Monday, June 21, 2010

How one Michigan city tries to lure Millennials and retain talent

T. J. Hamilton | The Grand Rapids Press

GRAND RAPIDS -- Bridget Clark Whitney and Leslie Perales represent the yin and yang of Michigan as a destination for talented, college-educated Millennials.

Whitney oozes Grand Rapids' youthful energy from every pore.

The 30-year-old is executive director of Kids' Food Basket, a fast-growing nonprofit agency that serves after-school meals to children in low-income families. She could be a poster child -- or maybe more accurately, a poster Millennial -- for the crusade to attract young professionals to West Michigan and stem the state's so-called "brain drain."

A dynamo on the job and off, the Pittsburgh native and 2003 Aquinas College graduate bubbles over when describing the qualities that should make Grand Rapids a hotbed for 21- to 35-year-olds.

"Everything you want, you've got here, short of IKEA or Whole Foods. The culture, the excitement, the nightlife, the sociability and the people all together create an incredible place to live," she raves. "There's an incredible generosity that exists. It's part of the culture. ... There's nowhere else in the world I'd rather be."

The Pennsylvania transplant even blogged online, "I'll say it: Grand Rapids. Best. City. Ever."

Perales, 24, is impressed by Grand Rapids' progress, but it doesn't guarantee a job and it's unlikely to bring her back here anytime soon.

Perales, a Zeeland High School graduate who earned a print journalism degree from Grand Valley State University in 2007, adores her new home in Reston, Va., just outside Washington D.C.

After her boyfriend, GVSU grad Steve Loges, couldn't find work in Michigan three years ago, he accepted a position with his brother's Internet marketing firm outside Washington. Perales joined him four months later. In just three weeks, she found work as a general assignment newspaper reporter and has since taken a better-paying job as content editor for Knowlera Media, which specializes in how-to videos.

Perales loves the culturally diverse Washington area and wonders if the Grand Rapids area can match that city's vibe and robust economy.

"At this point, I'm not sure if I want to come back at all," she concedes. "I love it here. It seems like a lot of young people in the area really enjoy living here. The opportunities that you find here, you just don't feel like you have to go searching for those more diverse opportunities. They're just everywhere here."

Economic hurdles

Stopping the brain drain of Millennials drawn to vibrant urban centers and making Michigan a magnet for creative minds is a hot topic, online and on the street. Groups such as the Great Lakes Urban Exchange (GLUE), seek to revitalize industrial cities in the region, in part, by targeting these young, "post-boomer urbanists" who experts consider linchpins in spurring growth, innovation and economic recovery. More here.

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