Yes, we can be charming and prosperous

Last year, I spoke to the Front Street Irregulars, a group of local men and women who run many of the most successful companies in the region. Among their goals is improving the business climate so more high-value businesses can succeed and scale here. They asked for my opinion on ways to accomplish that goal, so here is a version of what I told them.

First of all, we are lucky to live here. Ours is a truly special area, possessing many of the amenities of much larger cities – a thriving arts scene, excellent dining, wineries, breweries, festivals and so forth. We also possess attributes that few cities or regions can match, including our lakes, waterways, dunes, orchards, hiking trails, bike paths, ski resorts and golf courses.

Then, of course, there’s our “small-town charm.” I agree that this is a charming area. There is a special combination of natural beauty and humanity here that is not found in many places. But I question whether being “small” has much to do with it.

Would we lose our charm if more businesses located and grew here? Does thoughtful growth automatically lead to a decline in our charm? I don’t think so. If it were, Traverse City would be a far less charming place than it used to be, and that is simply not the case.

I also would posit, as I did in my last column, that one of the things holding us back from being an even more attractive and economically vibrant place is the same thing holding back many communities in Michigan: the inability to retain and attract young talent. According to a 2016 University of Michigan study, roughly 300,000 students per year enroll in the state’s public universities but many of them – 40 percent, in fact – will never work or reside in Michigan after graduation.

To plug the drain, the study said Michigan “must emphasize the place-based model of economic development, cultivate an environment conducive to entrepreneurship, and incentivize recent college graduates with efficient transportation services.” Specifically, cities must understand that millennials – 75 percent of the workforce by 2025 – choose cool places to live first then find a job there, emphasizing the need to make the most of our advantages.

“What does Michigan have that other states do not?” the study asks. “Four beautiful Great Lakes, golden sandy beaches and dunes, hundreds of in-land lakes, multiple ski resorts, nationally-acclaimed micro-breweries and wineries, art, film, culture, food festivals, and much more.”

Sounds a lot like Traverse City, doesn’t it? In fact, the study specifically recommends northern Michigan towns like Marquette, Petoskey and Traverse City build upon these natural strengths by encouraging “entrepreneurial opportunities and resources.” Fortunately, my friend Casey Cowell and others have already started that ball rolling by creating both an incubator (20Fathoms) and an accelerator (Boomerang Catapult) in the past few years that already are bearing fruit. Tech and service companies are starting up and expanding here. But more can be done. The more we support entrepreneurs, the more they’ll support us. It’s as simple as that.

We can also continue to expand our housing stock, especially lower cost housing. In particular, we need to continue developing a range of housing options in and near downtown. Why? Because millennials strongly prefer “density,” meaning smaller, more affordable homes with nearby access to restaurants, coffee shops, shared workspaces, Wi-Fi hot spots and the like. To accommodate them, we should consider liberalizing our view of building heights to increase density and to reduce the need for cars and surface parking lots. This can be managed wisely and would not affect our charm.

Another key ingredient to thriving cities, as described by Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak in their book “The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism,” is leadership that catalyzes growth “through forms of governance that align the distinctive perspectives of government, business, philanthropy, universities, and the broader community.”

I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. The future, I believe, belongs to those communities that combine and focus the enormous energy of these groups. Healthy, representative decision-making bodies working even closer together with growing businesses can and would produce fantastic results.

Finally, there’s that “small-town charm” phrase. In an age where perception is everything, how we present ourselves to the world matters greatly. We need to develop ways of talking about Traverse that resonate with young people. “Small town charm” simply rings hollow to them. It makes us sound like a place to retire, not a place to thrive.

We could easily switch to what I’ll call a “flourishing” narrative, one that emphasizes both our quality of life and our progressive economic climate. Rather than just small-town charm, our message to the world should be, “We’ve got it all. Come join us. Together, we can make it even better.”

Onward and upward!

McKeel Hagerty is the CEO of Hagerty.