Exploring a millennial-fueled future for Sarasota, Bradenton

Opportunities for higher education are in no short supply in Sarasota and Bradenton, where four colleges reside within a six-mile radius -- yet most people don’t think of the neighboring cities on Florida’s Gulf coast as college towns.

Why not, given three distinct state schools and one of the highest-ranking private arts colleges in the southeastern U.S.? And, without the college town reputation, how do these schools attract new students? Can smaller cities like Sarasota and Bradenton retain the talent their schools prepare for life after graduation? Or will local grads depart with degrees in hand to take their skills and pursue their dreams elsewhere?

These questions have long troubled leaders at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee (USFSM), State College of Florida (SCF), Ringling College of Art and Design (RCAD) and New College of Florida (NCF) individually. 

Now the college presidents are devising what they hope will be an innovative solution -- a new partnership that aims to better serve students enrolled in the post-K-12 schools within the Sarasota-Bradenton “educational corridor.’’

Creating a hub for higher ed

Academic leaders at USFSM, SCF, NCF and RCAD in Sarasota and Manatee counties, along with St. Petersburg’s Eckerd College in Pinellas County, and The Ringling, Florida’s official state art museum situated in Sarasota, are launching the Consortium of Colleges on the Creative Coast (C4). 

C4 aims to benefit the nearly 20,000 students enrolled in the five C4 schools by offering students the opportunity to cross-enroll in classes and programs. 

“C4 is dedicated to making the whole greater than the sum of parts through leveraging programs and our unique assets to create a dynamic higher education experience for students,” says C4 Initiative Manager Laurey Stryker. “If we succeed, more students will choose this area for their education and future careers. What could be a better win-win for students and our communities?"

Although C4 is the first collaboration of its kind for these schools, Stryker notes that the concept of a cooperative college consortium is not in itself unusual: There are currently approximately 60 college consortiums throughout the U.S. Most of these consortiums, she says, consist of smaller private colleges, or schools that are focused on similar educational goals or vocational training. 

C4’s academic diversity stands out. Combined, the four Sarasota-Manatee schools in the Consortium offer 91 degree and certificate programs in business, education, liberal arts, digital and performing arts, healthcare, hospitality and management, and social sciences. The inclusion of Eckerd College adds an additional 39 programs to C4, expanding the Consortium’s offerings to 130 distinct programs across a spectrum of disciplines.

New College President Donal O’Shea, a C4 founding member, imagines how students could leverage opportunities through C4 to hone in on skills they would not otherwise be able to access in a curriculum limited to their home school. 

“Each institution in the Consortium attracts and serves different groups of students, but the C4 collaboration allows students to supplement their program with courses not offered at their home institution,’’ O’Shea syas. “For example, biology students at USF Sarasota-Manatee might find courses at New College like bioinformatics or coral reef fieldwork that would supplement their majors. Fine arts students at New College could build on their skills by taking computer animation classes at Ringling [College]. 

“Ringling’s film students, in turn, might benefit from taking music composition classes at New College. … Being able to round out one’s academics with specialized classes from this vast array of offerings can allow students to tailor their education to whatever end they seek.” 

C4 launched a limited pilot program last fall. Stryker says the Consortium is currently in the process of evaluating participant feedback and working with student focus groups to determine how C4 can best serve its collegiate community.

“I think we’re just beginning the process, but the hard foundational work has been done,” Stryker says. “What we need to focus on now is choosing the opportunities that will make the most difference to our students, communicating those ideas clearly, and doing the work to make them happen.”

Making a place for millennials

With the emergence of C4, academic and civic leaders hope that developing the “college town’’ narrative will also stimulate economic growth. Positioning Sarasota and Bradenton as a hub for higher learning is just one part of a vital, multipronged effort to not only attract students, but also retain the next generation of civic leadership. 

Sharon Hillstrom, CEO of the Bradenton Area EDC, estimates that by 2025 the millennial generation (those born between 1981-2000) will constitute 70 percent of the workforce. At present, however, millennials make up just 21 percent of the population in Manatee County. As the region enters a period of high workforce turnover caused by  retiring boomers (up to 73 percent by 2020), the county must focus on attracting and retaining millennial talent, Hillstrom emphasizes.

“The main questions we’ve been asking [millennials] are: What drew you here? And if you’re a local who’s stayed, what keeps you here?” Hillstrom says. 

