Homegrown millennials returning to Tampa Bay. Here's why.

Allie Kessler in her shared office space on April 12 in Tampa. Kessler works on the Water Street project,  the enormous development spearheaded by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik. (ALLIE GOULDING  |   Times)
Allie Kessler in her shared office space on April 12 in Tampa. Kessler works on the Water Street project, the enormous development spearheaded by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik. (ALLIE GOULDING | Times)
Published April 25, 2019

Allie Kessler had a decision to make.

She was working in Washington, D.C., enjoying her job in commercial real estate. Her fiancé was about to graduate from business school in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Where were they going to put down roots?

They both loved the nation's capital. They talked about New York City and Charlotte, too.

In the end, they chose Tampa.

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Kessler, now 31, grew up here. She attended the Academy of the Holy Names, just like her mother, her grandmother and her great-grandmother, before heading off to Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

She didn't think she'd return to Tampa, other than to visit. Opportunities seemed brighter in other cities. Now she's one of our area's growing class of millennials, boomerangs who have come back after starting careers in other cities.

Not long ago, once we lost young professionals like Kessler, it was hard to lure them back. The area didn't have enough good jobs, and our downtowns lacked energy. Other cities boasted more intellectual heft, including an abundance of millennials with college degrees.

That's starting to change. Kessler and her friends see a vibrant arts community, brew pubs, the Tampa Riverwalk. Most importantly, they can chart a career path here.

Kessler returned to Tampa in 2016, after a year in Argentina and five years in Washington, D.C. She is a manager with Strategic Property Partners, the development company for the $3 billion Water Street Tampa project. Her husband also works in commercial real estate.

"Tampa has a buzz about it that wasn't there a decade ago," said Kessler, who lives in the Virginia Park neighborhood with her husband and a goldendoodle named Teddy. "It's like it remade itself after the recession."

Brad Cooke sees it, too. He was born in Tampa and grew up in Lutz before attending the University of Florida, where he met his wife. They studied architecture at graduate school in St. Louis, and moved to New York City in 2010, where they lived for six years. They loved it, both professionally and socially. In the back of his mind, though, he wondered if someday they might move back to the Tampa area.

"The answer was always, 'No, there's not enough opportunity there,' " said Cooke, 33.

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As the 2010s rolled on, Tampa began to look better, with its burgeoning cultural and food scenes. Cooke's family was here, too. The city also seemed open to high-end design, an important box to check for two young architects looking to make their mark.

They moved in 2016 and started a firm called Practice. They didn't have any clients lined up, but they felt they'd find enough people who believed in what they were doing. After a few nerve-racking months, business improved. Their projects include designing and developing townhomes in Tampa Heights and helping turn the former Wallace Stovall property on Bayshore Boulevard into a private club.

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Cooke said they still run into what he described as archaic parking requirements and other zoning restrictions that interfere with creating a vibrant urban environment.

"One of the things that appealed to us was that we would get to help the city make some of those transitions," he said. "Plus, there's enough like-minded people here now to get it done."

The area will always lose some young talent to bigger cities. New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago all have an intoxicating pull. The key is to create enough reasons to lure people back. We are doing a better job than in the past, but there's still work to do. The Tampa Bay metro area placed 13th out of 20 peer cities in attracting 25- to 34-year-olds, according to the latest regional competitiveness report from the Tampa Bay Partnership. We scored better than Miami, Dallas and Phoenix, but remained well behind Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte and Portland, Oregon.

Tyler Hudson, 33, said the Tampa Bay area may be playing catch-up, but it's getting more second looks from his millennial friends in other cities who are thinking about relocating. Hudson grew up in Tampa before leaving to attend college in Washington, D.C., where he worked for three years after graduating.

"We're a lot cooler now," said Hudson, who moved back to Tampa in 2013 after earning a law degree from the University of Florida. "That's going to keep people from leaving, and it's also going to draw people."

Hudson is a lawyer with the firm Gardner Brewer Martinez-Monfort and lives in Tampa Heights with his wife and their two young children. He was chairman of All for Transportation, the group that spearheaded the move to raise Hillsborough County's sales tax to pay for roads, bus service and some form of mass transit.

Hudson said the renewable energy that people from other places bring to the area is one of its greatest attributes. He likes that anyone can make a difference here, be it a fifth-generation resident or someone who showed up a few months ago.

Little surprise that Hudson thinks transportation issues should be a top priority. Another of the area's challenges will be affordability, he said. Talented outsiders and homegrown professionals will need to know they can earn enough money to buy or rent a home, often near the downtown cores.

"We are on the radar now," he said. "To stay there, we need to keep improving, keep pushing forward."

Hard to argue with that.

Contact Graham Brink at Follow @GrahamBrink.