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Duluth young professional group continues to grow

DULUTH (AP) -- Chris Ellian and Sam Freundschuh spent their final summer before college launching their first business.

"I skipped an all-night graduation party to take possession of the (building)," Ellian said.

The 2008 Duluth East High School graduates parlayed working on the computers of friends into their own repair service called NOXEM Computers in a storefront along First Street downtown. They're running the business while taking a full load of classes at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Then there's Esko resident Harper Harker.

She graduated from UMD eight years ago, and managed to stay here thanks to a job as a human resources analyst working on absence management and health promotions for Minnesota Power.

"I just feel more laced into the community," she said, thanks largely to the connections she has made through Fuse, a group of young professionals in Duluth.

Although among the three she's the only member of Fuse, they all are prime prospects for young professionals business organizations, which have proliferated across the country over the past five years.

Started in early 2005, Duluth's young professionals group boasts an e-mail list of 1,400 people and a membership roster of 373.

The mission of young professionals groups is to attract younger workers to the area and encourage those here to stay. But unlike past generations, for Generation X'ers (born after 1960) and Millennials (born after 1981), that decision increasingly no longer boils down primarily to whether there's a job.

"This next generation has this live first, work second ethic," said Molly Foley, lead consultant with Next Generation Consulting, which tracks and advises 350 such groups representing 1 million young professionals across the United States and Canada. "At the end of the day, it's not just about jobs," she said.

The younger generations pay much more attention than their parents or grandparents to the amenities of a potential area, such as the arts, recreation, colleges, commuting times, general economy and restaurant selection, she said.

Because so many factors now influence whether a person stays or leaves, Fuse measures success based heavily on how its members perceive Duluth as being a good place to live and work.

For example, many people believe Duluth has a reputation for having a tight job market.

Fuse -- an arm of the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce -- assembled speakers for a packed luncheon earlier this year where experts in the local labor market and some Duluth companies, big and small, talked about the positives and negatives of getting a job here. Another recent event was a hotel rooftop party kicking off Blues Fest.

"The overall goal is really engaging the next generation," Foley said.

According to a 2007 survey done while the group was called Duluth Young Professionals, 85 percent said they had a positive perception of Duluth's quality of life while 40 percent said the organization positively affected their view of Duluth.

This question will again be asked of young professionals -- although the larger community can fill out the Internet survey at the Chamber's Web site.

Other factors the surveys try to measure are what people think of the city's cost of living, average pay, opportunities to gain more education, transportation options, commute times and volunteer opportunities.

Which factors rank highly guide what the groups focus on.

In order to feed the needs of young professionals, the groups tend to be structured differently than a traditional Lions or Rotary club.

"Young people don't want to be tied down to the standards and the rules that go into memberships of those traditional clubs," Foley said.

Young professionals groups also don't answer to a single national governing organization.

Therefore, while most are geared to people between 20 and 40, each one is tailored to each community, Foley said. While some are much more business oriented, others might spend more of their time and money on volunteerism.

"It's more of a freestyle organization in terms of how it fits into your lifestyle," Foley said. "These young professionals groups are developed by young talent, by young professionals. Their mission is developed by those conversations that Duluth might have that say, 'What does this community need?"' Foley said.

For example, while the school district's long range facilities plan was a big issue in the city, Breanne DeFoe, director of Fuse, said the organization opted not to hold an event to discuss it because members didn't rank it as a big concern to them.

But environmental issues did rank highly, which is why an event on that issue is being planned.

And unlike more formal groups, often every event is completely optional, and fees are kept cheap.

"We know we can't keep every single person here," DeFoe said. "We want to connect them to the reason to stay," she said. She can tick off name after name of Fuse members who stayed in part because of a connection they made.