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Michigan’s economic axis tilts away from Detroit

Whether Michigan’s economy is humming or wheezing depends on your zip code.

Plentiful jobs and rising wages have been the byproduct of a dynamic, growing economy in the Grand Rapids region, making it the strongest economy in Michigan and one of the faster growing metropolitan areas in the country, economic data analyzed by Bridge Magazine shows.

But just two hours east, the economic story is more angst than awe. In Saginaw and Bay City regions, the economies are shrinking while wages are either down (Bay County) or stagnant (Saginaw County).

The vast differences are proof that while Michigan’s economy is on the mend, recovery remains frustratingly uneven, with only three of the 14 metropolitan regions having yet to climb above pre-recession figures for economic output. All are on the west side of the state: Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Muskegon.

“The east side of the state has not recovered as fast as the west side of the state,” said Brian Long, currently director of Grand Valley State University’s supply management research  within the business school. He has surveyed West Michigan purchasing managers for 38 years and has chronicled the region’s economic recovery.

Grand times in Grand Rapids

An analysis of several measures of economic health — overall economic growth, wages, jobs and unemployment, found Grand Rapids has had the most vibrant economy among the state’s metropolitan statistical areas in recent years.

The Grand Rapids region, comprised of Kent, Ottawa, Barry and Montcalm counties, enjoyed the most robust job growth — 21 percent, more than 90,000 jobs — between 2012 and 2015. And though it has some of the lower average wages in the state, they rose a healthy 3.6 percent over the same three years, second best among the state’s 14 metropolitan regions.

Those 14 metropolitan regions, designated by the U.S. Census Bureau, cover just 25 of Michigan’s 83 counties, but more than 90 percent of the state’s economic output.

With a nearly 10 percent increase in gross domestic product (the total value of all goods and services produced) over three years, the Grand Rapids region had the 57th fastest growth among the nation’s 386 metropolitan regions.

The regions surrounding Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo and Detroit rounded out the top four in Michigan’s overall economic rankings. The size of the regions vary considerably: Metro Detroit, covering six counties, had 2015 GDP of more than $221 billion dollars, more than four times the size of Grand Rapids. Bay County, with an economy of $2.8 billion, was the smallest.

West Michigan has benefitted from its more diversified manufacturing base that doesn’t rely as heavily on the auto industry. Long said worker productivity has been higher in West Michigan and wages lower, lowering overall cost and making the region attractive to employers.

Indeed, the region’s 21 percent jump in jobs between 2012 and 2015 is nearly triple the 7.7 percent increase in Monroe County, the region with the second-highest boost in jobs.

“I’ve got people in the market paying $14 an hour and they can’t find people,” Long said.

But the recovery from the Great Recession has proved more elusive in other parts of the state, notably the Saginaw and Bay City regions where continued declines in economic output and stagnant to declining wages have tempered the overall picture of the state’s economy.

Saginaw and Bay counties – though neighbors, each is considered its own economic region by the government – have both seen their regional economies shrink over both one and three years. Once humming with auto jobs, along with nearby Flint, the region along I-75 has struggled like many of the smaller urban areas that previously shared in the state’s once-robust and dominant auto manufacturing sector.

“There used to be more manufacturing jobs in these small and rural areas,” said Don Grimes, economist and senior research specialist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy. “The real prosperity and the real growth is going to be in those larger metro areas.”

The three largest regions in the state – Detroit, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor – were 3rd, 2nd and 4th in terms of one-year GDP gains, according to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, which publishes the statistics every two years. Flint, which suffered one of the steepest economic declines in the state during the recession, posted the biggest one-year gain, 2.6 percent. Still, its economy is only 93 percent of what it was in 2007, among the slowest recoveries in the state. Only the economies of the Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Muskegon regions are bigger than they were before the recession.

“A big part of the problem is demographics. A lot of young people and immigrants don’t want to live in rural areas and small urban areas,” Grimes said.

