of candidates from the conference.

Following the conference at SCF, Mcon made its way to Darwin's Brewing Co. for a casual, craft beer-fueled networking event with MYP. On March 31, Realize Bradenton's Music in the Park series at the Bradenton Riverwalk collaborated with Mcon to illuminate successful local placemaking efforts, highlighting one of the coolest public spaces inspired by millennial input in downtown Bradenton.

Getting hands dirty for good: MCon 2017 Day of Service 

The 2017 Millennial Conference closed out a week of pop-up events on April 1 with a Day of Service, in collaboration with United Way, at Lincoln Middle School's urban garden -- where Mcon volunteers weeded, raked and prepared the space for a new butterfly garden, spruced an overgrown fence line, and helped to clean and maintain the livestock enclosures.

Lincoln Middle is located in a food desert in Palmetto, in north Manatee County. Agriscience instructor Kimberly Lough says that when she first took her position at Lincoln Middle fifteen years ago, what is now a robust urban garden space was then a barren landscape of aging portable classrooms and overgrown athletic fields. 

Lough says that grant funding and robust volunteer efforts over the years have resulted in the urban vegetable garden, STEM hydroponic garden and Earth Boxes, sugarcane and banana crops, vermicomposting setup, rabbit hutches, and turkey, swine and dairy cow enclosures that are on site today. Later this spring, Lough says the agriscience department is prepping the space to add an aquaponic farming system with tilapia and koi fish. 

Today, the school's Future Farmers of America (FFA) club earns consistent national recognition as a leading school-based agricultural youth organization. However, between curriculum requirements to meet classroom standards for mathematics and reading, and the natural limits of the pre-pubescent attention span, Lough says students' hands-on work time in the garden is quite limited during the school week. She still believes firmly, however, in the importance of connecting kids with an understanding of where their food originates. 

"I get kids who have never seen where a chicken egg comes from, and will say 'you're really going to eat that?' when they see me clean the egg," Lough says. 

"It takes a massive amount of volunteer effort to do this behind-the-scenes work so that the kids can experience this space that introduces them to the power of plants, the power of seeds, the power of seeing something come to life and grow. I think that's truly important," Lough adds. 

At the Mcon Day of Service, the millennial-led group of volunteers included members of the Manatee County Neighborhood Services department and United Way, high school students from the Lakewood Ranch National Honor Society, and college students from SCF.

"As a millennial myself, I have a philosophy -- which I think many of us share -- that I don't necessarily want donate to an organization unless I can see where my dollars are being implemented," says Cassandra Decker, Community Engagement Coordinator for United Way. 

Since joining United Way shortly before the first Mcon in 2016, Decker has been organizing and working with volunteer groups at the urban farm every third Saturday, as well as other community projects -- including the 'Stuff the Bus' county food drive and literacy programs with local schools. She says that in the feedback from last year's Mcon, members of United Way and M3 noted a strong desire from millennials to engage in service opportunities in their community.

"I've made a point to adapt some of our programming so that millennials can get involved, including more more night and weekend volunteer efforts," Decker says. 

"We have a culture of giving -- just some people, especially millennials, don't have that fiscal capability. But when done with intent and aligned with strong core values, I think we understand that volunteering is really impactful in a community -- and I truly believe that is what creates community thriveability," Decker says.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Jessi Smith.

Jessi Smith (she/they) is a freelance writer who is passionate about sustainability, community building, and the power of the arts and transformative storytelling. A fourth-generation Floridian, Jessi received her B.A. in Art History and English from Florida International University and began reporting for 83 Degrees in 2009. When she isn't writing, Jessi enjoys taking her deaf rescue dog on outdoors adventures, unearthing treasures in backroads antiques and thrift shops, D.I.Y. upcycling projects, and Florida-friendly gardening.