By ISAAC CONSTANS
Capital News Service
LANSING — What do young people want? It’s a question employers, officials and educators are working overtime to answer.
A “brain drain” has leeched Michigan’s up-and-coming workforce for decades, with young professionals opting to live in other states. About a quarter of the state’s population is in the 20- to 40-year-old bracket, one of the lowest rates in the Midwest.
But state leaders say they’re beginning to siphon this demographic back in.
“You need to have career opportunities for people, because they need to have a way to make a living,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in an interview with Capital News Service. “And then second, it is a quality of life issue…You have to have both pieces of that.”
Snyder said Michigan is turning around on at least one side of the equation.
“The good thing in Michigan is we have the jobs now,” Snyder said. “Back in 2010, in the last decade, there weren’t jobs. People had to leave, or left, because they didn’t see a career opportunity.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that as of March, Michigan had a 5.1 percent unemployment rate. At the recession’s zenith, unemployment reached 14.9 percent.
To improve quality of life, state officials have focused on urbanization.
Too many times, graduates from a prestigious Michigan university leave for Chicago or another Midwest mecca for young people, officials say.
“What we really need is place making,” said Rep. Andy Schor, D-Lansing. “We need cities with activities and arts and things like that, so we can give them a little bit of a benefit.”
In bills that range from brownfield redevelopment aid to student debt forgiveness, lawmakers believe that financial assistance and quality of life projects will help to prevent the exodus of young professionals.
Schor recently introduced a bill that would provide income tax credits to help public university students offset their loan payments.
The benefits, covering half of the students’ payments, would extend up to five years following graduation.
“It provides stability. It provides tax revenues,” Schor said, referring to an uptick of students working in Michigan post-graduation that he predicts would happen with his package. “It provides people who are working and playing within our communities. We need to have younger folks here in Michigan.”
Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, has a bill package that would alleviate tax pressures for developers who build on blighted brownfield sites. It is currently under review by the Committee on Tax Policy. Similar bills passed through a House committee.
Horn said he hopes the legislation would help revitalize the urban cores. For him, that means developing multi-use buildings that are centrally located to reduce dependence on cars and improve walkability.
“We need to rebuild our communities,” Horn said. “If we’re going to invite them in, they’ve got to live somewhere. My kids want to live in big cities like Grand Rapids and have transportation and all that stuff. They don’t want to get in their car and drive to the next town for a half gallon of milk or a box of drywall screws.
“They want some place to shop, they want leisure activities, they want bars, they want restaurants, they want coffee shops, and all of this stuff is built to accommodate a growing population. Success begets success.”
JoAnn Crary, president of Saginaw Future, said the city — although there is work to be done — has managed to transform derelict riverfront properties into a thriving new medical corridor. Now, it is home to the Michigan Cardiovascular Institute and a Central Michigan University College of Medicine primary location.
Chris Sell, the founder and executive director of Lansing 5:01, a nonprofit that hosts and promotes events for interns and young professionals in the region, said riverfront development can help retain young talent.
Even the Department of Natural Resources has taken note of the potential for riverfront development to attract young people.
A survey of municipal governments, director Keith Creagh said, found that the top issue for municipal governments was trails. Connectivity between and within cities, Creagh suggested, was a pillar for state retention.
Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids have popular river trails.
“On the Detroit River, we have people walleye fishing and zumba dancing — not the same person, not at the same time,” Creagh said. “A lot of millennials in Detroit, it’s really about mobility and connection and trails.”
Snyder said the burgeoning popularity of cities such as Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Lansing and Ann Arbor has helped to spearhead the Michigan comeback. The U.S. Census Bureau suggests that Michigan’s population has risen the last five years, after several years of downward trend.
A big reason has been Detroit.
“One of the great things has been the comeback of Detroit, particularly in midtown and downtown,” Snyder said. “It’s great to have a magnet around that’s not just identified in the midwest but in the world as, ‘This is a cool place to come.’ And then you add to it that we have some other great urban areas that are exciting to live.”
Snyder said that smaller communities have played their part, too.
Come Back UP is a new initiative aimed to bring families and professionals back to the Upper Peninsula. Amy Lynn Kuivanen, a business development representative at the Lake Superior Community Partnership in Marquette County, said that Northern Michigan University alumni represent a large target population.
The program helps those interested in returning to skim through the factors to consider, such as housing, job postings and cost-of-living analyses.
With a new hospital coming into the region, Kuivanen said that there are many job opportunities and low costs of living to entice those interested in returning.
“We’re definitely seeing a loss in that young professional age group,” Kuivanen said. “Having that age group coming back to the area is just of great benefit.”
Sell said growing communities create a positive feedback loop: When some people come, more follow.
While Michigan continues its rebound, legislative action will continue to focus on quality of life issues to spread the word about Michigan as a place to live.
“More often than not, young people look for a place to live, and then they look for a job in that place,” Schor said. “We want them to look for it here.”
By ISAAC CONSTANS