TRAVERSE CITY — The Traverse City region needs a more diversified economy, one that draws and keeps working-age people with families.
TraverseConnect President Warren Call said early findings of a study suggest as much. He showed city commissioners numbers Tuesday showing jobs in Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties have grown by 8.7 percent over the last five years.
What’s concerning is how jobs concentrated in the health care, retail trade, government and hospitality sectors, Call said. They’re crucial sectors that deserve support for future growth, but attention is needed to grow other, lagging sectors.
A lack of diversity fuels a trend where young workers who flocked to the region in their 20s leave as they age, Call said. Now, the Grand Traverse Economic Development Corporation wants to start a county-wide, public-private partnership focused on strategies to by attracting new businesses and expanding and retaining those already here.
The study Call cited is part of a plan to create that partnership through a county-wide economic development organization, he said.
“Our belief is that Grand Traverse County, the Grand Traverse region and Traverse City as a city need to take a more comprehensive approach to economic development and be more strategic about growing a prosperous, sustainable overall economy,” he said.
Grand Traverse County’s population of people age 20 through 34 grew by 13 percent from 2010 to 2017, according to population figures Call cited. But the population of those age 35 through 49 fell by 10 percent at the same time, and those 19 and younger fell by 5 percent.
Those numbers show how young people drawn by the region’s attractiveness struggle with job prospects, buying a bigger house and finding childcare as they get older and start families, Call said.
People who struggle start to look elsewhere, eroding a population segment that affects schools, drives income inequality and impacts the region’s prosperity as a whole, Call said.
A countywide economic development organization would focus on expanding existing businesses and organizations, and attracting talent, Call said.
Talent attraction could mean training people already here, Call said. Commissioner Amy Shamroe said local programs seem to focus on trades or sending kids off to college, and Call agreed educational institutions can train and keep talent locally.
Commissioner Roger Putman said it’s difficult for a family earning a lower wage to live in the area. He talked about a hypothetical worker making $11 an hour and seeing their earnings eaten away by taxes, child care, rent and other living costs.
Call said that points to a need for an open discussion about addressing the gap between wages in the Traverse City area and living costs there. A company struggling to fill jobs has to ask if it’s because of a lack of available people, or if they’re not offering to pay enough, he said.
People already in Traverse City might reject such efforts as they see the area becoming more crowded, Commissioner Tim Werner said. He asked, what’s in it for them?
They’ll see perks, too, Call said. Business expansion means existing employees could have promotion opportunities. There’s knock-on effects, too, as workers who are promoted have an easier time affording a house and child care. A growing tax base is also good for schools and other things, he said.
Call said the economic development organization would focus on job creation and rely on other partners to address other questions — the organization would look to Housing North for solutions to the area’s housing issues, for example.
The idea of forming an economic development organization stems from a plan the Grand Traverse County Economic Development Organization formed after reorganizing in 2017 to include Traverse City representation, Call said previously.
EDC planners concluded both local governments and private-sector partners should form a county-wide economic development organization, Call said previously.
TraverseConnect — parent organization of Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and others — is retooling to fill that role, Call said. A full plan laying out how the organization will work is coming in September.
Mayor Jim Carruthers said he has a shelf “bowing with the weight” of various studies and plans to collaborate regionally on a stronger economy, from the Grand Vision in 2004 onward. He hopes the current process is the one that spurs action.
Call noted two differences between the long list of studies Carruthers cited and plans for the economic development organization. The private sector is leading the planning for the organization, for one.
Secondly, the challenges now are much more acute than they were in 2004, Call said.
“This is an issue that should concern us enough to take bolder action now,” he said.