Economic growth what-if scenarios are (again) a hot topic in the wake of Amazon’s location announcements, so I’ll throw my own—non-Amazon related—offering on the table.

For all the time Michigan has spent talking about things like “talent attraction” and “economic growth”, we’re not especially prepared to deal with success on that front. How do we handle the scenario where we actually get the growth we’ve been working towards?

Consider: since 1979, Michigan’s population has been essentially flat. Over almost 40 years, we’ve added only half a million residents—not that large a number in a state of almost ten million, the 8th largest at the start of that period. By contrast, some states are picking up that many residents every four or five years. In fact, Florida and Michigan were about the same size in 1979, but Florida grew by 1 Michigan of population in the following 30-year period.

Graph comparing Michigan and Florida populations from 1920 to 2015

Florida passed Michigan’s population around 1979, adding about a million people every 5 years since then.

Assume some combination of our talent attraction efforts with the push effects of hurricanes, flooding, and Zika super-mosquitos cause Michigan and Florida to exchange fortunes, and our population starts growing by 100,000 every year, instead of every decade. Where would Michigan’s new arrivals go?

Our bigger, core cities?

The easy, popular take, which I myself have offered in the past, is, “there’s plenty of room in Detroit!” (Or Flint, Saginaw, Battle Creek, Lansing…) The challenge with this prescription is that there are also a lot of people already in those communities who aren’t feeling the benefits of our current models of economic development and growth: a flood of newcomers (or returnees) coming in from out of state will cause rampant gentrification, harming existing residents, if we don’t get better at development without displacement before relying on our larger legacy cities to absorb that growth.

Our suburban periphery?

Michigan’s classic strategy over the past decades has been to expand outwards—whether we’re growing on net or not. The state has expanded its developed land area by 50% in 30 years, a better (er, worse) than 5:1 ratio of infrastructure expansion to population growth. As we’ve found out, adding infrastructure so much faster than we’ve added new people to pay for it means that each of us has to pay more. This “strategy” has required higher gas taxes and vehicle registration fees, higher utility bills, and higher property tax bills, just to slow the pace of entropy.

Maps of Michigan comparing the built infrastructure footprint in 1980 and 2020

While our population growth has been sluggish over past decades, we’ve spread out rapidly, taking on massive infrastructure maintenance costs (also known as “potholes”) in the process.

Even if financial sustainability weren’t enough reason to halt our unproductive expansion, planning to continue putting our growth on our edges would degrade both the natural amenities so important to Michigan’s identity and the agricultural land that will be that much more important as drought threatens the irrigated farms of southwestern states—as well as missing a chance to reinvest in existing communities.

Our small towns?

Looking beyond the bigger metro downtowns and suburbs, the League has over 500 members, and most of those are small. Very small: the median League member has a population just over 1,800, and the average population is around 10,000. A great many of these smaller communities have lost population over time, and could probably benefit from having some new neighbors. But with some of these communities struggling with lost employers, others with tourist economies making housing scarce, and many suffering an aging housing stock that’s too cheap to get a mortgage and rehab loan for, simply moving a bunch of new people in isn’t a straightforward answer here either.

Graph of Michigan municipalities by population, showing a long tail of smaller places

Half of Michigan’s municipalities have fewer than 1,851 residents.

It’s not hypothetical

This isn’t just a thought exercise: there are some significant “pushes” that could bend Michigan’s population curve upwards. Consider the damage wrought by record hurricanes hitting the east and gulf coasts in the past few years, the apparent permanent state of fire in the west, and the long emergency of water shortages in the southwest, and the relative appeal those places have enjoyed starts to fade a bit.

In addition to the national baseline growth rate of a few million people every year, a disaster response expert recently pointed out to me that the US had seen 1,300 disasters since Katrina, that 1 Million homes are destroyed by disaster every year, and that many of those people relocate rather than rebuilding. Every week, there are people abruptly looking for a welcoming community to call home.

As we look out into the next few decades of climate change fueling the fires, floods, and hurricanes, this will only accelerate. As Popular Science noted last year, “Looks like we’re all moving to Michigan!” by 2100AD—but they advise people beat the rush, and “go nail a quality spot while the pickings are still slightly more plentiful.”

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAJm13t6IH8[/youtube]

The White House’s new climate report echoes this in dryer tones, noting that the northern portion of Michigan “will be among the few places where the value of warmer winters outweighs the cost of hotter summers” for prospective residents, suggesting that this could “revers[e] long-standing trends in out-migration from the Midwest” and that changes in national migration patterns will contribute to population growth in the region.

The report agrees that we’re not quite ready for this to happen: “More research is needed to understand how cities in the Midwest might be affected by long-term migration to the region.”

The work to be done

Michigan is an entire generation removed from conditions of real population growth, and our elected leaders and professional staff generally lack experience operating in that condition. Unless we want to exacerbate the deficits of our overbuilt edge infrastructure, the loss of farmland and scenic resources, and the vast disparities of wealth and opportunity within and between cities, we’ll need to rebuild or adapt a number of tools to handle growth well:

  • Cover image of "Enabling Better Places" code reform guidebook

    Our Project for Code Reform collaboration with CNU, MEDC, and MAP seeks to bring good development codes within reach of small communities.

    Planning and building great places: the technical skills are probably the least difficult step and we’re already underway on some of these: the League and our partners around the state have been working on basic tools of placemaking, Redevelopment Readiness, and zoning code reform for the past few years.

  • Financing equitable development: a bigger lift is figuring out the mix of private, community, and public capital needed for healthy and equitable placemaking. We need some combination of reinvigorated affordable housing programs; cooperative ownership, investment crowdfunding, and other community investment models; rehab loan loss reserves for weak housing market areas; PACE, net metering, and similar energy finance programs. All of these exist in some form, but are tiny fractions of the public and real estate finance domains.
  • Narrative and consensus-building: the hardest piece in any community is likely to be figuring out which directions to work in. Many of our industrial communities saw an economic peak decades ago—some lumber and mining towns a century ago—and have been dealing with decline for much or all of their memory. A number of our suburban municipalities have existed almost exclusively in the flat portion of Michigan’s population curve. Many places talk about themselves as “built out” and having no place left to add new residents or businesses.

A growing Michigan would mean each of hundreds of places across the state will need to have new and unfamiliar conversations about their local opportunities and cautions, adopting a particular local blend of tools to support that scenario. It’s a challenging hill to scale—and of course relies on the state both supporting local efforts, rather than preempting any creative program, as well as fixing the structural problems with our municipal finance system.

Ultimately, though, this is work that will lead to a much more positive growth scenario than “winning” Amazon.

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.
gr river

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.

gr street

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