What’s the connection between millennials who work in Chicago and downtown Janesville’s planned outdoor fitness court?

A new Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation advertising campaign explains it: The state is making a big push to lure Illinois millennials, and Janesville is creating the kind of amenities millennials want. Janesville is well positioned to capture its share of the Illinois migration so long as city leaders continue to make downtown revitalization a top priority.

Things like pothole-free roadways matter, but so does the cultural landscape, and many millennials seek out cities that help make life more meaningful. Having places to gather and giving back to the community are especially important to this younger generation.

Many millennials grew up amid uncertainty—9/11 terror attacks—and entered adulthood as the 2008 financial crisis unfolded. They are generally a more anxious bunch and require more hand-holding than their Gen X predecessors, but millennials are viewed also as optimistic and altruistic.

They seek belonging and stability, which smaller urban areas such as Janesville provide. Such characteristics also seem to make Illinois and Chicago less appealing to millennials because of the state’s financial difficulties and Chicago’s crime problems.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s economy is on the upswing and will require thousands of new workers to operate the planned $10 billion Foxconn plant in Racine County and Foxconn’s suppliers. Janesville is poised to experience a boom, too, with the recent sale of the former GM plant and plans to bring new manufacturers to the site.

There may not be a better time to poach millennials from our southern neighbor.

While Janesville’s economic prospects are bright, the same is true for many parts of Wisconsin. Janesville is in a competition to lure bright, young workers and cannot afford any setbacks because some residents cannot see the prevailing demographic and economic trends.

Indeed, these lightning rods of cynicism plastered social media last week (see Friday’s Web Views for a sampling) with dismay over the city’s plan to build a new fitness court near the new downtown town square.

Comments ranged from complaints about the city failing to fix roads to claims of elitism among city councilors. But since when is growing the economy and trying to attract families to Janesville an elitist enterprise? To these perennial critics, change itself is an elitist concept.

That the city council cannot even remove a dilapidated, useless dam without a band of citizens launching a legal challenge is indicative of the backward thinking that drags on Janesville. For too long, such negativism steered local politics and partly explains why, for instance, Beloit kicked off its downtown revitalization efforts years before Janesville figured out the ARISE initiative.

Fortunately, the mindset needed for Janesville to reach its potential has won over most government officials and private sector leaders.

For all the gnashing of teeth on social media, the fitness court proposal breezed through the city council with minimal opposition because most members recognize Janesville must attract new families and businesses to remain competitive.

Janesville won’t become a millennial hot spot thanks to a single project or advertising campaign. Janesville will be rewarded over the long term, with millennials and their families coming from Illinois and a lot of other places. They’ll be the ones to build new homes and launch new companies, and—perhaps best of all—these millennials won’t be encumbered by the baggage of Janesville’s past economic failures.

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