Creative Thinking: Leveraging area’s arts/creativity sector is key in recovery

We are confronting a much different business environment than we anticipated at the beginning of 2020. Our local economy was operating at near full capacity and our leading challenge was a tight labor market. The landscape has changed dramatically, as we now confront shuttered businesses and massive unemployment. It is a different world and we must prepare for the economic recovery of northern Michigan.

We must also be charting the course for the future of the northern Michigan economy. We need to start addressing the current unemployment spike while finding new solutions for industries adversely affected by the crisis. Broadening our talent attraction and development programs will help diversify and build our economy in new areas. Some of our best opportunities revolve around the creative industries.

We know from the 2008 financial crisis that leveraging creative sector assets to catalyze economic and workforce development is key to the prosperity of rural areas. Rural communities with design-driven businesses ― those that integrate branding and design services such as videographers, web designers, film and music producers, architects, graphic designers, the fine arts ― recovered more quickly from the recession and showed more growth in weekly earnings from 2010 to 2014. Two out of three rural businesses report that arts and entertainment are essential to attracting and retaining workers.

The Grand Traverse Region possesses a well-developed creative industry and arts sector. Traverse City is ranked fourth in the list of Top 10 Most Arts-Vibrant Medium Communities in the 2018 Arts Vibrancy Index report by the National Center for Arts Research. We can build on this advantage by enhancing and supporting the regional creative economy by attracting creative business to the region, highlighting existing creative culture in the community, and leading initiatives to retain and attract creative and cultural talent. These workers are incredibly important not only for contributing to the economy but contributing to our cultural and artistic vibrancy.

Creative industry fields tend to offer more remote career opportunities. Right now, the entire country is in the midst of a massive experiment in remote work. People will eventually go back to their offices, but many workers and companies may find remote work to be more productive and efficient. We are going to see an increase in remote work, allowing greater flexibility for dual-career households and families with young children.

In our drastically altered employment environment, people have been learning to work remotely, freelancing, or find themselves newly unemployed. They are all asking themselves, “What’s next?” This workforce, especially young families seeking a better quality of life outside of big cities, is looking for the right combination of healthy living and a quality career.

Our quality of life and our creative assets are a significant competitive advantage already. With the increase of remote work, it’s going to be an even more decisive competitive advantage as we get things restarted. We can actively recruit this talent by providing more dedicated co-working space for freelancers, creatives, and remote workers, and secure funding for remote worker relocation and creative industry grants. We can promote “virtual placemaking” and provide newcomers with access to community networks and support systems.

There is a massive opportunity for us to leverage our unique work/life balance to attract a creative and remote workforce to the region. We can activate our ‘diaspora’ – alumni networks, boomerang hopefuls, and others that visit and love northern Michigan. We can demonstrate a bright future for them and their families here, working for our businesses, launching startups, and working remotely. Their salaries, spending, and creative ideas can improve our tax base and our economic growth. The Grand Traverse Region can be the answer to ‘what’s next.’

We know that millennials already choose to relocate for place, experience, and lifestyle over specific job opportunities. We can harness this future of work and become a nexus of creative entrepreneurs, resulting in economic resilience and an accelerated recovery after the pandemic.

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