Boom Town: Entrepreneurial ecosystem sets TC’s new trajectory

by Warren Call

I recently flew back from Chicago to Cherry Capital Airport, arriving in a plane with many people who had clearly never been to Traverse City before. There were comments about the beautiful airport, the aerial view of the bay and the quick drive to their destination after landing.

Recent data reflects this trend of newcomers to the area: TVC is now ranked third among airports in the state for greatest local economic impact. Arrivals for June 2021 were up 26.7% over June 2019, the previous record.

As evidenced by airport arrivals, as well as the vehicle and foot traffic you see daily in Traverse City each summer, we have no issues attracting people to visit our area, but that is only part of the story. We are also attracting more and more people looking to relocate here permanently.

The pandemic “bump” in talented people attracted to the work and lifestyle offered in our area continues to grow. The initial wave has been dominated by remote workers, largely in the tech and media industries.

Through our Michigan’s Creative Coast initiative, we know that these remote workers want to continue their careers, often with large multinational companies that offer significant salaries and benefits, and that they are particularly attracted by the local amenities and lifestyle offered in the Grand Traverse region. It’s the best of both worlds for these remote workers and the impact on our local economy is clear.

Many of these people eventually transition to local positions for the next step in their career journey. A recent survey of local tech workers found that 20% would like to transition to local employment in the future. This cohort is also inclined to start new businesses. This means a more robust and diverse talent pipeline for our local businesses, more business startups and more jobs.

Remote worker and overall talent attraction are key items of our regional economic development strategy and we are at an advantage on these priorities post-pandemic. However, for the Traverse City area to continue to diversify its economy and talent pool, we need to build on this initial momentum, focus on growing more businesses and bring together all community stakeholders around a unifying vision: building a strong local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

We already have many of the key building blocks of an entrepreneurial ecosystem. We have a history and legacy of building great businesses. For instance, locals John Parsons and Frank Stulen were awarded the National Medal of Technology by President Reagan in 1985 for automated machine manufacturing. People are blown away by the photos of Parsons and Stulen standing next to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple.

Additionally, in recent decades, we’ve developed a focus on early-stage companies. Investors, such as Northern Michigan Angels and Boomerang Catapult, have injected approximately $10 million into more than 35 local startups. Additionally, the programs and services of 20Fathoms and TCNewTech have fostered a supportive environment for innovation. Perhaps this is why Traverse City was recently listed as fourth on the U.S. Census data list of most popular micropolitan (small city) areas for startups.

Finally, we have the lifestyle assets that attract talent and foster entrepreneurship. Our region has a thriving arts and cultural scene, robust education resources and abundant natural beauty and outdoor recreation. With the previously mentioned airport conveniently located nearby and a growing gig fiber network, downtown Traverse City is booming as a hub for community and business.

These assets can be most effectively leveraged by unified leadership in our business, nonprofit and public sectors. These ecosystem builders create the invisible infrastructure to support entrepreneurs through collaboration and cross-sector engagement. For instance, investing in institutions of higher education spurs innovation, creates jobs and even attracts international talent to our region.

Beyond infrastructure and amenities, it also requires developing a local culture where entrepreneurs thrive at every stage of development, from the kid at the Career Tech Center with big plans to existing companies making the move here. Whether it’s making inquiries at 20Fathoms, plugging into the thriving community at TCNewTech, recommending Traverse City to startups downstate, or even contributing to a startup fund, the opportunities to bring awareness and support local entrepreneurship are plentiful. Working together in this manner will ensure more businesses, more jobs and a thriving local community.

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