Last week I attended the 2nd Annual Go Places breakfast here in Kalamazoo. Dan Gilmartin, the Executive Director and CEO of the Michigan Municipal League spoke about what really matters in making communities vibrant, creative, and sustainable for the future, not the past
Dan explained that Economic Development discussions generally revolve around taxes and regulations and that’s the end of the conversation. However, we live in a different world today. Young people are choosing where to live first, and then look for work. Think about millennial hot spots like Seattle, Austin, Boston and Boulder.
So, what do these cities have that Michigan cities don’t? This is where the concept of place came in to play – attracting people to a lifestyle. Dan said that when focusing on place, you do everything different. You build communities around happiness and well-being and involve ordinary citizen in planning. What I found most intriguing is that the characteristics of these booming cities appeal not only to millennials, but also baby boomers.
They are looking for strong metropolitan regions that are walkable, but also have good public transit and additional options like Zip Cars. Places that value green initiatives, embrace entrepreneurship, are multicultural and have higher education institutions.
The breakfast really posed the question: what is it that makes a place where people want to live, work and play, and where companies want to locate?
I guess you could say I’m your poster child. I’m a millennial who eighteen months ago moved from a major metropolitan city, San Diego to Kalamazoo, Michigan. I know this is of great shock to many people. I’ve been asked a million times, “Why would you move here?” You see Michiganders are harder on Michigan than anyone else. The short answer as to why I am here is ‘my boyfriend’. I moved first and then found a job. Kalamazoo was attractive to me and to my retired baby boomer mother who is moving here this fall.
Most people I encounter outside of Michigan are under the impression that the entire state of Michigan is Detroit. This could not be farther from the truth. While Detroit is great, Kalamazoo is its polar opposite. Western Michigan is full of trees, rivers, lakes, and streams. It is beautiful and incredibly amazing. Kalamazoo has a ton of things to do. Yesterday I attended The Gilmore Festival, tomorrow night Art Hop, Saturday I will walk the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail and Sunday we will take a short drive to the lake which isn’t all that different than San Diego Bay.
Granted it is lacking a Nordstrom, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, but there are some great boutiques and farmers markets. I never have to deal with pollution, traffic, or graffiti. There is little crime, no one honks at you and parking anywhere is easy. The lines at the grocery store are short or non-existent. You rarely see homeless or pan handlers wanting to wash your windshield at a stop light.
Of course, the obvious downside is the snow. Yes, it snows and yes, I hate it. But, I have learned how to dig my car out with a shovel. I cried as I chiseled at my car door when the entire thing froze like a popsicle in an ice storm. I still hate brushing my car off when it snows. Obvious to many of you, but completely foreign to a Southern California girl like me.
Every day is an adventure…it is a whole new world here for me. The first time I saw a snow blower I thought it was a fancy hedge trimmer. I was in awe at a snow plow (another first). There are plastic deer in people’s front yards along with 3 foot statues of the Virgin Mary sitting in a protective bathtub set up on its side (aka bathtub Madonna).
But, it’s all these thing which have made me fall in love with this place, my place. In the eighteen short months I’ve been here, I’ve formed a connection to my community that I never had in San Diego. I ask you, have you formed a connection with yours?