Christina McGrath didn't intend to stay in Colorado Springs.
A native, she left to attend Miami University of Ohio then moved back in 2007 when a job opportunity came up at the El Pomar Foundation.
She planned to stay only a few years, thinking she'd leave to further her education or relocate to Denver.
Now 28 years old and executive director of the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region, McGrath is still in Colorado Springs and optimistic about its future as a magnet for young professionals.
"I have a lot of energy around the fact that our community leadership is looking towards young professionals to see what the next 20 to 25 years look like," she said. "I think it's a great time to live in Colorado Springs."
Many successful young professionals in town agree, but unless more is done to increase their numbers, there may not be enough of them to continue feeding the area's economy as baby boomers leave the workforce.
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, people ages 20 to 44 with a college degree - the widely accepted definition of young professionals - are streaming to Colorado cities, but not to Colorado Springs.
The problem has not gone unnoticed, and city leaders, along with young professionals and movers and shakers from the civic, business and educational communities, have been stepping up efforts to attract and retain more young people.
On the campaign trail and after his election to office, Mayor Steve Bach has frequently talked about doing more to bring in young professionals and make it a place they'll want to stay.
"It is essential that Colorado Springs attract and retain younger people for a lot of reasons, including so that we have a high-quality workforce that attracts employers who are looking to move to locations where there are bright, energetic, committed younger people," he said.
He realizes that a shortage of professional jobs is a problem and has said repeatedly that he is trying to create a more business-friendly environment by loosening or eliminating regulations and improving public transportation, especially at the Colorado Springs Airport.
"We don't create jobs as a city, but we need to create an environment that attracts our great employers or entrepreneurs," said Bach, who left Colorado Springs in 1968 as a young professional because he couldn't find a job in the city.
Along with working with government and business partners to draw new companies to Colorado Springs, the city is aggressively marketing itself, turning more toward social media and focusing on community building techniques, said Krithika Prashant, who works in the city communications office and is a young professional.
The city also has been sponsoring events geared toward the "creative class," a term often used synonymously with young professionals.
"We have at least 55 to 60 events a year," Prashant said. "It's based on everything - arts, runs, celebrations. That's your opportunity right there to understand what this city can offer in all aspects."
Attracting them to the Springs
In another step to reach young professionals, the city implemented an internship program this year to create a knowledgeable, experienced base of future employees and leaders. Getting more young professionals engaged in civic affairs is critical, Colorado Springs City Councilwoman Jan Martin said.
"They should help us decide what we want the next generation to look like," Martin said. "We continue to lose rather than attract young professionals. Without giving them a seat at the table or a voice in the community, the city will continue to be a place that doesn't hold much for young people."
Part of the equation is getting more young professionals elected to decision-making bodies, a topic that became an issue in this year's city elections during former City Councilwoman Brandy Williams' bid for another term in office.
She was the youngest person on the previous council and tried to convince voters that they needed to keep the voice of a young professional on the board. She lost to 65-year-old Keith King.
After the April election, Joel Miller became the youngest council member at age 43, and the average age for the current council is 57.
There are, of course, structural barriers to young professionals getting elected: Candidates for most positions - from City Council to state senator or representative - must be at least 25. Other positions, such as CU regent or a member of the State Board of Education, can be filled at age 18.
But voters have shown they're willing to elect the city's young professionals to office, including Rep. Dan Nordberg, 30, of Colorado House District 14 in northern Colorado Springs.
"There's a perception that young professionals aren't welcome in politics, but that's not true at all," said Daniel Cole, 29, who became the El Paso County Republican Party's executive director Aug. 1 and ran King's successful City Council campaign.
Having a voice
For young professionals, it's not just about winning elections but feeling as if their voices matter. McGrath said that even when the city listens to young professionals, it hasn't always translated into action.
"I think they haven't figured out how to take that feedback and implement it," McGrath said. "The things you see that are really successful in our community are when young professionals take unique ownership on a project."
Keeping young people in the conversation is crucial, said Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Downtown Partnership.
"It's how we open our doors to more people, become more inclusive, ensure that when we're brainstorming, making decisions, planning on things, that we have a big-tent approach that has a variety of viewpoints," Edmondson said. "It's not just a variety; we need all of it."
Edmondson's organization is trying to do more to provide what many young professionals say they want, including working with developers to plan housing and rental options in a variety of price ranges downtown.
