BY ZACH ROTH
Like many other towns in the Midwest and Rust Belt, Springfield has seen significant changes in the makeup of its population in recent years. It has become older, not to mention a little bit smaller.
“Since 2010, the indications are that the population is continuing to decline,” said Molly Berns, executive director of the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission (SSCRPC). “Even more importantly, that population is aging.”
Indeed, information provided by the SSCRPC indicate that the capital city of Illinois is losing its population. In the 2010 U.S. census, Springfield’s population was 111,454, a 4.3 percent increase from 10 years prior. However, this was actually an indication that Springfield’s growth was slowing, as the rate of growth had decreased every decade since the 1970 census.
Now, that growth has stopped. Current estimates put Springfield’s population at 115,611, a decrease from the 2010 census. This decrease has been most pronounced among younger people, especially millennials, whose declines have been measured at around seven percent in the latest estimates.
People have been supposedly been leaving town for greener pastures, befitting the reputation of Springfield as a city where there isn’t much else to do outside visiting Abraham Lincoln shrines and eating horseshoes.
Berns disputes this reputation, noting that Springfield has plenty of interesting places to visit; one just needs to know where to find them.
“Springfield has a lot of activities,” Berns says. “You just have to know where to look for them. It’s not like they’re hidden, it’s not like there’s a big surprise, but we clearly have a lot of tourists who come to this town to visit various things and to attend festivals. If there were nothing to do in Springfield, we wouldn’t have tourism.”
Tourists are one thing; residents are another. So why can’t Springfield keep younger residents? Berns thinks that younger people are looking more for experiences in where they live and work, something that Springfield may be lacking.
“Millennials look for a slightly different experience,” Berns said. “It’s not just about attending the activity, they want to experience the activity. It’s a slight mind-shift in how those activities are put together, how they’re advertised as well as how they’re promoted to draw any sort of millennial attendance.”
Reports from the SSCRPC confirm this trend. A 2015 study found that millennials are looking to live in mid-sized towns with greater amenities and activities. These were defined as the 6th-60th ranked metropolitan markets in the U.S. Springfield significantly pales in comparison to any of those places, ranking 233rd.
“If the Council of Economic Advisors is correct…this does not bode well for our region,” the study noted.
Even though Springfield’s population is declining overall, older groups are adding population. For both Springfield and Sangamon County, the only age groups rising in population are those 55-64 and 75 and older, known as baby boomers and the silent generation. Those two groups have seen 20-30 percent growth during the last decade. This has also led to an increase in the average age of the working population, with the average creeping into the 40s, from mid-to-late 30s in prior years.
“The age of the population has trended up ever so slightly, and it continues to grow older,” Berns said. “This is not just isolated to Springfield or Sangamon County; the baby- booming population is aging and reaching retirement. As those people are leaving the workforce, you expect new people to be taking their place, but there are fewer millennials than there were of the baby boomers. It’s strictly a numbers game.”
Despite the city’s reputation and numbers, there are also certain advantages to living in Springfield that could be promoted or exploited for further population gains. Not only is the cost of living relatively affordable, but the central location of Springfield provides easier access to work and activities than larger communities.
“It’s a big enough city to have wonderful tourist activities, but at the same time, you can literally cross town in 20 minutes, so it’s very accessible,” Berns said. “St. Louis is only an hour and 10-minute drive, and I can get to Chicago in two-and-a-half hours or less. So, it’s the best of both worlds. Being centrally located is very attractive to millennials, because they have a whole circle of areas that they can be at in less than half a day.”
Berns shared the story of a millennial friend who considered moving to St. Louis for work, and while St. Louis had better activities and more resources, the cost of living and poor accessibility made it untenable for her.
“One of her biggest concerns, having grown up in Springfield, was that the commute is going to be dreadful,” Berns said. “‘I’m going to have to live so far out of St. Louis just to be able to afford a nice apartment that by the time I do that, I’m going to be on the road 45 minutes in the morning and 45 minutes in the afternoon,’ That’s time not spent relaxing and doing what this millennial wanted to do. In retrospect, she would prefer to work in Springfield.”
Fortunately, there are indications that some are taking notice of Springfield as a good place for millennial workers. A site called RealtyHop recently ranked Springfield as the 39th best metropolitan area for millennials in the country.
Will that bring more millennials to Springfield? Only time will tell. One thing is for sure: Springfield may have more to offer than you think.
“I think that the residents sell it short,” Berns said.