By Laura Oblinger
Many things are grown in Northern Michigan – cherries, grapes, apples, trees, row crops, flowers – the list goes on. They are shipped across the state and beyond and account for a significant portion of the regional economy.
But there’s one valuable asset 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 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.
Fortunately, the tide of our youth exodus is starting to ebb, and even turn the other way. As this month’s annual Traverse City Business News’ “40 Under 40” roster illustrates, there are a growing number of dynamic young people 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 Chair Allison Beers and several others 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 under founding co-chairs Christy Johnkoff and Bryan Taggert. 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. They’re also working to recruit even more young people to the region and help them get settled in.
Others are taking notice. No less than Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder visited Traverse City last year to sit down with members of our Young Professionals group. He listened and learned, and urged them to stay involved with their state and community. It’s a powerful statement when a sitting governor travels hundreds of miles to deliver such a message in person.
Why is this important? Look around. A vast majority of businesses – car makers, media outlets, electronics manufacturers, the food and travel industry, retailers – all are investing 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 even 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 being played out in struggling towns across the country.
Fortunately, our region has the ammo to win this battle. Our spectacular natural resources, abundant recreational opportunities, dynamic urban centers, affordability – all are a major draw for today’s millennials.
But our bays, beaches and brew pubs 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 day care for their children? We will adapt to the changing times, or wander aimlessly into the future with stale, outdated approaches to community development?
Those decisions are in our hands – today. How we make them will determine whether the Grand Traverse region continues to grow as an importer of young talent, or an exporter of what we can least afford to lose.
Laura Oblinger is the Executive Director of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. Contact her by email at email@example.com