I have the privilege this week of attending the Hometown Summit, a new national conference focused on sharing lessons and best practices from small and mid-sized cities. The organizers describe it as a “convening and celebration of leaders in small and mid-sized cities who have spearheaded some of the nation’s most creative and successful initiatives for community problem-solving.” 

This is the first of what will hopefully be a series of quick-hit thoughts from some of the best conference content.

One of the morning sessions, with the provocative title “Does Your City Seduce Talent?”, featured entrepreneurs from four cities – Charlottesville, VA, Syracuse, NY, Durham, NC and Milwaukee, WI – testing different ways to attract and retain the creative community. I gleaned the following lessons that cities of any size can pursue:

  1. Speed up your decisionmaking & approval processes – All the panelists spoke to the need to cycle through ideas and try things quickly. They need a host city that can enable that speed.
  2. Make people feel welcome – Customer service and a welcoming vibe, both when dealing with visitors and potential non-profit/business startups, are crucial to attracting and keeping people who might be the future changemakers.
  3. Celebrate and cultivate your grit – None of the entrepreneurs were interested in moving to a city that had it all, rather they wanted to be somewhere that had gaps and was interested in taking them on.
  4. Don’t get hung up on buzzwords – None of the leaders in the room started out to be “talent attraction initiatives” or “civic entrepreneurs.” Rather, they started a project because they loved a place and wanted to make it better. So go find those people and the rest will take care of itself.
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A community’s aesthetics and outdoor amenities have a large impact on talent attraction and retention.

Michigan has higher learning institutions that attract students from around the world. College towns’ population surges during the school year, but communities struggle to keep students after graduation.

According to a report from the University of Michigan, about 37% of college graduates from Michigan’s public universities left the state in 2012. Many go to Chicago, New York, and San Francisco – some return home but the likelihood of moving declines by half after age 25. Communities should focus on getting residents engaged and connected at a young age so they choose to stay and invest in Michigan for the long term.

Bringing Talent Home

HelloWestMichigan (HelloWM) is a small organization that focuses on talent attraction in the west side of the state. Through events, regional marketing, a job portal, and information about living in the community, the organization is doing its best to retain residents and attract new ones to the area.

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Young professionals (and others!) value a community’s walkability.

Similar to technology-based outreach strategies used in other communities, HelloWM asks people to share what they love about West Michigan through the hashtag #MiReasons. One user said: “The people, culture and city are all so unique. I truly think you could have a new adventure every day of the year!”

This week, HelloWM is preparing for their third annual ReThinkWestMichigan (ReThinkWM) Thanksgiving-eve event. Instead of focusing on attracting new residents, this event focuses on getting former West Michigan residents back to the region. With many young professionals traveling home to spend Thanksgiving with their families, ReThinkWM decided to take advantage of the opportunity.

Representatives from 15 companies and nonprofits looking to fill open positions are attending the event to meet potential candidates (and there are certainly positions available: 7,855 are currently listed at HelloWM’s job portal).

Great bars, food, and social offerings are a major draw for young people.

Great bars, food, and social offerings are a major draw for young people.

HelloWM program manager Rachel Bartels said it’s easy to get companies to support the event, “They have tons of open positions and need talented people to fill them. It’s cheaper than normal recruiting costs and a new hire is more likely to stay with the job if they have ties to Michigan.”

ReThinkWM also invites “community ambassadors” to the event to talk with attendees about perks of living in West Michigan. Outdoor activities, people, and cultural events always make the top of the list.

About 220 people have attended a ReThinkWM event over the past two years and 120 are anticipated to attend this Wednesday. So far, Bartels said ReThinkWM can account for at least 20 new hires to the region.

With so many Michigan communities struggling to keep young people in the area, events like this can have a large impact. Giving people a chance to connect with, talk about, and join a community is placemaking at its best.

For those interested in learning more about HelloWM or the ReThinkWM event can contact executive director Cindy Brown at brownc@hellowestmichigan.com.

A Few Resources on the Topics of Talent, Millennials, and Economic Impact