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Culture, Creativity and Craftsmanship Fuel the Growth of a (not so) Small Town in Northern Michigan

“It’s changed so much in the last ten years.”

This is what I frequently hear from those who have lived in Traverse City far longer than I have. Some say it regretfully, wistful for the days when the town was a sleepier, slower place. But most marvel at the growth and dynamism of its current incarnation.

This past Saturday, at our scavenger hunt event, I spoke to several people who mentioned that their adult children had recently moved back to Traverse City from other parts of the country. They explained that their kids moved away due to a lack of good jobs, but have returned to pursue – or make their own – newfound opportunities here. It’s not unlike what is happening in my old hometown of Detroit. Brain Drain has become Brain Gain.

During the 15 months that we’ve lived here, we’ve met families that have moved from New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Denver, San Francisco and many other big cities across the country, mostly within the last three years. To some extent these people could live anywhere, but they chose Traverse City. Some have a connection to Traverse City – the husband or wife grew up here – but many, like us, had no roots.

People are migrating to Traverse City for the lifestyle it affords, yes, but without jobs and economic growth it would be impossible to afford that lifestyle. Many of the amenities – forests and dunes, meadows and lakes – that entice visitors to this area are the same that they were decades ago. The difference now is that people are figuring out how to build lives and raise families here year-round, rather than just on spring break or during retirement. The trend is unmistakable.

The less explored question is: Why? Why is this happening? Why here? Why now?

A Moonshot that Built an Empire in the Valley

Traverse City’s story is not unique in the sense that towns, cities and regions continually rise and fall. There is almost always an interesting backstory of circumstances that conspire to hasten a place’s ascent or descent. One of my favorite “empire rising” stories dates back to the 1950’s.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union beat the United States in the space race with the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite. America was devastated. But not for long. The new race – to put a man on the moon – was just beginning.

You know how that story ends, but perhaps not the story of how the Sputnik launch planted the seeds for growth in what was then an underdeveloped region in Northern California.

NASA was created in 1958 with the mission of putting a man on the moon. It needed high-powered components to accomplish this audacious task. NASA turned to Fairchild Semiconductor, which was headquartered in the Bay Area, for help.

Fairchild Semiconductor grew rapidly and gave rise to “Fairchildren” start-ups – companies which fed off of Fairchild’s growth – many of which are household names today, such as Intel and NVIDIA. Then came computer hardware companies, followed by software and now Internet companies.

The thrust of a single moonshot powered the growth and innovation that has raged in Silicon Valley for decades since.

That’s Silicon Valley’s story. So what’s ours?

Farm, to Table, to Creatives

Traverse City’s growth – in tourism, economy and population – is being fueled by culture, not Cold War. It’s a story of how counter-cultural trends are driving creative people, investment, entrepreneurship and innovation to Northwest Michigan. Traverse City is in the right place at the right time.

It’s a place where people are coming – often from big cities – to regain a connection to nature, to people and to a simpler life. At the same time that density in urban areas has increased, digital tools have lessened direct personal communication and kept us plugged in and multi-tasking 24/7. This has left us feeling less connected than ever.

Indeed, it’s lonely to sit behind a computer in a studio apartment in Manhattan. There are billions of people at your fingertips, and millions at your doorstep, but forming a real relationship with any of them seems beyond reach. Streets, cabs, shops and subways – everywhere – are littered with messages of mass-marketing and mass-production. People are seeking refuge. They are seeking something real.

Sociologists and marketers frequently cite “Millennials” as being most directly responsible for these trends, but it’s a movement that spans all demographics. The desire for experiences over objects is pervading the entire consumer economy. {tweet that} Goods that are purchased must be well crafted and creative, preferably from small businesses, artisans and craftsman. These things – experiences, craftsmanship – underpin Traverse City’s economy.

If technology, mass-production and density are the catalysts that have fueled the movement toward “real,” then the demand to live and visit places such as Traverse City is likely to accelerate. That’s because the catalysts themselves will continue to accelerate as new technologies and populations continue to proliferate. Although density and connectedness have the potential to bring us together, they often pull us apart. Hence the urge to spend meaningful time in places where “realness” is abundant. Authentic, genuine, real – this is the zeitgeist of 2016. {tweet that}

There’s nothing more real about Traverse City than its food, beverage and agricultural ecosystem. And the explosive growth of this industry over the last ten years correlates directly with the growth of Traverse City, itself.

Traverse City’s food, beverage and agricultural industry is becoming increasingly synonymous with community, creativity, artistry and environmental stewardship. Across the country “organic” is being eclipsed by “local” and consumers are increasingly demanding fresh food, both at home and when dining out. As a result, chefs are cooking with the seasons and supporting and cultivating relationships with small-scale producers who enable a true farm-to-table experience. The authentic stories behind the meal are becoming as important as the meal itself. Food used to be sustenance – now it’s a narrative.

The story of Traverse City’s growth, therefore, is being told on reclaimed wood tabletops and stainless steel countertops at establishments throughout Northwest Michigan. It’s being dished out at food trucks and taco stands in parking lots and on backcountry roads. It’s being Tweeted to the world by Mario Batali.

It’s the story of how members of a growing ecosystem support others, both up and down the food chain. It’s the same type of ecosystem that enabled the growth of Detroit and Silicon Valley, respectively, during the early and late 20th century.

To watch Traverse City’s story unfold, look no further than places like Cook’s House, Alliance and Stella Trattoria, that not only buy produce from local suppliers, but proudly display names such as Idyll Farms and Loma Farm on their menus like badges of honor.

Or venture over to The Little Fleet to discover the region’s next hot chef. She may not know she’s headed for greatness yet, because she’s 20 and slinging tacos or rolling sushi in a food truck, but like Simon Joseph of Harvest and Gaijin, this is a stepping stone to bigger things. It’s just a matter of time. She’s part of the ecosystem. She’s part of the story.

The same is true, of course, in the region’s beer, wine and spirits industry. It’s not enough for people to taste – they want to experience the “craft.” They want to hold in their hands the hops, grapes or grain that will go into their favorite beer, wine or whiskey. To see where the production takes place. To meet the craftsmen. That’s real. And that’s something Traverse City can offer that many other places can’t.

And it’s a story that holds lessons for future growth initiatives in the region. To me, the most obvious candidates to lead the next wave of growth and innovation in Traverse City are members of the “creative class.” These are right-brained, counter-cultural types who prize thinking differently more than fitting in. Ideas are the currency of the new economy, and places that can attract idea people will grow and thrive. {tweet that}

Richard Florida, the economist who coined the term, defines members of the creative class as: “…people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music and entertainment whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content.” The creative class is increasingly in demand because creativity is powering many of the new industries of our day. Creative is real.

In Traverse City you can see clear signs of the creative class rising, particularly at the crossroads of creativity and technology. Designers, app developers, software engineers, consultants and other tech entrepreneurs are setting up shop here – not because they have to, but because they want to. Just hang out at coffee shops like Brew or BLK MRKT for a few hours to see and feel the creative buzz. Cloud computing has allowed them to do their craft from anywhere.

The creative class values real as well. Old neighborhoods instead of cookie-cutter suburbs. Small, carefully curated shops and restaurants instead of national chains. A place immersed in nature. A place with personality. A place like Traverse City.

Who knows what is to come. Trends reverse themselves all of the time. Cultural preferences change. Growing pains result in stunted growth. But from where I sit (at BLK MRKT coffee shop at the moment) the future is bright for Traverse City.