The partnership is also examining ways to boost the city's entertainment, highlighting what's here while working to improve the infrastructure.
"I absolutely do believe that a lot of the answers around our need to attract young professionals really can reside downtown," Edmondson said.
"Young people prefer a more urban, highly dense, walkable, bikeable kind of lifestyle. That always starts downtown."
Bach agrees and said he believes young professionals would be drawn to attractions such as a downtown multiuse stadium and Olympics museum - projects that are far from being a done deal.
"Plenty of other cities have been able to create an exciting environment in their downtowns that then attracts younger people that want to work there and live there," he said, adding that the city government has looked to other cities, including Madison, Wis., and Austin, Texas, for ideas on how to do the same in Colorado Springs.
"We are not going to be - and we have to be honest about this - Denver or Boulder," Bach said.
"We are ourselves. I think what we have that they don't is that we're right next to the mountains."
Marketing the city
Many young professionals said they originally came to the city or stayed in it because of its natural beauty and outdoor activities - assets that sell themselves.
But Tucker Wannamaker, a local young professional and entrepreneur who co-owns a marketing firm, thinks Colorado Springs should also market itself as a place where young entrepreneurs can be successful, as he has been.
"I would pitch Colorado Springs by saying 'Life is good here,'" he said.
The 33-year-old found a home and built a career in Colorado Springs after tapping into the city's most vibrant and successful circles. He co-founded Magneti Marketing and helped start the immensely popular Wild Fire Tees, a product whose profits have funded local wildfire recovery efforts.
"I think the thing for me that I want to help young professionals understand is that there is a lot of opportunity here," Wannamaker said.
"It's just not necessarily right in front of your fingertips. What I keep finding in Colorado Springs are all these fascinating, interesting people and stories and inspirations. It's like, 'Huh, these are here in Colorado Springs?'?"
There are other efforts in the works that could boost Colorado Springs' standing as a place where young professionals can find a home. Last month, the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance announced its Rising Professionals group was breaking away to become its own organization.
"This evolution will enable the Rising Professionals the flexibility to initiate real, significant change in Colorado Springs," the group said on the RBA's website.
In early August, an anonymous group of young professionals came up with the Colorado Springs Manifesto, calling for action among city leaders and residents to help make "Colorado Springs an insanely great place to live." The group has been selling posters online and publishing provocative posts on social media sites to rally the community.
"We will create a thriving downtown," the manifesto says. "We will create innovative companies and hire creative people. We will end this community's brain drain. And we hereby declare a new era in which radical optimism, possibility, progress, and vision make this community awesome."
Former Councilwoman Williams hopes the call to action is more than just words and that city and civic leaders will stay on track to address the problem.
"I think that the question that needs to be asked is, do we actually want to solve it?" she said. "We seem to talk about it a lot but not actually solve it."
Reporters Megan Wood, Jesse Byrnes, Jessica Allison, Suzanne Evans, Alison Noon and Brooke Pryor contributed to this story.
WHAT'S BEING DONE HERE
City leaders, including Mayor Steve Bach, are well aware of the issues surrounding the declining young professional population in Colorado Springs, and they've been developing and implementing many projects to attract and retain them. Learn more about the efforts, including aggressive marketing campaigns and plans for downtown development, and hear from successful young professionals in Colorado Springs in Monday's Gazette.
ABOUT THE SERIES
For six weeks, The Gazette's summer interns - seven reporters and a photographer - explored why Colorado Springs is having trouble attracting and retaining young professionals, an issue that has caught the attention of civic, business and government leaders in recent years.
The interns fanned out to talk to dozens of young professionals and experts on the subject, attended meet-ups and investigated why other Colorado cities have been able to grow and sustain their populations. The result of their reporting appears in The Gazette on Sunday and Monday.
Sunday: Why aren't more young professionals making Colorado Springs their home, and what does it mean for the region's future?
Monday: What are the city of Colorado Springs, business and civic groups and young professionals themselves doing to beef up the presence of the "creative class?" How did the successful young professionals find their way in the city? What can Colorado Springs learn from other cities that have been able to retain and attract young professionals?
The Gazette interns
Jessica Allison, reporter
Jesse Byrnes, reporter
Suzanne Evans, reporter
Alison Noon, reporter
Jesse Paul, reporter
Brooke Pryor, reporter
Megan Wood, reporter
Junfu Han, photographer