How the suburbs might become more attractive to millennials

Destinations for dining, comfortable workplaces, new technological infrastructure and more downtown housing are one town's strategies to attract millennials who might otherwise flock to Chicago.

Naperville Mayor Steve Chirico outlined ideas Thursday for building the suburban millennial workforce to a group whose members already fit that category, the Young Professionals of the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce.

Chirico said making the suburbs millennial-friendly is about progress — not resting on the successful population Naperville built during its boom years since the 1980s, but advancing through new technology and innovative places for living and working.

“This is not a time for us to coast,” Chirico said. “This is a time for us to put our foot on the accelerator and move forward.”

Through the vision of restaurateurs, Chirico said Naperville already has one factor that can draw people early in their careers: a vibrant dining scene.

“Everything is becoming experiential now,” he said. “And for young people, the experience is dining.”

So he outlined ways the city is evolving the work environment, harnessing tech and considering urban-style housing to encourage young people to continue to make the suburbs home.

First, he said towns must find ways to foster the on-the-go, informal workplaces millennials expect.

One of Naperville's efforts to create such a workspace nearly hit a setback in December, when the city council almost rejected a $200,000 donation from Naperville Jaycees to fund a “Smart Park.”

But Jaycees President Matt Dingeldein said the city and the club have ironed out details of the donation, which will be made during the next 10 years, and the agreement is set for approval.

Naperville Jaycees Smart Park will be an outdoor gathering area with Wi-Fi, power plugs, seating, tables, shade and lighting. The $400,000 park will be built on a grassy area between the municipal center, the Naperville Township building and the Riverwalk, helping the city follow an on-the-job trend.

“That type of workspace is available in most urban environments,” Chirico said.

Naperville also wants to attract millennials by becoming a destination for tech companies. He said the city has the underground infrastructure, called “dark fiber,” to offer fast internet connections that could be used to support data centers for major firms.

And as Naperville's downtown matures, housing could be the next way to attract a younger crowd.

Other than a few apartments above storefronts, a building on Main Street used as a North Central College dorm provides some of the only housing within downtown.

But Chirico said the dorms now used by the college are being renovated and soon will rented to the public as market-price units. Apartments or condos also could be part of future development on the property of the old Nichols Library, a vacant plot north of Hugo's Frog Bar & Fish House, and a site west of Fiamme.

“You start to build that critical mass that you need in a downtown,” he said.

Dingeldein and Young Professionals of Naperville President Ian Holzhauer praised Chirico for looking for ways to keep up-and-coming workers in the suburbs.

“It's a great thing for all of us,” Holzhauer said. “We should be thankful as young professionals to have somebody with that focus on the future.”

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Steve Chirico
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