Northern Brain Drain…Plugged?

For years people have talked about the North's desperate need to attract and retain young professionals. But while other parts of the state continue to battle a mass exodus of recent college graduates and bright-eyed entrepreneurs to other parts of the nation, northern Michigan is showing signs that our brain drain might be moving in the other direction.

REGION – How many 24-year-olds do you know living in Austin, Texas who have decided that Traverse City is the place to be? Not young professionals who spend summers here while working remotely; we mean people who move here from a big thriving city and start a business – on purpose.


Meet Andy Kennedy.

Kennedy is one of three partners in Intersection, a "brand experience" agency on the top floor of the former Big Daylight Candy Factory building in downtown Traverse City.

A view of the bay? Absolutely. Half the pay? Not only had the new TC-ites never heard that northern Michigan mantra, now that they have, they don't buy it.

Kennedy's first visit to TC was last November – not really an ideal month for a first impression. He came along with two high school chums, and soon-to-be business partners. One is Chance Benbow. He had spent many a vacation in TC while growing up in Indiana and was the ringleader in bringing the trio Up north.

Tyler Hernly is the third member of the team. A team that first formed back in high school when he was the quarterback of their football team in Muncie, Indiana, and Kennedy and Benbow were two of his favorite receivers.

The threesome had kept in touch since going their separate ways, but all were working in ad agencies: Benbow in Fort Wayne, Indiana; Hernly in Ft. Myers, Florida; and Kennedy in Texas.

"We were close friends who were learning a lot in our respective jobs, getting experience … but something was missing," Benbow says. Turns out that "something" was a chance to strike out on their own. And rather than do it in any of the bigger cities each were working in, they elected to pack up their lives and plant their flag here – although the decision didn't come without a little hesitation.

When Benbow first floated the TC idea, Kennedy vividly recalls his response: "I said [with more than a tinge of sarcasm] 'You want me to move from Austin, Texas, to northern Michigan?'" Nonetheless he agreed to visit, and after that, it was a done deal.

"It's a neat breath of fresh air," he says of his new hometown.

Benbow, 24, leads the Intersection team on the relationships side, specifically account acquisition and management. Kennedy and Hernly, 23, handle the creative production.

Intersection is a spinoff sister agency of Joseph David Advertising (with offices in Georgia and Indiana.) Part of that relationship includes "throwing work back and forth." The business partnership has an operational agreement that keeps Intersection here for five years minimum.

"That is what makes us not a 'flash in the pan' operation," says Hernly.

"We also made a similar commitment to each other as well," adds Kennedy.

What did they see in TC? First, a place with "a lot of cool stuff going on," but more importantly, this: opportunity. "There are good advertising agencies in town, but we didn't see a branding agency," says Benbow. "We saw a niche."

Being young entrepreneurs and new to a small town, hasn't made it hard to open doors. Quite the contrary, in fact.

"I've found that one small relationship blossoms into something bigger here," says Benbow.

"We are confident and we took a leap of faith … and so far it's paying off," Hernly adds. "We may be transplants, but we're here because we love this town. We're obsessed with this town."

While still settling into their new digs and getting their workspace designed, the guys have been busier out of the chute than they expected. They've even put in a couple of "two-a-days," a little nostalgia from their football past, meaning a normal workday, a few hours break, and then back at it until the wee hours of the morning.

"It's been a ton of fun," says Kennedy. "I have no regrets at all about leaving Austin and coming here."

Hernly still stands by one of his first impressions. "There's an individuality about Traverse City and the people," he says. "It is super authentic, a community that's really rare. People here are doing what they love."

One thing they haven't run into yet? Professionals their age, although they note they've met a lot of entrepreneurs in their late 20s and early 30s.

"I think this town is great for our generation," says Hernly, adding that they've hosted friends nearly every weekend since they set up shop here. "If we're some of the first, then hopefully that will help plant the seed." BN