What do millennials really want?
That has been the question on the minds of marketers, employers, college recruiters and, let’s face it, parents for more than a decade.
The millennial generation, typically described as the group of people born after 1980 and before 2000, has specific needs unlike the baby boomers of the past.
After all, most millennials have been digitally wired since childhood.
That’s not a criticism. That’s a simple fact.
To say most millennials work, learn, communicate, live and play differently than their parents, and especially their grandparents, is obvious.
But millennials should not be underestimated.
They are just as ambitious and determined as their predecessors.
They just like to do things their own way.
“Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of millennials said they would rather make $40,000 a year at a job they love than $100,000 a year at a job they think is boring,” the Brookings Institution reported in a 2014 study called “How Millennials Could Upend Wall Street and Corporate America.”
More than one in three American workers today are millennials, according to a recent analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau by the Pew Research Center.
Just last year, millennials surpassed Generation X to become the largest share of the American workforce.
In fact, it is estimated that, by 2025, millennials will make up as much as 75 percent of the workforce.
Times are changing and Augusta is hoping to strengthen its ability to attract and retain some of those millennials by creating a new downtown development called the Augusta Innovation Zone.
Founded by a collection of young “action leaders” and local businesspeople, including former Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver, John Cates, Virginia Claussen, Tom Patterson, George Claussen and Tommy Wafford, the Augusta Innovation Zone is not about just developing more office space and new downtown apartments along Eighth and Broad streets.
The Augusta Innovation Zone, otherwise known as the AIZ, is about creating a culture and community like none other in the downtown area.
It’s about an environment that replaces isolating cubicles with open-office workspaces that are located just seconds from retail shops, high-end lofts and even a rooftop bar and grill, Copenhaver said.
“For someone in their 20s, to be able to get up in the morning, grab some coffee down below your loft, walk across the street to work in an incredibly positive atmosphere and, then, at the end of the day, go up on the rooftop and have a drink, that is a pretty cool living environment,” Copenhaver said. “We really believe this is going to become a destination.”
The project, which includes both the historic Woolworth Department Store and the Johnson Building located on the corners of Eighth and Broad streets, began after Tom Patterson, the vice president of the Global Security for Unisys, started talking about the need for a designated “innovation zone” in Augusta, Copenhaver said.
“Tom came to me one day this past summer and said, ‘You need to find me one city block that we can designate as the Augusta Innovation Zone,’” Copenhaver said. “Now, knowing a lot of property owners downtown, I thought, ‘Gosh, getting an agreement within one entire block is not going to be an easy thing to do.’”
However, after talking to Dallas Hooks, owner of the Johnson Building, Copenhaver began to envision a new possibility.
“It is not a block on Broad Street, but it is a block going back from Broad to Ellis Street, which I knew would work,” Copenhaver said, adding that he then discussed the project with local developer and hotelier T.R. Reddy, who owns the Woolworth building. “T.R. was very agreeable to the idea. It’s exciting because when we talk about the growth of Fort Gordon around Cyber Command, that’s great, but because we are trying to sell Augusta to these new businesses for them to move here, it is good to be able to have a product and say, ‘This is what we are doing to be proactive.’ This innovation zone gives us a chance to bring those people into town and say, ‘We have developed this space into something that is truly innovative for the community.’”
Of course, one of the first questions the AIZ team usually gets from local residents is, what exactly is an innovation zone?
Tommy Wafford, the CEO of MealViewer and a founding member of the AIZ team, described the innovation zone as a “coworking, operating space that works much like a gym membership.”
“For example, let’s say you are an independent contractor or a freelance graphic designer and you just need a desk to sit at from time to time,” he said. “There will be a membership fee and you will be able to come in, sit down and pick up a desk. It’s called hot-desking and it will be an area that is dedicated to all those people who just need a desk from time to time.”
However, the innovation zone also offers more permanent workplaces for its members, he said.
“There will be another area for dedicated desks,” Wafford explained. “So maybe I’m a graphic designer or a videographer and I want to set up my own monitor and not have to tear that down every day. I want a dedicated desk where I can come in and work. We offer that, too.”
The next step was to provide an option for those ever-growing companies that are constantly adjusting the size of their staff, he said.
