Lee Schafer
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It would be possible to take the bus from my neighborhood in St. Paul and get to work at the new TCF Financial facility in Plymouth by 8 a.m. Just set your alarm early enough.

Hop on the 134, switch to the 772 and then transfer again to the 741. Even if the buses stay on time, though, this trip will mean leaving the house just before 6:30 a.m.

Guess the bank shouldn’t expect that many transit riders from St. Paul to apply for its open jobs. There may not be many from a colleague’s neighborhood in Edina, either, because that trip also takes three buses and an hour and a half.

TCF made a sensible case, through a spokesman, for why the bank’s executives chose to pull jobs out of downtown Minneapolis and consolidate in suburban Plymouth. It brings different departments and job functions together on just two floors. The city of Plymouth is also going to help with bus service.

But by moving, they also made the hard job of recruiting new employees a lot harder. That’s why the TCF move out of downtown Minneapolis might be the last corporate relocation of its kind for years.

The workers now coming into the prime years of their careers simply prefer a different work environment, and they won’t put up with a 90-minute trip that means having to transfer buses twice.

That means the smart choice is the city.

Yes, there are hassles to put up with working in the city. Most of us still get around with a car, and most parking options are expensive. That’s partly why most baby boomers like me were fine with following the jobs to the suburbs. We could rely on our cars for convenience.

By 1996, according to a new national study prepared in part by the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, “on average less than 16 percent of jobs in a metropolitan area were within 3 miles of the traditional city center, down from 63 percent as recently as 1960.”

By far most of the jobs are still out of the city center, but the flow has started going the other way. The Cushman & Wakefield study identified nearly 500 big employers that had moved into a city center since 2010, including 52 Fortune 500 companies.

The top reason listed in the study, based on follow-up interviews, was to make it easier to recruit and retain the best employees. That means becoming an attractive place to work not for older workers, but for the millennials — that big generation that started reaching adulthood around 2000.

This is old news to Jim Vos, a principal with the real estate advisory firm Cresa. He’s been talking with clients for years about this. Never mind what gets said about a weak job market, he said, the market for good employees is highly competitive already and it’s only going to get more so.

And it really does matter to millennials that there are ­restaurants, breweries and outdoor activities nearby. They want to be able to get to all of them from work without having to own a car, too.

Imagine the choices for a big new employer in the Twin Cities, Vos said. They would quickly learn that a couple of thousand employees would fit in the handsome mid-1990s office building in Woodbury built by State Farm that’s stood empty for years. Another option could be the former NWA headquarters in Eagan.

“I bet for recruiting purposes, they would build downtown,” Vos said.

That’s the choice just made by the National Marrow Donor Program, better known as Be the Match. This year, it plans to move about 1,000 employees to its new building near Target Field in Minneapolis.

“There’s a subset of the population that is just fantastic talent that we’re not able to reach by being out in the suburbs,” said CFO Amy Ronneberg. “There’s been a lot of research that shows this, too, that by moving to a downtown location you really increase the pool.”

Transit is a key factor

Options for taking the bus or train to work were a key factor in the decision, she said. Maybe one in five employees uses transit now, and she suspects up to half will after the move.

“Here’s the difference between my generation and the 20-somethings,” said Archie Black, the 53-year-old CEO of SPS Commerce, which moved into downtown Minneapolis in 2004. “When I was a 20-something I took the bus because I couldn’t afford parking. The 20-somethings now take the bus because they want to take the bus.”

Just in the past year, the fast-growing software firm has hired more than 100 people. Leaving downtown, Black said, is unthinkable.

Minneapolis executive recruiter Paul DeBettignies argues that “the city” doesn’t have to mean downtown anymore. He said the most exciting new headquarters he has seen is the new home of Sport Ngin, a producer of software and services for sports leagues. It’s in northeast Minneapolis.

A couple of years ago, DeBettignies said, this neighborhood wouldn’t have made his list of attractive places to work. It’s a couple of miles and across the Mississippi River from the heart of downtown Minneapolis.

But Sport Ngin’s new ­facility, in what was once a light bulb factory, has the wide open, exposed brick, wood and glass look of a downtown technology facility. It’s both on bus lines and has parking for cars. The inviting 612Brew taproom is a couple-of-minutes walk down the street.

A similar technology office in Eden Prairie, DeBettignies said, “is going to be in an office park in the middle of nowhere. And that’s just not a lot of fun for a lot of people.”

Yet he seems to think just about any location can be pitched as an asset to at least some job candidates. One of his clients is in Anoka, and he assumes qualified people are driving by every day on Hwy. 10 on long commutes to their jobs in downtown Minneapolis.

“I don’t know that the choice is so stark,” he said, of employer locations. “But you can’t ignore the trend of moving into downtown.”

lee.schafer@startribune.com • 612-673-4302