What Dallas needs? ‘Grease, not infrastructure,’ young grads say

Second of two columns.

When Stephanie Johanson graduated from college and left the East Coast, she planned to live in Dallas briefly and then head to an ad agency in New York City. That was seven years ago.

The 29-year-old brand manager now raves about Uptown, her M-Street neighborhood and running at White Rock Lake. She’s most impressed by how Dallas keeps investing in emerging areas, such as Trinity Groves and the Bishop Arts District.

And she’s skeptical about a recent report that young college grads were snubbing the region.

“It’s almost like I don’t believe the data,” said Johanson, who works at the Richards Group, a top advertising agency.

The report by an economist at City Observatory in Portland, Ore., found that the Dallas-Fort Worth area lagged most metros in drawing young college grads. The Dallas area is usually a leader in job creation and other metrics. But from 2000 to 2012, other metros had much stronger growth of the so-called young and restless — 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees.

Johanson has friends who moved here from California, Arizona and other states. Her New York friends also give Dallas high marks. Because the city is so affordable, she said, you can get more of the urban life that millennials prefer.

“In Dallas, it’s much easier for young 20-somethings to live where it’s happening — around all these fun, walkable places,” Johanson said. “You can get to a Sunday brunch in about five minutes.”

Recent progress has been remarkable around the downtown area. Office buildings, apartments, restaurants and bars keep popping up. Mass transit is getting better. Klyde Warren Park and the Katy Trail are great natural amenities.

Still, Dallas doesn’t have the cool factor of Austin, Denver, Portland, Seattle and even Los Angeles. Part of that stems from outdated perceptions, and part of it’s real.

“What’s missing is cultural,” said Clarisa Lindenmeyer of Tech Wildcatters, a company that helps startup businesses. “It’s not the infrastructure, it’s the grease.”

She’s talking about the need for more connections and collaboration, formal and informal. That would keep stoking a startup culture and maybe redefine the city’s image.

D-FW is best known for its Fortune 500 companies. Investors also are traditional types, backing energy and real estate more than new technology. That reinforces a view of Dallas as a corporate bastion, more conservative than forward-leaning.

As with light rail and downtown living, Dallas has made real progress with startups. Venture funding has grown, some companies have been hits, and Tech Wildcatters has many competitors now trying to accelerate new ventures.

The Dallas Entrepreneur Center, known as the DEC, said that 5,000 people participated in events and programs in its first year. Fifty startups rented space downtown. There’s an investor summit this week, and it’s touting the fact that visitors don’t have to rent a car.

They can take DART rail from the airport to downtown and walk to the opening party and their hotel. Other events are nearby, too.

“Whether the last time you were in Dallas was two months ago or 10 years ago, you will be visiting a new Dallas,” Trey Bowles, the DEC’s co-founder, is telling angel investors.

He wants them to see a city that’s walkable, active and safe, and a hub for startups. That’s all part of the mix that draws young talent, and Dallas has it.

“People are so surprised about Dallas,” said Bowles, who built companies in other cities and chose to settle here. “The challenge is to get them to experience it.”

He said some local startups declined venture funds that required them to leave the city. Several startups recently finished an accelerator program and decided to stay in Dallas or open offices here. A 2012 study on fast-growing companies showed that Dallas was a leader in attracting founders, an indication that the city wins over people.

Johanson’s path is a common one. She came to Dallas to join a particular company. Among other things, the Richards Group doesn’t assign titles, so employees won’t feel limited or boxed in. She planned to stay two years and isn’t looking back now.

Javier Moreno, 31, had lived and worked around New York City after going to college at Penn State. He moved here almost three months ago as part of Toyota’s relocation of its North American headquarters.

Moreno lives in a new Uptown apartment building, and he has a great view of people walking along McKinney Avenue.

“I didn’t expect to find so much energy and diversity,” said Moreno, manager of external affairs and communication. “This is really a vibrant place.”

He has a 30-minute drive to Toyota in Plano, and it’s usually a smooth commute. He’d like to take DART rail when there’s a faster connection from the rail stop to the western edge of Plano.

But he’s happy and sounds like many young grads who come here: Dallas is better than they realized.

It just needs to keep improving.

Follow Mitchell Schnurman on Twitter at @mitchschnurman.


This post was written by Mitchell Schnurman and shared with permission from The Dallas Morning News.