“They will say, ‘I have a three-man team now and I need an office,’” Wafford said. “Instead of going in and building walls, we want to maintain the kind of cool, community vibe, so we are going to refurbish shipping containers into offices and put glass walls in them.”
Each new company will be able to put their logos on the outside of their containers, he said.
All of the companies will also still be able to stay connected to the entire culture of the innovation zone by simply heading to the roof of their offices, he said.
“Each container is going to have rooftop of its own,” Wafford said. “They will be railed and, in the middle of the day, if the staff wants to be part of the community, they can go work on top of their office space. There is enough ceiling height to facilitate that.
So they will be able to look out and see everything going on from up there.”
The designation of each company and assigned desk will also have a creative twist that many Augustans will find very familiar, Wafford said.
“In the Woolworth building, we are going to concept the entire interior around our city because we want it to feel like home the moment people walk in,” Wafford said. “So, there is going to be a central corridor to the building. It is going to be all open concept, but the central corridor is going to be identified as Broad Street. It is going to have cross streets coming to different parts of the building, so you are actually going to be able to give your location in the building using street names.”
So guests can quickly and easily locate the company or individual they are scheduled to meet with by using street directions, he said.
“You will be able to come to reception and check in and then they will be able to say, ‘You are going to go down to the corner of Broad and James Brown and their office is on the right,’” Wafford said. “It will be so cool. The building will also have a 150- to 200-seat small auditorium on the back wall, so you will also have presentation space.”
With these kinds of accommodations, along with the area’s low cost of living, Wafford believes that Augusta will be able to attract exciting new tech startups from all over the country.
“We are going to sincerely be able to tell young entrepreneurs, ‘You know, Wi-Fi is just as good in Augusta as it is in San Francisco and you can cut your living expenses in half,” he said. “We will be able to recruit some incredible technical talent into Augusta for that one reason.”
In addition to the various street names inside the open office, Wafford said the AIZ team is planning an “elevated pitching area” in the building that will be called “The Hill.”
“We are all familiar with The Hill here in Augusta, so it seemed like a good fit,” he said. “Then we are going to have a podcast studio in the front of the building that will be against the glass wall. So people are going to be able to sit out front and watch the studio as it is being recorded.”
And since many of the employees of these startup companies work sometimes more than 12 hours a day, Wafford said it is important for the AIZ to provide an environment that is fun and yet conducive for productivity.
“There are some things that we need to provide from a facility standpoint that isn’t typical,” Wafford said, adding that having beer on location is one of those amenities.
“There has got to be some recreation, too, because your brain can only focus so many hours a day, so it also has to be a lot of fun.”
Meybohm Realtors’ General Counsel John Cates, who is also a founding member of the AIZ team, said it is amazing to see how quickly some of these startup companies expand and develop.
“Most of them are young and hungry and ready to go,” Cates said. “We need to be able to offer them what they want and need.”
After all, huge projects such as the Atlanta Tech Village, which is home to more than 200 companies, didn’t happen overnight.
“People always talk about all this cybersecurity stuff that is coming and the fact that Augusta has the opportunity to be the hub of cybersecurity and technology, but that is not just going to happen,” Cates said. “I think that is the misconception a lot of people around here have. You have to be proactive to have an actual product so that you can say, not only, ‘Hey, we think you should come to Augusta. End of story,’ but instead, ‘We think you should come to downtown Augusta and check out the innovation zone.’”
But the key is, Augusta needs to have a starting point, Cates said.
“It is not going to happen on its own, you have to have a start,” he said. “So we view this as a starting point. We really don’t want this just to be about our project. But we call it, ‘The Soul of the Cyber District,’ because we wanted it to be that heartbeat, where once you light a spark here through innovation, an incubator and coworking space, there is no telling what other offshoots that will come out of what we are trying to start here.”
AIZ is not only providing eager young professionals involved in businesses such as tech firms and startups with an energized new atmosphere to work, but it is also a great place to call home, said Virginia Claussen, a founding member of the AIZ team.
“We are having more and more urban dwellers moving back to Augusta and I think downtown would be the perfect place that they would want to work, live and play,” she said. “To have an entire city block from Broad all the way to Ellis Street for the innovation zone, I think will really serve as the anchor that downtown Augusta has been missing.”
