Altered Landscape: Uncertainty is an opportunity for growth

We moved to Traverse City’s central neighborhood in the summer of 2009. It was the bottom of the Great Recession with the national unemployment rate set to top out at 10% for the first time in a quarter century.

I was working in finance and had just switched firms, having spent the last year wondering if the investment bank I worked for would open each Monday or be the next to go bankrupt. My wife lost her job in late 2008 when her company downsized as the economy collapsed.

We faced a lot of uncertainty. We had all the questions that everyone has when making a move: What about meaningful career advancement, childcare, friends and cultural amenities?

We were not sure our new situation was going to work, but after living in big cities on both sides of the Atlantic, we knew we wanted to try making a go of it here. It was the life we wanted for our family.

Uncertainty is again the dominant theme in 2020 as we confront a health crisis, an economic recession and social unrest across the country. Unexpected change brings a new perspective. Like my experience in 2009, many people, businesses and families are facing the reality of having to hit the reset button on their plans and think about what our future will – and can – look like.

As we look to economic recovery and resiliency, this altered landscape is an excellent opportunity for our region to accelerate our growth. Attracting and retaining a modern workforce was already a priority for our community before COVID-19. There is now an even greater urgency in these efforts to grow our local community of smart, ambitious and entrepreneurial people.

For the modern workforce, an attractive place to live is the primary deciding factor before the specifics of their career. To capitalize on this, we need to understand 1) what is most appealing about our area, 2) what are the key barriers to moving or staying here, and 3) what are the highest priority needs of our workforce. As part of this effort, Traverse Connect convened a local focus group discussion this spring – luckily just before the shutdown on March 11.

The focus group consisted of 20 people in two groups, all of whom had moved to this region within the prior three years, with some new arrivals in just the past few months. The group was generally affluent professionals and entrepreneurs entering the prime of their careers, with a mean age of 35 and a median household income of $106,000.

Seventy percent of the group had bachelors’ degrees and 25% had a graduate degree. They came from a diverse set of industries with careers spanning software development, operations, design engineering and freelance creative. Some of these people were boomerangs returning to the area, some had family connections here, some were recruited by their company and a few did their research and picked our area proactively.

To no one’s surprise, everyone greatly values our quality of life, accessible outdoor recreation and great communities. But this group put a lot of emphasis on our cultural environment as well, remarking that we have far more cultural activities, art and cuisine than most communities our size.

This cross-section of talented professionals also sees our community on the cusp of an entrepreneurial tipping point. With the changing knowledge-based economy and the advent of mobile technology, our region is an exciting place to be. For those who can choose to work from anywhere, we are an attractive location – a dynamic community of interesting people and successful businesses.

To the focus groups, the unique combination of abundant natural beauty, small-town charm, culture and economic opportunity is a winning message to attract the next generation of talented people to this area. All of us can use this feedback to inform our community-wide efforts to recruit quality talent, bring back our homegrown talent, and keep the next generation here in the first place.

Eleven years on, my wife and I are happy we took a chance on Traverse City and we know we made the right move for our family. Our community can help make it the right move for many others from around the country and the globe. We can highlight our area as a year-round family and career destination for the modern workforce. From my perspective, that looks like a very bright future for all of us in the Grand Traverse Region.

Warren Call is the president/CEO of Traverse Connect, a regional economic development organization that includes the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and Venture North. Contact him at