West Michigan reverses Chicago exodus, gaining residents as state stagnates
GRAND RAPIDS — Karen Vu laughs when asked if she ever thought she’d live in Grand Rapids again.
She wasn’t unusual in the mid-2000s: Chicago looked pretty good to the Grand Rapids native after she graduated from Grand Valley State University.
After moving to the Windy City, she met her Iowa-born husband and they bought a condo in the Wicker Park neighborhood, near the hottest restaurants and indie music clubs. Her career in brand management thrived.
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But then they had kids, and the couple decided in 2015 to move to Grand Rapids. They bought a house on a cul-de-sac, and they’re reminded why on Saturday afternoons when Charlie, 8, and Leo, almost 7, play outside for hours with their friends.
“This was the right decision,” Vu said. “They would not have this in Chicago at all.”
Her story increasingly is familiar — and helps explain why the U.S. Census Bureau is expected Thursday to release decennial data confirming that west Michigan is one of the few areas in the state that grew in population.
Ahead of the release, Bridge Michigan combed through Internal Revenue Service migration data that shows Kent County in the past 10 years reversed a decadeslong exodus of young people from Michigan to Chicago.
From 2000 to 2009, Kent County lost more than 600 recent college graduates to Cook County, Illinois, but the direction of traffic along Lake Michigan reversed over the last 10 years. Greater Grand Rapids gained from Chicagoland about 2.5 times the number of people who, like Vu, had left a decade earlier.
“We have created a dynamic enough location that we’re able to draw people into the area,” said Paul Isely, an economist at Grand Valley State University.
“The growth has been phenomenal,” Isely said. “It’s resulted in us being able to put people into workplaces and be able to grow (jobs) even though we’re running out of workers in other places.”
When the census tallies are officially released Thursday, Kent County’s population is expected to grow more than 9 percent to nearly 660,000 while neighboring Ottawa County is likely to grow nearly 12 percent to almost 295,000. Early estimates indicate Kent County led the state, adding over 56,000 residents, topping the gains of Oakland County, the state’s second largest county and twice the size of Kent, by 5,000 people.
Combined, Kent and Ottawa counties likely have gained nearly 90,000 people over the decade.
That number is about 4,500 more than the state as a whole, as Michigan ranked among the worst in the U.S. for net migration, natural changes of births and deaths, and overall population growth.
And while some counties had population gains from 6 percent to 8 percent — places like Grand Traverse, Washtenaw, Kalamazoo and Livingston — no region outpaced west Michigan, a 13-county region that is now home to just over 15 percent of the people in the state.
Grand Rapids’ success comes amid a harsher outlook for the rest of the state, and it underscores the economic value of population growth: Businesses can’t grow without a workforce to fill their jobs. And a growing population creates the critical mass to support still more growth: stores, restaurants, cultural opportunities and new housing.
Statewide, Michigan’s employment is expected to be flat from 2018 to 2028. Job openings, the state warns, will mostly come as aging workers retire and when people move to other existing jobs.
The solution: attracting residents.
“Without significant, unprojected domestic or international migration to Michigan, we won’t have enough workers or slack in the labor market for significant employment growth,” according to a report issued in June by the state’s Department of Technology, Management and Budget.
In Grand Rapids, though, employers are bracing for still more expansion, according to The Right Place, the economic development arm for Kent County and five surrounding counties. After meeting with more than 100 business leaders during June, 50 percent said they planned to add workers.
“The advantage that west Michigan has is that we’re growing,” said Eric Icard, senior director of business development for The Right Place, noting that many new residents are younger people who’d moved away after college and now want to return.
“That’s the target population you want,” he said. “I think that makes us unique in the Midwest, that population is coming back to this area.”
Ready for more people
Caitlynn Haas describes herself as a “proud Michigander” who survived years in Chicago, then New York City and then North Carolina after she graduated in the mid-2010s from the University of Michigan School of Dentistry.
But as she and her oral surgeon husband, Chip Niquette, sought to establish practices and settle down in 2020, they chose west Michigan.
“We both liked the idea of being in a mid-sized city, nothing too big,” said Haas, a Lansing native.
They started work in their practices — Hass joining one in Holland, Niquette establishing one in Byron Center, southwest of Grand Rapids. And they found activities that may not be as exciting as in big cities, but an outing to drag queen Bingo established that Grand Rapids was no longer predictably conservative.
Like Vu, she hasn’t looked back.
“The minute we moved here, we knew we made the right decision,” Hass said.
Haas’ journey to Grand Rapids is the kind of story that inspires Rachel Gray.
As the executive director of Hello West Michigan, Gray promotes the area on behalf of the 80 employers that fund the agency so they can more easily recruit among people who might be drawn to larger cities and other states.
