Millennials are loving Lynchburg, but local leaders are determined to bring in more

Aubrey Varraux and her husband, Zach, have only lived in Lynchburg for the last five years, but they are convinced they want to stay in the Hill City for as long as they can.

So naturally, when an article by Review.com ranked Lynchburg as the No. 1 city for millennials to move to in 2019, Varraux was not surprised. “We love it here,” Aubrey Varraux said. “[Lynchburg] has this smaller hometown feel.”

While in high school, her family moved from a Northern California mountain town to Orlando, Fla. “Orlando is a massive metropolis,” she said. “I was never content in a big city.”

Though the Varrauxes weren’t sure what to expect when they relocated to Virginia for school in 2014, they quickly found it to be a place where they could thrive. They settled into careers, found a church, and Varraux said she was able to connect with others her age through Young Professionals of Central Virginia, a group dedicated to cultivating relationships and a vibrant professional community.

“Everyone knows one another and is friendly and kind,” she said. “Those were big appeals to me.

The Varrauxes are part of a recent wave of millennials who are choosing to settle down in Lynchburg permanently.

“Our median age [in Lynchburg] is 28.6,” said Anna Bentson, the assistant director of economic development for the City of Lynchburg. “We’re young and growing—and that’s exciting to be part of.”

According to Bentson, millennials make up more than 30 percent of the city’s population. Between 2012 and 2016 alone, Lynchburg’s share of millennials grew by 13 percent. The city itself has grown more than 20 percent in the past 15 years.

“With a walkable urban core and growing share of restaurants and arts and cultural venues, the City of Lynchburg’s downtown area is transforming into a wish list for millennials,” said Bentson, who added that she and her husband chose to relocate to Lynchburg from D.C. in their mid-20s.

In total, Reviews.org sorted through 325 metro areas around the country to compile their list. The top contenders were based on topics such as low unemployment rates, high immigration flows, low housing costs, and low rates of property crime. The list also focused on unique aspects and features such as a city’s arts and culture opportunities.

“Both our median housing value and median gross rent are below cities of our size and geography,” Bentson said.

According to Downtown Lynchburg Association Executive Director Ashley Kershner, large cities have simply become too expensive for many young professionals, especially those earning entry-level salaries.

“Smaller and mid-size cities are becoming much more popular,” she said. “They still offer an urban experience and plenty of opportunity without the exorbitant living costs. Lynchburg is up and coming, and we are well-poised to be a destination for those looking for a thriving yet accessible city.”

Kershner said while the city always wants to market to potential new residents, she is much more focused on showing that Lynchburg is “an authentic, beautiful, and exciting city.”

“Studies show that young professionals are choosing where to live based on quality of life,” she said. “Beautiful public spaces, great restaurants, a thriving nightlife scene, openness and inclusivity, lots of cultural events—these bring millennials to a city. Sure, a job is important, but the city is what sells it.”

A recent study conducted by GO Virginia Region 2, a bipartisan, business-led economic development initiative, shows there are strengths and weaknesses when it comes to retaining young talent in the region (Region 2 is made up of Lynchburg, Roanoke and the New River Valley). The study focused on finding ways to not just attract talent… but also engage and retain young professionals as well.

“Our region offers many of the factors that job seekers are looking for and employers need workers,” said Megan Lucas, CEO & chief economic development officer for the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance. “So we need to do more to connect employers with talent.”

According to the study’s findings, some of the biggest factors for college students when deciding where to settle post-graduation are employment opportunities, cost of living, affordable housing, safety and outdoor recreation, benefits, and career advancement opportunities. Though the Lynchburg area features many of these benefits, there is a major opportunity to improve—the study found 18 percent of college students said they would search for jobs within the Region 2 area.

In Central Virginia, the Alliance is planning and implementing three new programs to help build a bridge between local college students and businesses:

Seize the City is open to all interns and college students working in the Lynchburg region. It’s a series of community engagement and professional development opportunities.

Level UP is a summit bringing young professionals together to grow personally and professionally, to learn about community, and convert insight into real, positive action using strategic imagination. (This year’s summit is September 5. Learn more at www.lynchburgregion.org.)

Leading Off Campus is a semester-long program to bridge the gap between collegiate students and local industries. The goal is to increase retention of collegiate talent to the region while equipping young professionals with the core competencies they need to excel in their first professional roles.

By using these opportunities, the Alliance has a goal to retain 10 percent of college graduates.

And Varraux feels like it’s working. Over the past five years, Varraux has felt the community work hard to make sure millennials feel like they can call Lynchburg home long-term.

“Maybe it’s because Lynchburg is a smaller city, [but] …there is so much opportunity for young people,” she said. “There’s a neat group of leadership, whether it’s in the city management or in my job, that is interested in growing the young people population and making sure they feel like they have a purpose here and a reason to stay in this area.”