Better times, and beer, flow in West Michigan

While it’s been a well-worn path for many in the Midwest to head to Chicago and Minneapolis, more young workers are heading to the largest city in West Michigan, where downtown has enjoyed a revival with the addition and expansion of higher education and healthcare industries.

That’s attracted more housing for people choosing the urban core and its lofts and new high-rise apartments that are spurred in part by a burgeoning entertainment scene.

Home of award-winning craft breweries, the conservative town now markets itself as Beer City, U.S.A. 

“The city of Grand Rapids is doing extremely well in terms of its revitalization,” Grimes said.

 

Saginaw

Saginaw and Bay City struggles

The lure of towns like Grand Rapids puts places like Bay City and Saginaw at a disadvantage. While affordable, they aren’t viewed as “hip” like Ann Arbor and even Detroit. But that’s not stopping local leaders from trying to improve the local economy.

Matthew Felan, president, CEO, Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance of Bay, Midland and Saginaw counties, said the region is working on attracting new industries while leaning upon its existing assets, including the transportation infrastructure that includes the port facilities that open both Saginaw and Bay City industry to international shipping, and the manufacturing might that has long endured along the Saginaw River. “If you want something built, our region can build it,” Felan said.

But Felan knows the job he and his peers face: the region was crushed by the devastating losses of General Motors and cuts at Dow Chemical. The downturn struck all over the region. “Every single company,” he said.

Despite the Saginaw region’s position at the bottom of the Michigan economic stack, at least through 2015, it’s seen some recent successes. For the Bridge review of the state’s economies, the Saginaw unemployment rate was 5.5 percent in 2015. It was at in 4.5 percent in October 2016. Among the bright spots is Nexteer Automotive,  which employees 5,000 people in the region and is going strong, Felan said.

The region’s leaders are hoping to lure more educated workers, more people with doctorates who might invent the next great thing that the region’s workers could build.

A glance at education statistics show how important a college degree can be to the local economy: those counties with the highest percentage of workers with a bachelor’s degree or better were in the regions doing the best.

In Washtenaw County, part of the Ann Arbor metropolitan area, 55 percent of adults have a college degree; In Oakland (part of the Detroit region), 44 percent have degrees; Kalamazoo County, 39 percent, and Kent County, 34 percent.

Only Ingham County, home to Michigan State University and state government, had high levels of education (39 percent with a bachelor’s degree or better) but fared poorly economically. At the other end of the scale, Saginaw, Bay and Monroe counties, where fewer than 20 percent of adults had a degree, did the worst economically. Statewide, 28 percent of adults have a college degree.

To Felan, that is no surprise. “It’s about talent,” he said.

The broader bay region, including Saginaw, Bay and Midland counties, is working to grow its own by working with local schools to develop the next generation of scientists and engineers. The STEM Pipeline project arranges events for younger students and works with local schools.

But for places like Detroit, Flint, Saginaw and Bay City, the future will likely be tied to the auto industry for a little while longer. That may mean accepting a smaller slice of the state’s – and the nation’s – economic pie.

“The auto industry stabilized but it stabilized in a relatively low level of employment,” said Christopher Douglas, associate professor and chair of the economics department at the University of Michigan-Flint.

Since 2015, upon which this report is based, Michigan overall has continued to climb out of the economic cellar, said Grimes, who does long-range economic forecasting  for the state.

“The Michigan economy is looking good, it’s still doing at least as well as the U.S. economy,” Grimes said. And that’s important because typically the state has slipped behind the nation at this point in a post-recession recovery, he said.

“That’s really good,” he said.

No. 1

Grand Rapids

Kent, Ottawa, Barry and Montcalm counties

Far and away the best region in the state, economically, Grand Rapids has been powered by growing manufacturing sector. It's 1-year GDP growth of 5.3 percent ranks it 32nd out of 381 metro regions in the country.

