2016 Get Local Party

Back to the Mitten: Northwest Michigan’s Millennial Transplants

January 10, 2017 | |

Photo: Chris and Laura Touhey enjoy the annual Dune Climb concert in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Traverse City has understandably gotten lots of attention for attracting millennial talent back to northwest Michigan. TC has the food scene, the microbreweries, the walkable downtown, the music, arts and festivals, which is why the town has experienced something of a renaissance over the past 10 years.

Howard Lovy captured the mood in this 2012 story for Crain's Detroit Business about Traverse City's "boomerang effect". The movement has gained momentum since then. (In this context, "boomerang" is meant to describe one who returns to the community or region where they grew up, but not necessarily to their parents' basement.)

But northwest Michigan's urban hubs aren't the only places where boomerangs and transplants are settling.

Despite very little affordable housing, few year-round skilled jobs, and a transit predicament that all but requires one's family to own a car, some millennials have foresaken the big city for the pristine views and laid-back quality of life in Leelanau and Benzie counties. The lucky ones have landed within a village, where they can bike, walk or ski to the grocery store, the cafe and the local tavern.

The Leelanau-based Glen Arbor Sun and Benzie-based Betsie Current have run a series of stories and interviews in recent years about millennials who took great risks by leaving urban jobs and settling in the rural mitten. In the process, they foresook financial gain (and many 21st century amenities) and chose love of place. (full disclosure: I publish and own the Sun and co-edit the Current)


Brain drain

The characters featured below are exceptions to the rule — the proverbial salmon swimming upstream. One of Michigan’s most acute problems during the economic downturn over the past couple decades has been the state’s “brain drain” — the bleeding of young talent who’ve left for greener pastures — Chicago, New York, California.

Most millennials who have come of age during the rise of the “creative class” have chosen to live and play in thriving cities — Chicago, Brooklyn, San Francisco, Austin — with stable jobs, urban diversity, public transit, bicycle lanes, and nonstop stimulation. That outward migration has decimated many Michigan communities.

Behold these statistics, from the US Census Explorer: the share of Michigan's population between ages 18 and 34 declined from 29.9% in 1980 to 23% in 2000 to a painful 21.8% in the period 2009-2013. Local county numbers are similar: in Grand Traverse County, the percentage of the 18-34 population fell from 31.5% in 1980 to 20.5% in 2009-13; in Leelanau the decline was 26.1% to 13.5%, in Benzie it was 24.8% to 15.3%, in Kalkaska it was 25.9% to 17.5%, and in Antrim County it was 24.1% to 14.8%.

The futurists got it wrong, Michigan Future president Lou Glazer told a summit of young professionals that I attended last year in Lansing. The Netscape Navigator browser launched in 1994, marking what many consider the dawn of the Internet age. Because digital work could foreseeably be done from any place, the futurists had predicted that the creative class would return to rural America and work from their cabins, their mountaintops, their riversides. But the opposite has happened. Now, 75 percent of millennials are concentrated in big cities; their generation is more urbanized than any other generation in history.

Michigan powerbrokers — in government, in the private sector, and in communities — are slowly but surely coalescing around the need to retain and attract young talent. Governor Rick Snyder and Jennifer Granholm before him have both prioritized appealing to young professionals. In Detroit, Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert is bringing young employees into Motown. Regional talent initiatives like Detroit Homecoming, Ann Arbor Spark and Hello West Michigan are gaining steam. Grand Rapids, Marquette, and Traverse City, too, appear younger and edgier than they did a decade ago.


Most beautiful place in America

Despite winning beauty contests every summer, and despite the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore continuously breaking its annual visitation records, Leelanau County's year-round population is growing older. The average age in my hometown of Glen Arbor, according to the 2010 census, is 63. Jobs in this seasonal economy are plentiful — at least during the summer and fall — but buying or renting a home, or land, is nearly impossible for a middle-class millennial who wants to stay in Glen Arbor, or return to the nest after testing the wider waters.

