On the heels of Hopkinsville being named the youngest city in Kentucky, business professionals gathered Tuesday to figure out how to attract and retain more young professionals to the area.

Melissa Halsell, program manager for TVA’s Economic Development arm for Young Talent and Community Livability, lead a seminar Tuesday at the Christian County Chamber of Commerce called Young Talent Matters.

“Being named the youngest city in the state is something I would be playing up,” Halsell said about the recent news that the median age in Christian County was 28 based on the U.S. Census. “I don’t know what those young folks are doing, but that is major, major stuff.”

During the event, Halsell shared techniques other cities are trying and succeeding at when attracting young people to their communities.

“You’ve got to say we want newcomers and what are we going to do to make sure when those newcomers come they feel welcomed,” Halsell noted. “Whether that’s newcomer events, like one community group that calls themselves the ‘Grab-a-bite Committee.’ ”

Halsell said simply surveying young professionals to see what they like, don’t like or think is missing from the city would be eye-opening.

“Get them connected and helping them buy homes is also important,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of communities do home-buying 101s through their banks or real estate agents, trying to help get young people from renting to buying.”

The housing market in Hopkinsville-Christian County versus nearby cities, like Clarksville, was a hot topic.

Hopkinsville Electric System accountant Cody Noffsinger said Hopkinsville Young Professionals Engage, also called HYPE, has hosted home-buying sessions, but the issue is the housing stock.

“You can give somebody the tools to buy a home, but there has to be a home for them to buy,” said Noffsinger, who sits on the HYPE board. “We say we want newcomers to come here, but military looks across the line (at Clarksville) and sees that they’re building homes like crazy.”

Several participants said the housing market in Clarksville is the reason many military families move there.

Halsell said the issue of creating neighborhoods that young people want to live in is not unique to Hopkinsville.

“You’re not alone,” she said. “Some communities now are getting consultants to do housing studies to see what do we have to do and where do we go from here.”

Military spouse and Holiday Inn manager Nicole Whitt said she and her husband looked at housing in Clarksville and Hopkinsville and the differences in prices and quality were astounding.

“When we looked and saw how far our (basic allowance for housing) could go in Clarksville versus Hopkinsville, it was jarring,” Whitt said. “I’m a Kentucky girl and wanted to stay on this side of the state line, and we invested here because we wanted our girls to go to Saints Peter and Paul (Catholic School), and that’s what made the decision for us.”

Tom Sholar, business liaison for West Kentucky Workforce, said there are more houses being built in Hopkinsville now but the key is making sure they are affordable for young professionals.

Halsell said another key to retention is highlighting young talent when possible, such as Young Professional of the Year awards, which the local chamber already announces.

Kirstie Darnall, director of events and marketing at the chamber and HYPE board member, said there are talks about compiling a 40 Under 40 list for the area.

On another note, Halsell said creating a coworking space for entrepreneurs or independent workers can be attractive to startup companies.

“Another thing we find in livability is (young talent) wants job diversity and different types of job opportunities,” she said. “We are seeing this remote worker piece of the puzzle come up. You will find this young talent coming up, they are very entrepreneurial minded, so if there’s opportunities to help them and to be innovative, this could be really key.”

Some examples of coworking spaces are the Biz Foundry in Cookeville, Tennessee, the Kentucky Innovation Station in Madisonville, Sprocket in Paducah and the CO in Jackson, Tennessee, the group shared.

“That’s one of the things that Inner City REZ has discussed,” said Annie Catron, executive director of United Way of the Pennyrile and HYPE board member. “It’s just finding the right space.”

When thinking about quality of life for young people, Halsell said you can’t forget their pets. She asked the room to raise their hand if they had pets, and nearly everyone was a pet parent.

She went on to highlight Mars Petcare BETTER CITIES FOR PETS program, which uses criteria to certify cities that are pet friendly.

“You might not think that means a lot, but I’d just look at that,” she said. “What can you be certified in that has kind of those cool elements that make folks go, ‘there’s something going on in that community?’ ”

Darnall said, “We have quite a lot of places for pet care ... I have friends who take their dogs to day care like every day.”

Other topics that came out of the session included event calendars specifically for young professionals and families, an easy-to-use talent attraction website, remote worker programs and investing in downtown, which everyone seemed to get excited about.

“I think it’s the most important attraction to get young professionals here,” Darnall said. “Young professionals are all about aesthetic and vibe, and they want to be able to park their car, to walk and go to the farmers market, go to the brewery, look through all these shops and to get their lettuce that they’re picking out; that is what they want to do.”

“It’s not just young people (that want to do that),” said Sholar, laughing.

Whitt said the potential of Hopkinsville’s downtown also stood out to her when choosing where to live.

“It could be one of the cutest downtown areas in Kentucky if people would see the value in that and revitalize it,” she said.

Noffsinger said it’s happening, noting private and public investments downtown, such as the current Pennyroyal Area Museum renovation, the recent $5 million Alhambra Theatre remodel and the upcoming Kentucky New Era relocation on South Main Street.

“There’s a lot going on down there,” Noffsinger said. “I think people are starting to see the value over the past five to seven years ... people are starting to see that we don’t need to tear that (old building) down, that’s a part of our history.”

Reach Zirconia Alleyne at 270-887-3243 or zalleyne@kentuckynewera.com.

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