Economic Activity Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
GDP 1-yr change 2.3% 2
GDP 3-yr change 9.8% 1
Employment Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Jobs, 3-yr change 21.3% 1
Unemployment, 2015 3.7% 2
Income, wages Amount/change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Avg. annual wages $45,435 9
Wages, 3-yr change 3.6% 2

No. 2

Ann Arbor

Washtenaw County

Thirty percent of the region's economy rests with government, no surprise given the dominance of the University of Michigan and other educational institutions in the county. It's enjoyed the lowest unemployment rate in the state and wages remain high.

Economic Activity Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
GDP 1-yr change 1.8% 4
GDP 3-yr change 3.6% 8
Employment Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Jobs, 3-yr change 4.6% 4
Unemployment, 2015 3.5% 1
Income, wages Amount/change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Avg. annual wages $54,985 3
Wages, 3-yr change 1.4% 7

No. 3

Kalamazoo

Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties

Strong wage grwoth and a top-tier increase in GDP pushed this two-county region to the No. 3 spot, though just barely beating the largest region in the state.

Economic Activity Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
GDP 1-yr change 1.4% 5
GDP 3-yr change 4.3% 4
Employment Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Jobs, 3-yr change 4.1% 8
Unemployment, 2015 4.5% 5
Income, wages Amount/change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Avg. annual wages $46,938 6
Wages, 3-yr change 2.6% 3

No. 4

Detroit

Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Livingston, St. Clair and Lapeer counties

First, the bad: the highest unemployment, by region, in the state. But almost all other economic indicators trend positive: Highest average wages and among the biggest increases in jobs and economic activity.

Economic Activity Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
GDP 1-yr change 2.1% 3
GDP 3-yr change 4.9% 3
Employment Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Jobs, 3-yr change 5.2% 3
Unemployment, 2015 6.2% 14
Income, wages Amount/change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Avg. annual wages $46,079 1
Wages, 3-yr change 1.3% 8

No. 5

Niles-Benton Harbor

Berrien County

Economic activity fell from 2014 to 2015, one of the biggest declines in the state but the bright spot here in southwest Michigan was the healthy rise in wages, the best in the state at nearly 7 percent.

Economic Activity Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
GDP 1-yr change -1.8% 13
GDP 3-yr change 3.7% 6
Employment Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Jobs, 3-yr change 3.1% 10
Unemployment, 2015 5.0% 8
Income, wages Amount/change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Avg. annual wages $45,813 8
Wages, 3-yr change 6.7% 1

No. 6 (tie)

Monroe

Monroe County

With a nearly 8 percent increase in jobs, Monroe enjoyed the second highest increase in jobs and its jobless rate, at 4.4 percent in 2015 was among the lowest in the state. Wages, however, declined over three years.

Economic Activity Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
GDP 1-yr change -1.5% 12
GDP 3-yr change 2.2% 9
Employment Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Jobs, 3-yr change 7.7% 2
Unemployment, 2015 4.4% 4
Income, wages Amount/change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Avg. annual wages $46,352 7
Wages, 3-yr change -0.1% 13

No. 6 (tie)

Jackson

Jackson County

Jackson, one of the smaller MSAs in the state was mostly middle-of-the-pack in it's rankings, though it did see a better-than-average boost in wages between 2012 and 2015. One of the few regions to see its economy shrink from 2014 to 2015.

Economic Activity Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
GDP 1-yr change -0.8% 8
GDP 3-yr change 3.7% 7
Employment Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Jobs, 3-yr change 3.8% 9
Unemployment, 2015 5.1% 9
Income, wages Amount/change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Avg. annual wages $44,621 10
Wages, 3-yr change 2.5% 4

No. 6 (tie)

Midland

Midland County

The county enjoys some of the highest average annual wages, though they were flat over the three years looked at here. Unemployment and job growth were better than average. Much of the county's economic attention is focused on the future and what will happen with the Dow-DuPont merger.

