Michigan Marketing 101: Knowing Your Target Audience

"Why the heck do we live here?"

At the end of 2012, this was a popular refrain in my household. It arose in response to the infamous lame duck session where Michigan's GOP hastily passed a wish list of controversial bills that were given about as less time for deliberation as it takes an intern to walk through security at the State Capital. Where, unlike schools, you have to turn in your gun, or at least that is how the GOP would have it.

The most contentious bill passed during their 18-hour cram session, dubbed right-to-work, allowing employees working under a unionnegotiated contract to opt out of paying union dues, yet still enjoy the perks. There is good reason to believe that this bill may indeed improve a certain business climate, but not a climate that will bring higher paying wages to the growth sectors of the economy. To paraphrase another writer on the subject, skilled workers don't want to work in a chicken processing plant for $10 an hour.

Lou Glazer, an economist at Michigan Future, has been very critical of the focus on reducing the business tax burden and, apparently, wages. The bright idea being trumpeted by republicans is that by lowering taxes, companies will flock here with billfolds open. Glazer points out that when you compare business climate rankings with prosperity of the citizens, measured by per capita income, there is an inverse correlation. The states with the best business climate (low taxes) have the lowest standard of living (income), the latter of which Michigan already ranks 36th.*

That's, Pure Michigan.

Everyone from Governor Rick Snyder to local chamber of commerce's say that they want to retain and attract young people with 21st century jobs and places, yet many of the legislative priorities work against those goals. The under 40 crowd never bought into the cultural wars of the previous generations. Did Michigan miss the memo?

Ideological-to-the-right tax policies aren't really what get us worked-up though. Instead it is everything connected, like in-action on rising health care costs and green energy policies, intolerance towards diversity, and an inability to understand that reproductive rights are constitutionally protected. In addition, Michigan is one of the lowest ranked states in percentage of its population with a bachelor degree (34th). This is a clear sign that the state has trouble retaining graduates.

Is Traverse City different?

Recently, Crain's Detroit, an online business news outlet in southeast Michigan, ran an optimistic piece by Howard Lovy titled "The 'boomerang' effect" that profiles the attractive climate of Traverse City to lure young entrepreneurs back to their roots. The article made the social media rounds as "finally, some news that is positive for a change."

As an original 'boomerang' who returned to the area 10 years ago, I've seen many people boomerang or slingshot into Traverse City only to see them departing 3-4 years later. One reason is that they quickly learn that "half your pay is a view of the bay" is taken literally by too many employers. As well, like young people across the nation, they see a role for government and a reason for it to be funded. Locally, they want to see solutions for affordable housing, better conditions for renting, and communities that offer things to do in an active, walkable urban-esque setting. That doesn't always mesh well with northern Michigan's active voting population, those 60 and over, although that trend is changing as the retirees likewise look to downsize and centralize their living.

The young entrepreneurs in Lovy's piece make a good story. In fact, more than that, they make our city a better place and have contributed to the slowing exodus from the region. In the last 5 years, the 25-44 year old population has declined in Grand Traverse County, but only less than 1%. Comparatively, from 2000-2010 the population in that age group declined 14%, while the 55-65 demographic climbed over 76%.

Like my age cohorts under 40, I find myself answering the question "why the heck do I live here?" with an affection for the new found vibrancy in the myriad of festivals and downtown activity. As well, the coffee shops and co-work dens where mobile workers not tied to a company desk can mingle with fellow explorers come home is a welcome addition. The quality of life here is high, and with more business not tied to a place for clients, economically doable for the creative, passionate, and intrepid, especially with the support that one can only find at home.

Still, with the mixed messages coming from leadership, I can't help but wonder if it will last.

Gary L. Howe is a freelance journalist and instructor in the social science department at NMC. He writes a blog about public spaces and civic engagement at mywheelsareturning.com.

* See Lou Glazer's "The wrong top ten" and "The right top ten" at MichiganFuture.org