Where to Invest? How About Northern Michigan

LucianiIn an increasingly volatile and unpredictable global economy, investors these days are faced with difficult choices to the most basic of economic decisions: where to invest and grow their capital. With strained financial markets from the Far East to Europe to our own shores here in the U.S., it’s more difficult than ever to find a safe haven – much less a sure bet – for investment dollars.

So investors do what they do; they look for areas and sectors that have been able to grow and thrive despite all the recent challenges and upheaval in the global economy. By that measure the northwest corner of Michigan, and specifically the Grand Traverse region, can boast an impressive track record of economic growth in the post-recession era. That’s no small accomplishment given the depths that Michigan’s overall economy dipped to following the 2008 financial crisis.

Examples abound. The area’s housing and land values fell less during the recession and snapped back quicker than nearly all parts of the state and the Midwest.  Our jobless numbers have receded to pre-recession levels. Local housing sales and home prices soared in 2015, and the commercial real estate market is also on the comeback trail.

But actions speak louder than words, and here at TraverseCONNECT we’re doing more than just talking about the local economy. Our business development arm known as Venture North Funding and Development under the direction of Executive Director Laura Galbraith loaned more than $2.5 million to over 30 area businesses over the past two-plus years. Financing ranged from a few thousand dollars to six-figure transactions for land and equipment purchases, energy-saving projects, new personnel, re-financing other debt and numerous other uses.  We’ve helped health care companies, agricultural operations, education and child care facilities, the local food sector, retailers, manufacturers, service companies and others.  It’s been money well spent and – knock on wood – not a dime has been lost so far.

We’re not alone. Efforts like the Taste the Local Difference and the Food & Farming Network have boosted our region’s agriculture economy, increasing the economic viability of our farming community while bringing fresh, healthy, local foods to our grocery shelves and our school cafeterias. Angel investors and others are also getting in on the region’s success.

Of course everyone knows the standard investment disclaimer: past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Even with the region’s impressive track record of economic growth, there are caution lights blinking over our region’s economy – most notably how it’s viewed by some of our local residents and decision makers. Our economic gains have generated a curious, even troubling response in some circles. Worries about too much growth overrunning our roads and infrastructure are becoming as big a threat to our regional prosperity as another recession or financial market downturn. Effective growth incentives such as brownfield redevelopment funds and tax increment financing districts – which have done so much to clean up and revive our city’s commercial core – are viewed by some as quick-money gimmicks or corporate welfare.

It’s hard to believe that a community that has gained so much over the past two decades would bite the hand that’s fed it. But it seems some would take us there. Make no mistake, there are plenty of towns around the Midwest and the country boasting “small town character” where the established and well-off are quite comfortable, but their regional economies are shrinking – or worse. You can’t put a local economy in a time capsule and keep it there indefinitely. While the status quo may work for some, it won’t create the jobs a community needs to grow, it won’t address long-standing issues like housing and education, and it doesn’t do much to help the next generation sustain and improve what’s here. It’s the investment equivalent of sticking one’s money in a mattress.

The better route is to keep building on our success, to create a regional economy even more immune to the gyrations of financial markets or the volatility of global jitters. We’ve created a recipe for sustained economic growth and made northern Michigan’s economy simmer as a target for smart investment. It’s no time to click off the burner and let our prosperity get cold.

Doug Luciani is the CEO of TraverseCONNECT, which includes the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and Venture North Funding and Development. Contact him by email at doug@traverseconnect.org.