It wasn’t always easy. Isely, the Grand Valley economist, recalls the 1990s when downtown restaurants closed at 5 p.m. Now Bridge Street, Wealthy Street and the bars popping up along Michigan Avenue, where the Medical Mile is luring workers to the health sciences, all share in the action.
Today, downtown is “alive at night,” Isley said. “That’s the energy people are looking for.”
Concerts, Broadway touring shows and sporting events combine with cultural components, like the Grand Rapids Art Museum, and the city’s opera house and ballet. The structure was put into place with the culture venues, and the nightlife followed.
“You don’t see that stuff outside of major cities or places that have Tier One universities, and we have them here,” Isely said, noting the concentrated effort by city leaders over the past 30 years. “That’s drawing people here in ways we never anticipated.”
Few areas in Michigan are gaining people from other places — both other states and countries — like greater Grand Rapids.
From 2010 to 2019, Kent and Ottawa counties attracted 24,068 people from outside of the state. Another 4,500 moved to two other counties in the region, Barry and Montcalm, according to data from Gray’s agency.
That migration accounts for 34 percent of the four-county population growth over the decade.
Gray’s job is to maintain or increase the pace.
She uses digital messaging and other advertising to target recent college graduates and other young professionals who’ve left Michigan for Washington, D.C., Texas, the Northwest and Chicago and may be ready to escape big city life and be closer to family.
Before the pandemic, competition was smaller cities like Denver and Austin. But new dynamics — like people working from home and moving from core cities — could further reshape the Grand Rapids region, Gray said. So far this year, the top 20 areas generating traffic on the Hello West Michigan website include Los Angeles, New York City, Boston and San Francisco.
New arrivals are expected to fill openings in the region’s largest manufacturers and health care, two sectors that drive much of the job growth that, like the population gains, sets the region apart.
Immigration helps fuel boom
Immigration plays a big role in the population gains, with 58 percent of the new residents in Kent and Ottawa from 2010 to 2019 coming from other countries, or nearly 18,000. Leading the way today is Mexico, Guatemala and Vietnam.
In 2018, when immigrants made up 8 percent of the Grand Rapids population but nearly 10 percent of those who were working age, they were credited with preserving at least 2,000 manufacturing jobs in Kent County, according to a report by Samaritas, a social service nonprofit, the city and the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.
Two years earlier, immigrants were credited with adding $3.3 billion to the regional economy, according to a report from the bipartisan New Economy Initiative.
At that time, the regional unemployment rate had dipped below 3 percent. It was 4.5 percent in June. Besides manufacturing, many are employed in the warehousing industry, hospitality and construction.
As much as two-thirds of the immigration has been generated by the refugee resettlement agencies in Kent County, led by Bethany Christian Services and Samaritas. It started after the Vietnam War, when the Freedom Flight Network brought Vietnam families to the region. Later, many of the so-called “lost boys of Sudan” were welcomed into the community.
While the U.S. lowered the cap on refugees allowed into the country over the last four years and COVID-19 further halted immigrations, the numbers are increasing again, said Chris Cavanaugh, new American services manager at Samaritas.
Employers can’t wait.
“(They’re) reaching out to me multiple times every week,” Cavanaugh said. “So many employers are looking for workers.”
Refugees go through up to two years of vetting by the U.S. State Department, Cavanaugh said, and some wait decades to be able to join family members. Self-sufficiency within months of arrival is a goal of the program, and the new residents value work that offers a predictable 40-hour work week. Several employers fill their opening by working with the agencies, Cavanaugh said.
New arrivals are Congolese, Syrian and from Myanmar, Cavanaugh said, with Afghan refugees expected to soon add to the mix.
The community embraces refugees, Cavanaugh said, with many churches and volunteers getting involved because of what he called fulfilling a faith-based calling for “human to human life-saving work.”
But there’s also a recognition that they fulfill manufacturing and hospitality workforce needs in the community.
“Economically, things are booming,” he said. “There’s a need for and willingness to hire these workers.”
Hello West Michigan started a decade ago when CEOs noticed that “when they tried to recruit from out of the area, people weren’t interested in coming (here),” Gray said.
“Not only do they have to sell the company. They have to sell the community as well,” she said.
People considering a move to the region ask: Will they meet other people like themselves?
As the region grows, it’s becoming politically diverse: Once a Republican stronghold, Kent County voted Democratic in the 2020 presidential election.
Racial diversity lags: About 21 percent of county’s residents are either Black or Hispanic, a rate that hasn’t changed in 10 years. That worries people coming from bigger cities and college campuses.
“Grand Rapids has a challenge, and an opportunity,” said Guillermo Cisneros, CEO of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Cisneros said he spent three years in a professional organization in which he was the only non-white member. Others in the group accepted him in that setting, but he found that forming closer bonds was difficult. The growth of the last decade contrasted to the more insular nature of the area before that.