The fact that the innovation zone is within walking distance of the Augusta Common and is facing the opening in the levy on Eighth Street are all extremely appealing aspects for new residents, Wafford said.
“Eighth Street is where the Augusta Market at the River is located,” Wafford said. “If you want to do outdoor activities, Eighth Street is the place. There is also great parking. It is one of the rare areas on Broad Street that has several parking lots around it. And then with what is going on with The Miller Theatre, I think it could change this entire area. Places like The City Club can come back online and you are going to have more opportunities for restaurateurs to come down and service this new foot traffic that has been created.”
George Claussen IV, co-owner of Southbound Smokehouse on Central Avenue and a founding member of the AIZ team, is heading the concept for the rooftop bar and grill to be located at the former Woolworth building.
“It is such a big space with about 12,000 square feet, so I think we are maybe looking at a multi-restaurant concept on the roof,” George Claussen said, explaining that there will likely be a main restaurant in the middle of the roof with a coffee/breakfast area on the left side of the building and a lunch/deli concept on the right-hand side. “I don’t think it’s something that I could handle doing all three places, but maybe I will focus on the main restaurant and then I’ll sub out the left and right-hand side.”
At the end of the month, George Claussen said he is meeting with a friend from Denver who owns about 10 different restaurants to discuss some of his ideas for the rooftop bar and grill.
“It is all about just trying to get the right idea,” George Claussen said. “The question is: What does downtown Augusta not have? Well, pizza, I think we have that covered pretty well. Even Mexican with what Sean Wight is doing downtown and with Nacho Mama’s. So it is all about trying to figure out what makes sense and not take away from anybody else. Because the rooftop bar on its own is going to be popular no matter what is up there.”
Also, as the founder of Friends With Benefits — the production and promotion company that brings shows such as The Major Rager to downtown Augusta — George Claussen said he expects the new rooftop bar to include some live music.
“There will definitely be music associated with it, but it’s not going to be a full-on 1,000-person concert on the roof,” Claussen said, laughing. “Again, I don’t want to take away from places like Sky City or The Miller. I mean, the last thing you want to do is open up something new and close two other places on Broad Street. That’s not what I want. So it has been tricky to kind of figure out what it is going to be, but I think it will be something that is definitely going to step Augusta in a direction it’s never seen before.”
Copenhaver said he is extremely excited about the idea of offering a rooftop bar in downtown Augusta.
“There are a lot of buildings on that block and when you are on that rooftop, especially if you look up at night, you just have big buildings all the way around you,” Copenhaver said. “With that view, you really feel like you are in a big city.”
After walking around the roof of the Woolworth building, Copenhaver said all of the AIZ team members were impressed by the huge potential of the rooftop bar.
“You really do get that metropolitan experience up there,” Cates said.
“Yeah, you can see all five tall buildings in Augusta right there in that one spot,” Wafford said, chuckling. “It really is cool.”
While the AIZ team members are thrilled about the future of the Woolworth and Johnson buildings, they also sincerely appreciate the historic significance of these downtown structures.
“What is cool is, back in the 1940s and 50s, when downtown Augusta was the place to go to shop and eat, the Woolworth building was kind of that core,” Cates said. “Back then there was no Walmart or no Target, so Woolworth was the store that you could sit down at the counter and eat lunch and then get your shopping done. So, we have all of these old pictures of downtown where you would see tons of cars on Broad Street and the most people were gathered all around that glass storefront with that Woolworth’s sign lit up. It’s incredible.”
Now that the store has sat vacant since 1991, Cates said he can’t wait to see the Woolworth building alive and thriving again.
“It makes us sort of want to hark back to the days when that was the hopping place to be,” Cates said. “That is our goal with this project. And it just makes it very cool that we are taking the same spot to make these great things happen again in downtown Augusta.”
After months of planning, Copehaver said he is extremely impressed by the AIZ team that has been formed and he can’t wait for the project to get underway later this year.
“I have sat in strategic planning sessions for so long and people will ask, ‘How do we engage millennials?’” Copenhaver said. “It doesn’t take long to answer that question. I’m like, ‘Well, there is nobody under 45 years old sitting in this room.’ But that’s not the case here.
“The majority of the people on our team are millennials. And I believe, if you want to develop a city to recruit and retain that generation, they need to be part of the decision-making process. They need to be part of the team that gets you there.”