GR Not Exactly A High Tech Draw

February 28, 2003
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LANSING — Just one city in Michigan has the goodies to draw new economy industries to its borders. Only Ann Arbor has the right stuff to lure those high-tech companies and their 25- to 34-year-old workers.

The others, like Grand Rapids, lack many of the necessary attractions.

That conclusion comes from a report released by the Michigan Economic Development Corp., a state agency, and the Michigan Business Roundtable, a coalition of business people from metro Detroit and the greater Grand Rapids area.

"Michigan's ability to compete for the new economy workforce, defined as highly mobile, educated and youthful, is dependent on our ability to focus our resources on our cities — from Detroit to Grand Rapids and Traverse City to Flint and Saginaw," said David Frey, a member of the roundtable and chair of its Land Use Task Force.

"As business leaders, we felt it was important to support a proactive effort to determine where Michigan stood and then work to enhance our position," added Frey, a retired local banker who also serves on the Convention and Arena Authority board.

The report, Impacts of Quality of Life Indicators on Michigan Cities, was released late last month. It was conducted by Public Service Consultants, a Lansing think tank, and paid for by the Frey Foundation of Grand Rapids, the Hudson Webber Foundation in Detroit and the MEDC.

"In the 'new economy,' young, aggressive entrepreneurs are making location decisions based largely on quality-of-life concerns. Cities and states need to take aggressive steps to assure that they offer the amenities that this new generation of workers requires," said Tony Earley, chairman and CEO of DTE Energy and the business roundtable.

According to the report, what these workers want is a lively city. Nearly two-thirds felt that a vibrant central city was crucial to the successful development of a region. Almost 60 percent said an energetic downtown was critical for a city to be vibrant.

A majority of the study's respondents, workers in the new economy field, also felt that an area needed to be rich in ideas and talent to grow, instead of being the cheapest place to do business — a factor the state promoted nationally in the 1990s.

"We find that 'new economy' workers seek a blend of traditional and cultural amenities such as small neighborhoods, festivals, outdoor dining and nightlife in the places they live and work," said Bill Rustem, senior vice president of Public Service Consultants, who called for Lansing to produce a statewide focused urban policy.

"While factors such as cost of living, safety and housing are important, this group of people is looking for opportunities to interact socially," added Rustem.

Proponents of a new entertainment district for downtown Grand Rapids have already figured that out. The group, led by Design Plus Chairman Vern Ohlman, outlined an area along Ionia Avenue, just south of the Van Andel Arena, as the hub of such a district. They contend the district is needed if the city wants to retain and attract young, high-tech workers.

"The connection that I am hoping to make is that providing that lifestyle choice is another way of attracting what is being referred to as the rise of the creative class, or creative and innovative people. This is the kind of lifestyle choice that they very often make," said Ohlman in an exclusive Business Journal interview last October.

"Historically, wealth accumulates around people who are creatively talented. One of the things that those folks are interested in is a broad range of choices. They want options. They want great outdoor recreational opportunities, which West Michigan offers. They want a great nightlife. Music is important to them. There has to be a music scene," he added.

All isn't doom and gloom for the cities across Michigan. Another recent study found that the state ranked fourth nationally in its number of high-tech workers. But that report, also done for the MEDC, cast a shadow over whether Michigan would have enough workers in the coming decades to remain competitive in high-tech industries.

So the state is putting together a plan that it hopes will attract more young people to vocational training sites in Michigan.

"I think that a lot of college students think they have to get some sort of degree, and we're really finding that there are a lot more careers — and many are better paying — in the vocational and technical field," said Jennifer Owens, MEDC assistant vice president of communications, in early January.

"But it's not something that's going to be fixed overnight," Owens added.

Too bad, because the high-tech workers interviewed for the indicators study revealed that they knew little about the state and its cities. And what they did know — that Michigan has an auto industry, some really bad weather, and is situated in the Rust Belt — wasn't exactly the type of enticements that would encourage many to pack up and move here.

"This study defines where we need to head. It shows our strengths and weaknesses," said Frey. "If Michigan is to compete for the employers and employees of the 21st century, we have to pay more attention to our cities."           

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