“Social circles are closed,” he said. “You don’t get to become friends easily with people who have been in west Michigan for a long time.”
That can play out in retention, as new employees of varied backgrounds learn that adjusting to living in the community may not come easily.
Many groups are trying to change that, including Hello West Michigan and a collaboration that involved the Hispanic Chamber to create a “welcome plan” for new immigrants.
The work is well-intentioned, Cisneros said, but “I think we are going to need a generation to … change.”
Regional job growth should help, he said.
Michigan tracks economic activity by grouping its counties into 10 so-called prosperity regions. By mid-July the 13-county west Michigan region led the state in its measure of job demand, posting a 1.3 percent increase over the previous month. The biggest drivers: Grand Rapids, followed by Holland.
Only southeast Michigan joined west Michigan in positive job demand for July of a fraction of a percentage point. In comparison, the northwest Lower Peninsula had a 13.7 percent decline. The Upper Peninsula’s drop was nearly 10 percent.
The Grand Rapids-based region fares well, too, in the state’s Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiative biennial forecasts of what the job market will look like. The latest report, released in July, found the region should have 2.6 percent annual job growth from 2018 through 2028, representing just over 20,000 jobs — four times the next highest, southeast Michigan. In comparison, metro Detroit can expect to lose 33,000 jobs.
Alita Kelly, who early this year opened the South East Market grocery in the Boston Square neighborhood of Grand Rapids, said some of the city’s long-term Black and Hispanic residents see gentrification creeping into their neighborhoods.
“A lot of the people coming in are from higher socioeconomic categories,” said Kelly, adding she hopes “we can retain our culture and not just succumb to all of the new entities that are about to show up here.”
The rosy look for west Michigan’s population gains doesn’t appear like it will tail off soon, but unclear is when Heather and Brandon Springett will get to move there with their son, Henry.
The couple fits the profile of Chicago residents who are ready to move to the Grand Rapids area: They’re both from the area, Michigan State University graduates and, after 10 years in the Lakeview area near Wrigley Field, they’re ready to leave their condo for a house in their hometown.
But after two years of watching real-estate listings, Heather Springett said the west Michigan housing shortage isn’t making it easy. The average home sale in June was $294,098, up about $51,000 from two years earlier.
“With the housing market the way it is, we’re not in any kind of a hurry,” she said.
“We kind of thought we could leave Chicago and get so much more for our money,” said Springett. Instead, she said, home prices have increased and some of those now-pricey homes need six-figure renovations.
The couple, for now, will stay in Chicago and continue to watch MSU football games with crowds of fellow alumni at Hopsmith Tavern.
But with population growth on a roll — Kent and Ottawa counties are even two of the top three counties for natural growth, with more births than deaths — increasing housing access is the top priority for coming years.
Low housing prices used to be its asset. Now, housing is by far the largest challenge we have, said Cavanaugh of Samaritas.
Housing Next, a program started by nonprofits and economic developers to increase housing, said the city of Grand Rapids needs 3,548 new owner-occupied homes by 2025 to meet demand. And the city is short 5,340 rental units in a town where average rent went up almost 14 percent over two years to $1,193 this summer.
Over Kent and Ottawa counties, nearly 32,000 additional new homes, both for-sale and rental, are needed by 2025, according to projections. Yet in 2020, permits were issued for 1,140 single family homes in Ottawa. The total was unavailable for Kent.
The lack of housing is suppressing economic growth, said Ryan Kilpatrick, executive director of Housing Next.
“We’ve got to catch up,” Kilpatrick said. “We’ve got to dig ourselves out of the hole in terms of the number of units we’re already lacking, and simultaneously build enough new housing so that we can support growth, from low-income all the way up to C-suite executives who want to move into the community.”
The growth in west Michigan, Kilpatrick said, “is a success story” and exactly what government, philanthropic and business leaders set out to accomplish 20 years ago.
“But I think it’s a lesson learned that housing doesn’t always build itself,” he said.
But the west side of Michigan isn’t for everybody, said Gray, who says she won’t advertise to the Southern states during winter due to the obvious weather difference.
Vu said her return to Grand Rapids wasn’t seamless. She was able to retain her Chicago-level pay, making an estimated 30 percent more per year while working from home for her out-of-state employer than she would if she worked locally.
Yet Darren Bursick, her husband, who was in commercial development financing, was not able to find something comparable. He became a stay-at-home parent.
Even amid the rush to find workers and expand hiring in west Michigan, the pay differential could be a barrier to people considering a move, Vu said. And the job opportunities exist in a smaller space than in Chicago.
But people who do make the choice to move to greater Grand Rapids will find an increasing vibrancy — from emerging small businesses to more accessible transportation, even down to scooter rentals, she said.
It’s not close to what she found in Chicago, but different from the town she left when she was “just looking for more excitement in life.”
“The developments, the restaurants, the culture is more there.”
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