Nevertheless, meet these young professionals and boomerangs who are making a go of it. (Click on the links for their full stories)


Chris and Laura Touhey:

Chris grew up near Glen Arbor (his family lived for a time in a farmhouse near Port Oneida that’s now in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore), left for school in Ann Arbor then spent a decade in sunny southern California. He and Laura moved a year ago into a one-bedroom home that he built near the old Dickinson Gallery on south shore of Little Glen Lake. Their daughter Finley was born in February. Touhey, an architect by trade, works for a construction firm that, as luck would have it, is doing a project for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians in nearby Peshawbestown.


Peter and Cassidy (Edwards) Fisher:

Natives of Glen Arbor and bearing last names that are part of the town’s fabric, they forsook the East Coast and returned six years ago to make Leelanau their home. Cassidy left Leelanau County in 2005 to attend Middlebury College in Vermont. She returned in 2010 after working for a year in Colorado. Peter left in 2000 to attend the University of New Hampshire. He spent his summers back home. He moved to Philadelphia permanently in 2004. He returned to Leelanau County in 2010 with Cassidy. They live in Cedar.


Wayne "Soni" Aylsworth:

An Empire native, Soni, his wife April, and their three kids (Lexi, Blake and Corbin) returned to Leelanau County for good in July 2013, after 10 years in Detroit. Soni's all purpose outfitter Empire Outdoors opened in spring 2014 on M-22, next to the Empire Lakeshore Inn. Soni, whose mom Diane owns Diane’s Hairstyling, had grown tired of the Sunday night drive back downstate after visits “home” nearly every weekend to fish and hike. His great-great-great grandfather, George Aylsworth, reportedly came from North Manitou Island and was Empire’s founding father.


Matt and Katy Wiesen:

In 2012 Katy and Matt Wiesen, owners of Crystal River Outfitters, the Cyclery and the M-22 Store in Glen Arbor, were named among the region’s 40 most influential people under age 40. The young Wiesens are the maestros of Glen Arbor’s “recreation district” on the eastern edge of Western Avenue. They’re doing their part to make the town, and its summer tourists, more active, outdoorsy and physically fit.


Ethan Przekaza and Meg Doby:

Benzie County native Ethan Przekaza, 30, graduated from the Leelanau School in 2004. He met his wife Meg Doby, 28, at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. The pair left the UP in May 2010, staying in Benzie for a couple of weeks before traveling to Washington, D.C. They hiked a few miles on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia, then headed west along the Northern Route through Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, before ending up in Denver in late July 2010. In early 2016, the couple moved back from Colorado, bought a house in Beulah, and landed work at Crystal River Outfitters in Glen Arbor. They are thrilled to be back and enjoying their lives together in “one of the most beautiful places in the world.”


Frederik Stig-Nielsen and Betsy Mas:

Frederik and Betsy were done with Portland. The Pacific Northwest city — defined by its bourgeois, new-age hipsterdom and parodied, as such, in the hit online show Portlandia — was just too perfect and too homogenous for the young couple, who wanted to live in a place with a grittier, more genuine lifestyle. “I didn’t need to have 10 vegan options down the street,” laughs Stig-Nielsen. “Life was so easy there,” explains Mas. “It didn’t feel real. It was too easy to be healthy, to eat organic foods, and to recycle. Life came on a silver spoon… We wanted a place that had more of an edge.”

So after finishing law school at Lewis & Clark College in May 2013, the young, dynamic couple moved to Elberta, the hamlet across Betsie Bay from Frankfort. The couple instantly fell in love with this place: its beauty, its friendly locals, its laid-back culture, and its creativity. The couple didn’t just survive the brutal winter of 2014 (their first together in Michigan); they embraced it by climbing and snowboarding the steep hills behind Elberta, cross-country skiing across Betsie Bay to Glen’s Market for groceries, and taking part in Wednesday trivia nights at Stormcloud.


Dear readers, which millennial boomerangs and transplants do you know in rural northern Michigan who we should feature in our New Economy series?


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