Michigan’s pitch to lure new residents: nature, high tech, abortion rights
- Michigan is 49th in population growth in the U.S., hobbling economic development efforts
- A marketing campaign to lure newcomers, similar to the ‘Pure Michigan’ ads for tourism, may be rolled out this fall
- The pitches range from lauding Detroit-style pizza to affordable housing and abortion rights
There may be a new twist on the “Pure Michigan” campaign soon — one that may prove more controversial than the old Tim Allen ads — aimed at getting more young adults to move here, land jobs, have babies and pay taxes.
Economic leaders in the administration of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer plan to launch a marketing campaign to retain young professionals and attract young workers to move here, part of a larger effort to address the state’s flagging population growth and boost economic development.
A draft concept report, circulated in March by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and reviewed by Bridge Michigan, includes mock-ups of online ads and billboards that could be used to attract full-time residents, much like the Pure Michigan campaign has been used for decades to lure tourists.
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The report pitches Michigan-raised actors Terry Crews, Sam Richardson and Kristen Bell as potential spokespeople for the campaign. It includes mock-ups of video and cell-phone ads and billboards pushing possible selling points of Michigan life, including the state’s increasingly progressive political climate.
The proposed pitches to new residents range from home affordability to abortion rights.
A release from the governor’s office in April called the project the “nation’s largest talent attraction campaign.” The release did not include survey results from the MEDC report that described the uphill battle Michigan will face.
Michigan’s population has languished for decades, and ranks 49th in the nation in population growth since 1990, as well as 49th since 2000, ahead of only West Virginia. The state has just over 10 million people, down about 43,000 since 2020.
Michigan now ranks 10th in total population. It ranked 8th as recently as 2010, but was passed by Georgia and North Carolina.
Multiple forecasts predict the state’s population will grow slowly before declining in the mid-2040s as deaths consistently outnumber births as the state, already one of the oldest in the nation, continues to age.
That stagnation matters: Longstanding doubts about the availability of skilled workers in Michigan can nudge businesses searching for new sites to pick faster-growing states and cause companies already located here to hesitate to expand.
States with fast-growing economies not only have burgeoning populations, but an increasing number of college graduates. Which likely explains why the Whitmer campaign appears to target young professionals — particularly those seeking EV or tech-related jobs.
One potential ad shows two hikers on a sand dune overlooking a lake, with the words, “Million dollar views for every salary.” Another proclaimed “Invent the automobile again.”
According to the internal MEDC report, recruiting and retaining talent is
“especially imperative for Michigan” as population declines, leaving “concern that there won’t be enough people to do the jobs that are anticipated in the future.”
The campaign, which is proposed to launch this fall, follows a survey conducted for MEDC. Among the findings: “Michigan is perceived well on its quality-of-life attributes but lacks a strong innovation story or a unique selling proposition on job and career attributes.”
A national marketing firm, DCI, which has done work for Florida, Cincinnati, Seattle and others, conducted the research. It surveyed over 800 Michigan residents, including more than 120 who had moved to the state, as well as another nearly 1,500 people who live in the Cleveland, San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Atlanta metropolitan areas
The results showed the tough fight Michigan faces attracting residents. Among survey respondents who don’t live here, the most common word used to describe Michigan as a place to live was “cold;” the most common phrase to describe Michigan as a place to work was “don’t know.”
Luring more residents won’t be easy, said Eric Scorsone, director of the Extension Center for Local Government Finance and Policy at Michigan State University.
“As a state, I don’t think we’ve done a good job retaining and attracting people,” Scorsone said. “Michigan has a disadvantage right off the bat because people don’t like the weather. (So) we have to be not just not bad (to attract new residents), but be really good, to overcome” the winter season.
Calls for comment to the MEDC were not immediately returned Friday, but the effort follows one of Whitmer’s themes in her State of the State address on January 25.
"Let's give them reasons to stay beyond the promise of a home-cooked meal or free laundry facilities," she said of Michigan high school and college graduates who move elsewhere for jobs.
Attracting workers from other states also should be a goal, she said then, including capitalizing on Michigan’s recent legislation preserving abortion access, LGBTQ rights and the state’s relative affordability.
"Ambitious young people have a lot of options when they graduate. As they decide where they want to live, we must make sure that Michigan is the answer," she said.
It was unclear whether there is a budget for the marketing campaign to lure residents — the full marketing budget for TravelMichigan is $39 million this year — or if Whitmer would ask the Legislature for money.
Some of the ads could be controversial. One proposed ad reads “EV and Plan B: Progress your career in tech … and your healthcare rights.”
Another lauds Detroit-style pizza as a reason to stay in Michigan.
Building a larger and younger workforce “is the biggest economic challenge that Michigan has going forward,” said Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future Inc. a nonprofit think tank focused on increasing the state’s prosperity and college-going culture.
“We are likely to have more people leaving the labor market than entering the labor market and you simply can't grow an economy with that kind of demographics,” he said.
The issue is not just about numbers, Glazer said. Educational attainment also needs to be factored into worker attraction. The state now ranks 30th for residents ages 25 to 34 with four-year college degrees, a number Glazer said affects the state’s per capita income.
“So if you want to be a prosperous state, you have to have young talent,” Glazer said.
Rob Fowler, CEO of Public Policy Associates and former director of the Small Business Association of Michigan, said Michigan’s population problem is “on the radar” of Whitmer and her administration.
“There’s a relationship between place, talent and business,” Fowler said. “It used to be that talent chased business, from the south the north, from cities to suburbs. I think that’s different now. Talent chooses place first, and business follows talent.”
Michigan has lost more people to other states than have moved to Michigan for decades — over 1 million people since 1990. In some decades, those domestic migration losses were overcome by immigrants from abroad and a then-healthy birth rate. But now, deaths exceed births and the state’s losses to other states — over 43,000 since 2020 — equal the state’s overall population loss over the past two years.
Reversing that trend is key to improving Michigan’s economy, said Michigan Chamber President Jim Holcomb.
“A lot of people are working very hard to expand their business or to attract jobs to Michigan,” he said. “And we need to make sure we have the talented, skilled workforce that can fill those positions.”
Finding success in attracting young talent likely will mean considering the characteristics of where they want to live — and then where they can find something similar in Michigan, Glazer said.
“This is a group of people where quality of place matters enormously,” Glazer said. “We've not invested in the kind of built environment that the millennials are looking for. And it sure seems like Generation Z is looking for the same thing.”
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