Economic Activity Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
GDP 1-yr change 1.4% 12
GDP 3-yr change 7.7% 11
Employment Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Jobs, 3-yr change 4.3% 7
Unemployment, 2015 4.7% 6
Income, wages Amount/change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Avg. annual wages $55,291 2
Wages, 3-yr change 0.0% 12

No. 9

Flint

Genessee County

Still feeling the depth of the recession and the fallout of the loss of so many GM jobs. It did lead the state in year-over-year growth in the local economy and its 3-year rise in wages was better than most regions in the state. Still, unemployment has remained a problem and its growth in jobs was among the worst in the state.

Economic Activity Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
GDP 1-yr change 2.6% 1
GDP 3-yr change 3.8% 5
Employment Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Jobs, 3-yr change 2.4% 12
Unemployment, 2015 5.8% 13
Income, wages Amount/change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Avg. annual wages $43,622 11
Wages, 3-yr change 2.3% 6

No. 10 (tie)

Battle Creek

Calhoun County

The region, the fourth smallest in terms of economic output, saw wages decline from 2012 to 2015, though the average annual wages were among the highest in the state. Overall economic activity was stagnant from 2014 to 2015 and up only slightly from 2012 to 2015.

Economic Activity Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
GDP 1-yr change 0.0% 7
GDP 3-yr change 0.8% 11
Employment Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Jobs, 3-yr change 4.3% 6
Unemployment, 2015 4.9% 7
Income, wages Amount/change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Avg. annual wages $48,307 4
Wages, 3-yr change -0.5% 14

No. 10 (tie)

Muskegon

Muskegon County

Muskegon enjoyed the second highest increase in regional economic activity, behind its neighboring region of Grand Rapids, and an increase in jobs was among the best in the state. But wages remain the lowest in the state and unemployment remains stubbornly high in the county.

Economic Activity Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
GDP 1-yr change 1.1% 6
GDP 3-yr change 4.9% 2
Employment Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Jobs, 3-yr change 4.4% 5
Unemployment, 2015 5.6% 12
Income, wages Amount/change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Avg. annual wages $40,383 14
Wages, 3-yr change 0.3% 10

No. 12

Lansing-East Lansing

Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties

Only Ann Arbor leans more heavily on government as a share of its overall economic pie and that may have hurt Lansing given the cuts in state government. Wages remain high here but overall economic activity fell from 2014 to 2015.

Economic Activity Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
GDP 1-yr change -2.1% 14
GDP 3-yr change 0.7% 12
Employment Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Jobs, 3-yr change 2.6% 11
Unemployment, 2015 4.3% 3
Income, wages Amount/change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Avg. annual wages $47,510 5
Wages, 3-yr change 1.0% 9

No. 13

Bay City

Bay County

By far the smallest region in the state, the county suffered a 3-year decline in economic activity and lost the most jobs between 2012 and 2015 of all regions, percentage wise. Leaders, however, are hopeful fresh-water port and renewed manufacturing will buoy the county and the region.

Economic Activity Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
GDP 1-yr change -1.1% 9
GDP 3-yr change -3.1% 14
Employment Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Jobs, 3-yr change -2.3% 14
Unemployment, 2015 5.5% 10
Income, wages Amount/change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Avg. annual wages $41,603 12
Wages, 3-yr change 2.3% 5

No. 14

Saginaw

Saginaw County

The economic news here was all below average: 1- and 3-year declines in overall economic activity, tepid wage growth, relatively high unemployment. The county has seen renewed manufacturing and is working on developing STEM education at the high school level.

Economic Activity Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
GDP 1-yr change -1.2% 11
GDP 3-yr change -0.9% 13
Employment Change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Jobs, 3-yr change 0.9% 13
Unemployment, 2015 5.5% 10
Income, wages Amount/change Rank (out of 14 regions)
Avg. annual wages $41,563 13
Wages, 3-yr change 0.3% 11

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