Dig the Well Before You Are Thirsty

One of the joys of 2020 has been driving my mom around. She is 85 and since the weather turned warm enough, I have been taking her on long drives on Old Mission Peninsula and throughout Leelanau Country in vintage cars with broad bench seats that allow us to be together but far enough apart to keep her safe.

“It’s so beautiful,” she says of both the cars and the scenery.

When we get back to her house, we add another photograph to her memory book, which is always on her lap. When she looks at the photos, she smiles. And that, of course, makes me smile.

Crises have a way of focusing us on what’s most important. In four short, hectic days this spring, my company moved some 900 employees to work-at-home status. We likely won’t be back in the office until 2021. Why? Because our people are what is most important.

Without talented, engaged people who know that we really care about them, we have no company. It’s as simple as that. I learned that from my mom and dad when they started our business in the basement of the family home back in the ’80s.

I don’t believe in surrendering to tough times, but I do believe in adjusting to them. I also believe in the power of choice. Yes, we’ve been walloped by crisis after crisis for five months. We have lost loved ones, jobs and even our faith in a safe, predictable future.

Sometimes it can feel like world will never again be the same, but, in truth, that has little to do with COVID and everything to do with life and how we choose to experience it. Change is the only constant on this mortal plane. And we get through such change by caring for those around us and by learning to be resilient.

Traverse City has been marvelously resilient throughout COVID. We quickly supported Munson in its hour of need. We made the necessary adjustments to downtown with both safety and commerce in mind. We’ve learned to work from home. Those of us with kids became instant at-home teachers (and may have to do it again).

We’ve endured the cancellation of the events, festivals and attractions that mean so much to us both personally and financially. None of it has been easy. But we did it.

And what have we learned? Two things, I think: 1) We are a heck of a lot stronger than we ever realized, and 2) our region’s economic pillars – tourism, agriculture and small business – aren’t as bulletproof as the last 10 years of a booming national economy led us to believe.

There’s an old saying I’m fond of: “Dig the well before you are thirsty.” That is my recommendation for what Traverse City should do right now: Start now to build a more diverse economy that can help us weather the next crisis and increase our overall standard of living.

We’ve tiptoed down the path of economic diversity for decades, but it is now time for a full-on sprint. Traverse Connect, our economic development organization, is without question the single best arrow in our quiver for creating fertile ground that will attract and keep the kind of high-growth, high-wage tech and light manufacturing companies we need.

And yet some refuse to fully embrace and support it. Why?  I have yet to hear an adequate explanation. We are all in the economic development business now. That is the language we should hear coming from all business organizations and our elected officials and decision-makers.

We also need to stop talking about supplying more affordable housing options for people and start doing more about it. Why is this so hard? The simple truth is people can’t and won’t come work here if they can’t afford to live here. Let’s break down the barriers to make this an affordable investment for those with the means to invest.

We need super-fast fiber internet, too, and not just for downtown but throughout the region.

Yes, COVID may mean that small towns and rural areas get re-populated, but we also need to manage density in and around downtown – housing, entertainment, business and, yes, more parking to support it all. (Milennials prefer density. They want to live in and around a vibrant, varied urban core. We have that to an extent, but we can do far better.) COVID eventually will be managed with vaccines and treatments. Will we be ready for that post-pandemic reality?

We need more risk-taking. More support for entrepreneurs. More mentoring. More diversity. More innovation. Most of all, we need elected officials to get off the sidelines, stop making excuses and join with business leaders across the region to create a better economic path forward.

For any of that to happen, we might have to get over ourselves a little bit. I have lived here most of my life, so I know well the dominant impact of the backward-looking “don’t change anything” mindset when it comes to developing our community. It’s one of our biggest impediments to progress, I believe. If I never park a car again on Front Street, I will still patronize those businesses and enjoy our new walking corridor.

I want to assure people who think this way that it is indeed possible to grow without ruining the things that make life here so wonderful. We can have great jobs and great lakes, streams and rivers. We can have both tourism and more jobs that aren’t dependent on it. We can have high tech companies, economic growth AND a small-town feel. We don’t have to betray our past to build a better future.

As I’ve said, all of life is about choices. COVID has posed the question: “Will we seize the moment, finally focus on what’s most important and choose to grow and thrive, or will we stay the same?”

It’s an easy choice in my mind. My mom likes the idea, too.

Onward and upward!

McKeel Hagerty is the CEO of The Hagerty Group.