In January 2015 the Manatee County government established the Manatee Millennial Movement (M3), a group of more than 40 millennial employees of county departments. 

M3 team member Ogden Clark is one of the millennials who make up 17 percent of the county’s 1,700 employees. Clark, who works in the neighborhood services department, says that among millennials’ most pressing concerns is the issue of finding affordable housing. 

“And it’s not just a millennial issue,” Clark says. “What we’re seeing now is that retiring baby boomers want to rent, too. It’s more cost-efficient to be in a rental connected to the urban core.”

Housing trends show that retiring boomers, like millennials, are seeking the urban lifestyle with more active and social engagement in their communities. Many want to downsize from spacious suburban homes with swimming pools to smaller homes in walkable neighborhoods with higher housing density and more amenities. 

In May 2015 M3 made a series of recommendations to county commissioners: 
  • create an ad hoc advisory board of citizens and developers to tackle housing issues,
  • update land development codes to allow for greater density housing, and 
  • redevelop Bradenton’s urban core. 

The organization also encouraged Manatee County to develop new and innovative ways to give millennials a voice for civic action. Ogden suggests as an example a smartphone app that could empower the user to snap and send a photo that alerts county officials of a pothole in need of repair.

“We’re not the only government struggling with how to engage young people -- but all evidence shows young people do want to be engaged. They want to volunteer in their community and make a difference -- they just don’t like traditional politics,” Clark says.

To that end, Clark helped organize the inaugural M3 #4Progress Millennial Conference in Bradenton, April 1-3. The three-day event aimed to engage and empower young professionals with social events such as Cosmic Shuffleboard and a Yoga and Mimosas on the Beach networking event, as well as TED-style talks on topics including housing, entrepreneurship and financial stability.

M3 partnered with Realize Bradenton, which hosted the kickoff Cosmic Shuffleboard event on April 1 as part of its Knight Cities Challenge grant-winning series, Popups for a Purpose. Popups for a Purpose is an experimental series of popup-style events aimed at transforming outdoor spaces for unique social events that engage millennials with their community. 

“It is a learning experience in that the Knight Foundation funds the projects in the Knight Cities Challenge to be like ‘urban labs.’ We’re trying new approaches, learning from them and disseminating that knowledge among other cities,” says Catherine Ferrer, Realize Bradenton community engagement coordinator.

“The feedback we’ve been getting from focus groups and millennials that we work with is that they want more variety -- more activities that are not focused solely around bar culture.”

Past popups included a Havana-inspired evening of food and dancing, Plaza Cubana, and the Books, Bots & Bites robot-themed event at the downtown Central Library, geared toward millennial parents and their kids. The Cosmic Shuffleboard event was designed to breathe new life into the underused historic shuffleboard courts in downtown Bradenton with a nighttime shuffleboard tournament and dance party featuring Sarasota-based EDM musician, Anything but Broke.

Fostering millennial staying power

A group called the Millennial Thought Leaders emerged from focus groups involved in the EDC strategic planning process. The Thought Leaders work with groups like Realize Bradenton, M3 and the Manatee Young Professionals (MYP) to promote awareness about events and topics of interest for the millennial generation.

“There are things to do, a great lifestyle, and events here -- but nobody knows about them. You have to be connected to a group, or know the right people. Instead of trying to duplicate work of other groups, we said, ‘Let’s take all the work everyone else is doing to create the events and revitalize downtown Bradenton, and let’s promote and bring awareness to that lifestyle,’” says MYP President Stewart Moon.

Moon says the Thought Leaders plan to launch a Facebook page, 941Now, in spring as an information hub for all things local for the age 18-34 crowd. 

Clark, Ferrer and Moon are just three of the millennials living in the Sarasota-Manatee area who are passionate about the place they choose to call home. They represent a growing community of young people who are deeply invested in shaping the future of the region.

While area college presidents are collaborating to position Florida’s Gulf Coast as a world-class hub of higher education, local civic leaders spanning three generations --  boomers, gen-Xers and millennials -- are banding together to engage young adults in conversations about what they want in communities. 

Clark, Ferrer and Moon realize that with a sense of ownership, a little civic-minded elbow grease and a dash of experimentation, Sarasota and Bradenton have the potential to become key places where next gen leaders will want to live, work, play -- and stay.
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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.