Springfield’s Latest Challenge: Attracting Young Professionals

The crucial word is “community”—both the kind you physically live in and the kind that makes a city feel like home.

by Ettie Berneking

Jan 2022

Image courtesy Shutterstock

Think back to when you were fresh out of college and looking for your first job in the city where you’d begin your professional life. Would the Queen City have been on your short list? This is what Springfield, Missouri city leaders and planners are trying to figure out. How can they attract young professionals to Springfield and convince the college-aged crop of professionals who are already here to stay?

The city’s population is rising—according to a study released in 2021 by the University of Missouri Extension, Springfield saw more growth between 2019 and 2020 than any other city in the state. Major national players call the area home, including Bass Pro, O’Reilly Auto Parts, Prime Inc., Russell Cellular, BKD CPAs and Advisors and Jack Henry & Associates. Springfield also has the largest public school system in the entire state, and the cost of living puts Springfield as the third cheapest city in Missouri. So the city has a lot to offer. But is it enough?

To make Springfield more welcoming to young professionals, city leaders have two major focuses. The first is making Springfield a more attractive place to live with more affordable housing, more pedestrian-friendly districts and investments in historic neighborhoods. The second focus is making Springfield easier to plug into with programs geared toward young professionals, including The Network, the Multicultural Business Association, Springfield Creatives and various eFactory initiatives. The question is whether these features are enough to entice young workers and convince them to put down roots.

Loving Your Community

Do a Zillow search, and you’ll learn the typical home in Springfield costs around $184,000, while the national average is $308,220. This sounds good, but Springfield’s median household income is just $36,856, so many young professionals can’t swing a mortgage of $184,000.
And if you look at the available housing stock, Springfield is in short supply of affordable housing for buyers and renters.

That’s where projects like The Ridge come in. Developed by Miller Commerce, The Ridge will be Springfield’s first horizontal apartment concept. The Ridge is being built on South Campbell near The Library Center and will feature one-story units, ranging from studios to three-bedroom units. “It’s a planned community similar to a subdivision,” says Trevor Collins with Miller Commerce. Each unit is designed for a single family to rent. “The luxury with this concept is you have the convenience of a single-family home and the community around you without having to own a house.”

On the north side, groups like Restore SGF see untapped potential in Springfield’s historic neighborhoods. Richard Ollis, who spearheads the group, says it’s modeled after a similar program in Des Moines. At the moment, Restore SGF is working on becoming a nonprofit separate from the City, and its plan is to promote homeownership and support the renovation of housing stock by facilitating homeowner grants, loans and support services for home owners and buyers. The group will also purchase and renovate homes and then put them back on the market. The goal, as Ollis explains, is to provide affordable, quality homes in the Queen City’s underserved neighborhoods, such as Grant Beach, West Central, MidTown and Woodland Heights. Ollis hopes that as private entities invest in the area, homeowners will follow.

“Our ultimate goal is to raise property values in those neighborhoods and increase the number of homeowners there.”
— Richard Ollis, Restore SGF
Photo courtesy Richard Ollis
The Ridge Apartment complex rendering
Image courtesy Miller Commerce

The Ridge Apartment complex will be Springfield’s first horizontal apartment model. It’s designed to combine the feeling of a single-family home with the convenience of an apartment complex.

Grant Avenue Parkway Project rendering
Image courtesy GAP Collaborative/City of Springfield

The City hopes that the Grant Avenue Parkway Project spurs private investment in Springfield’s historic neighborhoods.

Then Springfield’s crop of walkable, historic neighborhoods will grow. “Our ultimate goal is to raise property values in those neighborhoods and increase the number of homeowners there,” Ollis says. “I’ve got two daughters in their 20s, and I employ a lot of young professionals, and one thing I think they desire is the ability to live in a cool place.”

For one example of how this kind of effort has paid off, just look to the Moon City Creative District near Commercial Street. As C-Street has grown, residents in the area worked with the city to change zoning ordinances to make it possible for artists to live and work in the same building. Springfield’s Planning Department worked on the project. “Now you can see signs that artists live in the area,” says Brendan Griesemer, the acting director of planning and development for Springfield. “We went in and changed land use policies to incentivize artists to move to the Moon City Creative District.” The city’s next big investment will be the Grant Avenue Parkway—a pedestrian-friendly path from Wonders of Wildlife to downtown. It will bring Wi-Fi to the strip, and Griesemer and other city leaders hope it will incentivize business owners and homeowners to embrace Springfield’s historic neighborhoods.

Finding Your Community

But once young professionals move to town, how do they connect? “If you don’t feel passionate about your community, you’re not going to stay,” says Jessica Harmison-Olson, 2021 chair of The Network. To get its young professionals passionate about Springfield’s growth and possibilities, The Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce created The Network in 2007—an organization of young professionals (younger than 40) who are eager to get involved in city happenings. The Network helps them meet other young leaders, creatives and entrepreneurs and provides a way to plug into conversations about the city’s future. When she served as chair of the group, Harmison-Olson focused on making sure The Network is a tool for employers.

For instance, John Deere recently approached The Network when it hired two new managers. One moved to town from Canada, and another relocated to Springfield from California. “John Deere asked us to connect and give them info on Springfield and how they can get plugged in,” Harmison-Olson says. She sees that as evidence that employers like John Deere are investing in attracting new employees. But what about the young professionals that are already here?

Back at The Chamber, Tori Reaves serves as talent retention coordinator, and she says The Chamber has its eyes on 21- to 39-year-olds, 
regardless of industry. If they’re in school in Springfield, The Chamber and The Network want to convince them to stay in town. That starts by visiting college campuses and getting students plugged into community events and groups so they start to feel invested in the city’s growth.

Jessica Harmison-Olson served as the 2021 chair of The Network
Photo courtesy The NetworkJessica Harmison-Olson served as the 2021 chair of The Network, the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce’s organization for young professionals.

“You have to stay here to make changes.”
— Justyn Pippins, Score Midwest Regional DEI Ambassador
Photo courtesy Justyn Pippins

As Justyn Pippins, a Score Midwest Regional DEI Ambassador, says, “You have to stay here to make changes.” Pippins says Springfield has made a lot of progress when it comes to helping young professionals plug into the community’s future. Now, he says the city should do more to connect young professionals to mentors.

Pippins moved to Springfield from Indianapolis in 2009, thinking he’d only stay for a year or two. Because Springfield is smaller than Kansas City or St. Louis, he found it easier to plug into the local business community and make a difference.

He liked that, so he stayed. Now, Pippins is a member of the Multicultural Business Association, part of The Network, serves on the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Ozarks, and on the board of the Missouri Family Health Council. He’s living proof that if you stay in Springfield, you can have real impact. He hopes to teach college kids that Springfield’s smaller size is actually a bonus. “They have more opportunity to connect with boards and the business community,” he says.

He’s also excited to see more diversity in Springfield. “A couple of years ago, you’d get excited every time you’d meet a new Black person,” he says. “But now there’s Unite, the new Black magazine, and there are minority groups you can join, and the census says we gained 10,000 new diverse residents. Progress is progress.”

Will this progress be enough to attract young professionals to Springfield—and keep them here? Time will tell.