GR To Seeks Hipper Image

November 7, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Michigan cities have to be cool or the hot young talent just won’t stick around.

According to Gov. Jennifer Granholm, young people are moving out of Michigan at a higher rate than all but three other states.

Census Bureau statistics revealed that one of every 20 Michigan residents in the 25-34 age group moved away between 2000 and 2002.

In fact, statistically, Detroit ranked first in the nation in the flight of young adults over that period of time.

Michigan cities have to get hip in order to reverse that trend, Granholm has said.

In September, she wrote to the mayors of more than 250 Michigan cities asking them to convene local “cool cities” advisory groups to explore ways to “encourage people — especially young people — to be more interested in living, working, and shopping in your city.”

In response, Mayor John Logie formed a Cool Cities Advisory Group made up of 28 young professionals in their twenties and thirties, with a couple of forty-somethings thrown in.

The ad hoc group met at The BOB last week to define the meaning of “cool” and to explore ways to keep young people interested in living and working here.

“In Grand Rapids alone we have a net loss of 8 percent of what we call the ‘creative class’ of young people,” Economic Development Director Susan Shannon told city commissioners Tuesday. “They are needed for a healthy economy. So we want to hear from young people.”

Of the 28 people on the advisory group, Shannon noted, 23 percent have lived in Grand Rapids their entire life, 31 percent left Grand Rapids at one time but came back, and 47 percent are new to Grand Rapids.

Group participants were asked to respond to the following questions:

  • What is already cool about Grand Rapids?

  • What does a Cool City look like?

  • What can Grand Rapids do to attract jobs and young professionals?

  • How can the state best help us to be cool?

So what does it take to be considered “cool” by 25- to 35-year-old professionals and what will it take to enhance the city’s “coolness” factor?

Participant Justin Meyer, a student at Aquinas, outlined for city commissioners the things the group thought were already cool about Grand Rapids, including: safe, affordable housing; the developing downtown entertainment district; new investment in the arts and the new Circle Theatre; plans for a new art museum; the Wealthy Theatre, UICA and other art venues; reinvestment in neighborhoods; the city’s family-friendly character; and the availability of recreational activities.

What makes a cool city?

Speaking on behalf of the advisory group, Emily Aleman, director of the Hispanic Center, said cool cities love diversity — diversity of ethnicity, lifestyle, economic class and gender.

“They have diversity not only in entertainment, but in schools, businesses and everywhere we look,” she said.

Cool cities have strong identities that are reflected in their buildings, their culture and their art, which lets everybody know “who they are and what we’re about,” Aleman added.

They play up their natural attributes, too.

“Our river is beautiful and we need to bring it back to being a focal point of our city.”

She said cool cities are walkable, drivable and bikeable and have accessible mass transit; they have unique, developing neighborhoods that aren’t overrun by chain stores; they have strong public schools that embrace all parents and children; and they have downtowns that have entertainment and retail venues, as well as affordable housing.

One of the ways the state can help the city reach a higher level of cool is to promote Grand Rapids and target college students, said participant Martin Shepherd, a young attorney who moved to town a year ago.

The state can help recruit businesses, particularly high-tech businesses, he said.

“One of the ways we talked about making this possible was creating an infrastructure of fiber optic network downtown.”

State government could also help out locally, he said, by increasing funding to community arts, schools and transit and by including more diversity on boards.

People across all the city’s neighborhoods need to become involved and support innovation, Shepherd said.

“We’ve got to encourage entrepreneurship. If it takes business incubators, if it takes funds, we’ve got to encourage young creative people to become involved in business.”

The Grand Rapids advisory group’s responses are being forwarded to a state-level advisory body that will pool the input of advisory groups from across the state and report on the results next month.

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