Growing – And Keeping – Our Young Talent

OblingerMany things are grown in northern Michigan – cherries, grapes, apples, trees, row crops, flowers – the list goes on. Some of these goods are exported across the state and beyond and account for a significant portion of the regional economy.

But there’s one homegrown product we’ve been exporting for too long to the detriment of our area, and that’s our young people. While the region is certainly thriving as a visitor, second home and retirement destination for the well-off, for too long we’ve watched our next generation head for other parts of the Midwest, the coasts or elsewhere to find economic opportunity and build their lives and families.

This month’s annual Traverse City Business News 40Under40 roster highlights an exceptional “crop” of dynamic young people helping to stem that tide. They’re stepping into leadership roles in their businesses, organizations and across the community. The Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce is well represented in this group, including our Government Relations Director Kent Wood, our Young Professionals (YP) Chair Allison Beers, other past YP chairs and several more with ties to the Chamber. Even I was privileged to be part of this list not that many years ago!

The need to grow the region’s young talent pool is also the genesis behind the Chamber’s launch of its Young Professionals program a decade ago. It’s grown to some 700 members and participants are involved in local issues, stepping into volunteer and community service roles and donating to local charities. Our YPs are also working to recruit even more young people to the region and help them get settled in.

There’s much more to be done. Can we as a community fully embrace the need for workforce housing in our urban core? Can we properly fund our public schools, and maintain our roads and public infrastructure? If we encourage our young people to get involved, we need to listen to what they say.

There are reasons a vast array of businesses – car makers, media outlets, electronics manufacturers, the food and travel industries, retailers – invest significant resources to connect with our nation’s millennials. It’s not just about their buying power and growing economic clout. Young new voices also bring fresh thoughts, ideas and their own life experiences to the community table. That injects more energy and diversity of thought into projects and discussions.

This generation will shape our near- and long-term future. Communities that lack an infusion of young people face an inevitable path toward economic and social oblivion – a scenario already playing out in struggling towns across the country.

We’re fortunate to live in a place with the ammo to win this battle. Our spectacular natural resources, abundant recreational opportunities, vibrant urban centers and affordability are all major draws for today’s millennials.
But our bays, beaches and brewpubs aren’t nearly enough. Are there economic opportunities available so young people can get ahead without working two, three or more jobs? Are there housing options so people can live and raise their families closer to their professions – or will we continue to push them out into the countryside? Will there be adequate transportation, good schools, and strong early childhood development for their children? Will we adapt to the changing times and help shape the future, or wander aimlessly into it with stale, outdated approaches to community development?

Those decisions are in our hands – today. How they’re made will determine whether the Grand Traverse region grows its imports of young talent, or exports what it can least afford to lose.

Laura Oblinger is the Executive Director of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. Contact her by email at