TRAVERSE CITY — Attorney Michael Naughton believes Traverse City is on the cusp of an economic revolution. And he believes startup companies will be the key to local economic growth.

“I consider myself a startup,” Naughton told members of the Economic Club of Traverse City last week. “I consider North Coast a startup.”

Naughton is a partner at North Coast Legal, PLC. He’s also president of the Grand Traverse Leelanau Antrim Bar Association, and serves as the treasurer of the Grand Traverse County Economic Development Corporation. He served on the board of the 20 Fathoms business incubator, is an officer of TCNewTech, and is a member of the Michigan Technological University exploratory committee. He moved to Traverse City from Detroit in 2014.

“Traverse City is a community of choice,” said Naughton. “That’s a tough choice. This is not an easy nut to crack.”

He means that doing business in Traverse City isn’t as easy as it can be in Detroit or large cities served by major highways, rail lines and other traditional transportation methods.

“We’re not the easiest place in the world to do business. We are competing with Detroit,” he said. “We are in direct competition with Detroit, we are in direct competition with Grand Rapids.”

But Traverse City is poised to become a startup in its own right as a connected city. The key to the community’s business future is the digital revolution, he said.

“In the new economy, data is the new currency. A startup is a minor revolution,” he told club members.

High-speed internet connectivity is essential to a future built on data, Naughton said.

He pointed to Detroit’s economic turnaround: That city was declining a few years ago but has recovered and today is on a path of rapid growth. Traverse City, Naughton said, is at a crossroads.

“Something is happening in Traverse City. There’s a spark. Not a fire, but a spark.”

Tech-oriented companies like Atlas Space Operations, SampleServe, Naveego and Hagerty are leading the charge, said Naughton, but more investment in people and infrastructure is required.

“People in this town are hungry — for opportunity,” he said, but there is need for upgraded services. “We need amenities for young couples.”

A few things still need to fall or be pushed into place to attract both business investment and qualified employees: affordable housing, child care, financial investment and more. He believes the first step is to create jobs.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg debate,” he said. “The heck with it — let’s just cross the street.”

If jobs exist, housing and other necessities will follow, he believes. But it won’t be easy or free.

“Traverse City is the capital of northern Michigan. We have the potential of creating something entirely new in the Midwest. As the undisputed capital of northern Michigan, you’ve got to pay for it. And taxes are part of that. Let’s be methodical with our approach. Let’s be methodical with our investment.”

Traverse City’s reputation has been on the upswing in recent years, and people elsewhere have taken notice.

“The rest of the state thinks Traverse City is a big deal. If something happens up here, it’s front-page news.”

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