The New Economics: Rooted in a Great Place
For years, the economic development role local governments played was to simply keep costs as low as possible to attract investors. The idea was that companies followed jobs and growth independently of place. If overhead was low, businesses would invest – people and growth would follow. The new economy is different. Growth and development are driven by talent attracted to places that are attractive, vibrant, and globally connected. Great places attract and, importantly, retain, this talent that is also highly mobile.
Here’s where Traverse City has an advantage.
As a great place we have attracted two segments of the population rich in talent and enterprising spirit. The first: a retired, professional population that chooses Traverse City because of a lively downtown with excellent food, an active cultural scene, and the natural beauty. They also find opportunities to contribute their skills through an active civic community.
The second segment includes young, educated professionals who could live anywhere and are attracted to mostly the same quality of life as the first segment. This group also see potential in Traverse City as a small-town rival to the larger cities around the country. Traverse City offers a high-quality place to base a small business or regional office that isn’t tied to one region for its client base. It can still be difficult to find affordable housing, but comparatively, it remains a plausible destination that is connected online and through the airport to a wider world of ideas and opportunities.
In addition, one of the fastest growing segments of the economy are people who are able to work virtually for themselves or for others. They aren’t tied to one region for clients and they aren’t tied to a desk for day-to-day work. This freelance class, about 1/3 of the national economy, blends their work-life into other parts of their life. Being in control of their own schedule means they have the opportunity to be out in the community more, spending more money, engaging or volunteering in more civic projects, or participating in recreational opportunities. In exchange for more flexibility and autonomy, they give up some of the other support measures sometimes found in traditional employment. As such, it becomes more important for freelancers to find a community designed to connect people to an expanding network of people and activities.
An attractive, active community
Traverse City is attractive because there is a vibrancy and life to the downtown. As well, there are recreational opportunities, like a swim in the bay, a walk in the commons, or a kayak paddle just a short walk away. These are some of the reasons people move here.
Our task now is to build on this success and continue to 1) optimize the opportunity downtown, 2) spread the opportunity to others parts of the City proper, and 3) invest in and take full advantage of the latent recreational opportunities. If talent is seeking a lively, safe, and healthy place, we must continue to maintain and build a lively, safe, and healthy place.
Fixing the corridors
One example where the City is on the right track is the recent corridor study – an attempt to rethink and find opportunities in five of the main corridors. These inefficient and under performing parts of Traverse City–chiefly E. Eighth Street, Garfield Avenue, and 14th Street–need to be more than driveways to downtown. The corridors need to be mixed-use, denser, close to attractive recreational opportunities, and accessible through a variety of safe, convenient and comfortable transportation choices. They also need to better serve the people who live near them.
The City needs to invite partnerships with the private sector to ensure that it makes the public investments needed to attract high-quality private investments that create a great place, with great opportunities, with a focus on attracting and serving City residents. One idea is to coordinate a shared “Traverse City” brand where the City convenes an enterprise focused on helping entrepreneurs connect to opportunities. Economic development isn’t always new buildings and large capital outlays. In more active start-up communities, there is a support structure that fosters new business development. This is not always money, but important inclusion and engagement. This could happen in conjunction with public and private investments in those corridors with the most room to grow.
Successful cities aren’t just committed to protecting past perceptions, but are able to adapt to a changing landscape. Traverse City is the economic-core this corner of Michigan, and during the recent recession it continued to attract new residents and new developments. That’s good news and with continued forward thinking and borrowing of successful models the City will continue to out perform its size and relative location.