Could work-from-home movement drive northern Michigan economy?

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By JASMINE HALL
Capital News Service

LANSING — Grand Traverse is among the top 10 Michigan counties in high average income, low unemployment and a low percentage of the population below the poverty line.

The county’s median income in 2019 was around $65,000  — almost $6,000 more than the median income for the entire state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And the work-from-home movement caused by the COVID-19 pandemic could build on that economic success, experts say.

“If their job is remote, they want to be here,” said Warren Call, the chief executive officer and president of Traverse Connect, a private economic development organization for the Grand Traverse area.

In just 2020, the county’s population increased by 1,000, according to the census bureau. 

In 2019 alone, Grand Traverse’s average income increased by more than $7,000, according to the Census Bureau. That was double the average income increase in Michigan in 2019.

The differences are even more stark between Grand Traverse and other northern counties.

Baraga, Arenac and Kalkaska counties experienced declines in their median incomes, according to the Census Bureau. Kalkaska County, which already registered less in median income than 60 other counties in Michigan, declined by almost $2,500.

The 20 counties i with the lowest average incomes as well as some of the highest unemployment rates are all northern counties.

A significant portion of the residents in those counties make under $40,000 annually, and around 20% of the population in northern counties of Roscommon or Gogebic make under $20,000, according to census statistics. 

Grand Traverse County makes almost double the income of around 15% of Michigan — and more than 30% of northern Michigan.

This is because it used the special natural and cultural resources northern Michigan has to offer, Call said.

Grand Traverse is not an island though, and northern economic developers see how the northern communities around them are struggling — and need support.

He said he believes there is an opportunity for other northern counties, especially because of the unique situation COVID-19 brought in 2020.

The need for remote work, the attraction of a rural area with a high quality of life and a desire for natural resources are all reasons to go north, he said.

Traverse Connect, a nonprofit partner of the Grand Traverse Economic Development Corp.,  is focused on regional economic development for counties surrounding the Grand Traverse area and regional economic commerce.

It provides northern counties with public policy advocacy on the local, state and federal level and talent attraction. It also focuses on fostering the growth of businesses that don’t fall into the startup category, but need support to gain success.

Talent attraction is where the most opportunity is for northern counties during the pandemic, Call said. Since the pandemic started, more people have moved up north because they can work remotely and escape the urban environment.

Grand Traverse Connect is taking advantage of that desire, Call said.

Other counties in northern Michigan should begin to market their quality of life for permanent residency — which is different from tourist attraction. There should be a focus on “quality jobs that have a living wage” and diversify the economy, Call said.

“We see an opportunity to further grow into the types of jobs that can be done from anywhere,” he said.

Creative Coast is a recent initiative to expand on the idea. It is geared towards “enhancing a creative economy” — whether that’s from software development, the fine arts or music production.

It’s not just necessary for remote work, said Don Grimes, a University of Michigan regional economic specialist. Northern Michigan counties need to invest in attracting companies focused on informational technology services, app development and creative entrepreneurs.

Grimes said there isclear economic distress in the smaller, northern rural communities and so they need to move away from an economic structure that relies on a small-scale hospitality industry and the manufacturing industry.

“There is a big desire to bring in plants,” Grimes said.

There needs to be a reevaluation of how smaller communities build their economy, Grimes said.The most successful economies currently are impacted by high educational attainment and economic diversification that attracts information technology.

Economic development corporations and nonprofit organizations such as Traverse Connect are trying to replicate these successes in their own communities.

“In a weird way, this pandemic supports these economies better, because they can design their attractiveness around people who want to move out of urban areas,” said Grimes.