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The Urbane Franchisor debuts, about citified franchising


Franchise Times’ own Tom Kaiser, striding in the center of a Minneapolis skyway, is on the lookout for urban tales.

As an urbanist, I’ve always laughed at how big cities are portrayed in movies—flaming garbage cans in the alleys, steam pouring out of manhole covers and hordes of feral cats lurking around every corner. While every metropolis has its unsavory spots, these fictional vignettes are hilariously off the mark.

Today’s cities are being reborn and young people are flocking to downtowns in search of a walkable lifestyle that’s diverse, convenient and, occasionally, a little rough around the edges. Post-recession, new skyscrapers and parks are remaking urban spaces, and a city stroll in modern America is nothing like running the gauntlet in Gotham City.

Whether you’re a ‘zee or a ‘zor, this new column will focus on relevant urban trends and franchises that are adapting their business models to fit this changing world.

In Minneapolis, where Franchise Times is based, countless condo and apartment towers are going up and older eyesores are being renovated. Years of tough economic times brought the closure of many downtown-serving schools, and people like my friends Shayne and Ryan are juggling their desire to stay downtown with the realities of needing quality schools and parks for their young daughter.

Remaining downtown schools rank poorly, and there are few decent parks near their home. More practically, walking the sidewalks with a toddler and a dog near bad drivers can be unnerving. “We’ve almost been hit multiple times, and for these reasons and many more—including square footage—we will probably start looking for a home in the ‘burbs,” Shayne said.

Primrose urban school

Some of Primrose’s urban schools have repurposed previously unused spaces, like this office tower rooftop space in Midtown Atlanta, to provide its students a safe and exciting outdoor play space.

As a business reporter, I see opportunities in solving these real urban problems, including basics like food, shelter, recreation and education. There’s also good business in catering to these young professionals. The United Nations World Urbanization Prospects report predicts there will be 53 urban areas with more than a million residents by 2030, up from 41 in 2010.

In franchising, Primrose Schools anticipated this trend and started building new schools in urban centers lacking quality early-childhood educational facilities.

“We started looking at our first opportunities here in the Atlanta market in the middle of 2009,” said Bill Pierquet, senior vice president of school development at Primrose and also a member of the Urban Land Institute. “It was fairly obvious there was a trend toward younger families living in the city and trying to have their entire life in the city as opposed to commuting from the ‘burbs.”

Of its 20 new schools opened last year, approximately a third were in urban locations, and a quarter of its next 30 will be urban.

Adapting its model to urban settings has involved some flexibility, Pierquet added, but said the company’s team has enjoyed stretching the Primrose envelope. One of its latest schools put its playground on a massive rooftop that’s fun for kids and is off the street to alleviate parental safety concerns. “The idea here is adaptive reuse and being able to take the spaces and get creative,” he said.

The benefit to developers and brokers, he added, is also the captive audience of “200 parents coming into the retail center twice a day,” but who don’t stay long enough to require permanent parking at office towers or retail centers.

Primrose now has urban locations in Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and Denver, and is planning to enter any additional metropolitan areas where city centers are growing.

Here in Minnesota, St. Paul is getting in on the action. Local Primrose ‘zees Renae Hobbs and Bill Taylor grew up in the city and were approached by the franchisor, which put them in touch with a developer assembling plans for a fancy new six-story apartment building anchored by a Whole Foods.

Hobbs said the new location, still under construction and planned to open sometime this spring, is attracting a different set of parents and children—specifically more infants than their suburban school. Several parents who’ve signed up for the St. Paul school told Hobbs they’re happy to avoid strapping in the kiddos for a drive out to the suburbs every morning.

These city-versus-rural trends are not a blip. According to Nielsen’s “Millennials—Breaking the Myths Report,” 62 percent of the 77 million-strong millennial generation prefer to live in mixed-use urban centers, and they currently do this at a much higher rate than other generations.

It’s not just central business districts, either, as the report also cited “urban burbs,” which are redeveloped inner-ring suburbs—as similarly desirable and more affordable than downtown living. Maybe, just maybe, I included that tidbit because I recently bought a house in an inner-ring suburb, but I’m not ready to give up my urban cred just yet.

I can’t save you from roving gangs of feral cats, but my aim is to broaden your horizon and illuminate cities as hubs that are already changing the next generation of franchising.

Tom Kaiser is assistant editor of Franchise Times, and writes The Urbane Franchisor column in each issue. Send story ideas about franchises adapting to young people and/or resurgent cities to tkaiser@franchisetimes.com.

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