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Panel to keep young people in Michigan includes one person under 40 so far

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaking into microphone
The state commission, announced in May by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is to study how to retain and attract more residents to live, work and raise families in Michigan. It aims to have policy recommendations by the end of the year. (Bridge file photo)
  • Michigan ranks 49th in population growth, which is becoming a roadblock for economic development
  • Key to reversing that trend is finding ways to retain and attract young professionals
  • So far, the state commission charged with studying the problem has only one young professional

The 16 Michigan residents named Friday to serve on a state commission focusing on population growth range from community and business leaders, to a university president to a former Republican lieutenant governor.

One thing most have in common: they’re at least a generation older than the young adults the state needs to retain and attract.

Only one member named so far is under the age of 40, according to Michigan voter records. The commission will eventually have 28 members, with at least one required to be under the age of 25.


The formation of the Growing Michigan Together Council was announced May 31 by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as a response to a building consensus that Michigan’s lagging population growth is at the root of many of the state’s challenges.

Michigan ranks 49th in population growth since 1990, ahead of only West Virginia. Its stagnating population impacts the state’s ability to attract new businesses and for existing companies to expand. It’s part of the reason Michigan workers earn less and housing values are lower than the national average. With demographers projecting population decline in the coming decades, those problems are likely to get worse unless state leaders can figure out how to reverse the trend.

The council follows a report released in May by the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan and nonprofit consulting organization Altarum that warned Michigan has “fallen behind other states in population growth, jobs, earnings, health, educational achievement, and the quality of public services at the state and local levels.” 

A recent statewide poll suggests challenges ahead: Only 55 percent of voters between the age of 18 and 29 believe they will still be living in Michigan a decade from now, according to a public opinion survey by Glengariff Group Inc. 

It’s those young adults — particularly college graduates — that the state hopes to convince to stay here, as well as luring college grads from other states to move to Michigan.

Almost all the commissioners currently named to the group focusing on the problem grew up with those young grads’ parents or grandparents. 

Fifteen of the 16 commission members named Friday are over the age of 40. Just one — Ollie Howie, of White Cloud in rural west Michigan Newaygo County, is under 30. Howie, who is 27 or 28, is a Harvard University graduate and managing director at New Community Transformation, a ven­ture cap­i­tal fund which invests in com­pa­nies owned/​operated by busi­ness lead­ers of col­or.

In June, Paul Jones III, a 25-year-old urban planner from Detroit, told Bridge Michigan that a commission exploring policies to keep young adults in the state that doesn’t include many young adults at the table would be a mistake.

Jones said he recalled packing his bags to move to Boston in May during the recent Mackinac Policy Conference (a statewide event hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber). “And I was watching all these people three times my age talking about why young people are leaving,” Jones said, laughing. “Our voices aren’t valued.”

Michigan voter records indicate year of birth but not birthdate, so Bridge was able to determine ages of all the listed commission members within a year. In some cases, Bridge found birthdates or ages in other records.

The commission will be led by two of the three septuagenarians on the commission —  John Rokolta, a 76-year-old construction company chairman who served as ambassador to the United Arab Emirates under President Donald Trump, and Shirley Stancato, either age 73 or 74, the longest-serving president and CEO of New Detroit, who now serves on the Board of Governors for Wayne State University.

Other commission members named Friday are:

Linda Apsey, age 53 or 54, of Brighton, president and CEO for ITC Holdings Corp, which owns and operates high-voltage transmission infrastructure. Apsey also served as the Manager of Transmission Policy and Business Planning for ITC.

Sandy Baruah, 57 or 58, of Grosse Pointe Park, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber. He previously served President George W. Bush as administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration and as a U.S. assistant secretary of commerce.

Brian Calley, 46, of Portland, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan. He has also served as lieutenant governor under Gov. Rick Snyder.

JoAnn Chávez, 58 or 59, of Ann Arbor, founder of the Michigan Hispanic Collaborative and president of the Michigan Hispanic Fund. Chavez is senior vice president and chief legal officer at DTE Energy.

Robert Coppersmith, 58 or 59, of Laingsburg, executive vice president of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association.

Jeffrey Donofrio, 42 or 43, of Detroit, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan. Previously, Donofrio served as director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity and executive director of Workforce Development for the City of Detroit.

Patrick F. “Shorty” Gleason, 67 or 68, of Davison, retired president and business agent for Michigan Iron Workers Local 25. He is also chairman of the Mackinac Bridge Authority.

Anika Goss-Foster, 51 or 52, of Detroit, CEO of Detroit Future City. She previously worked at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation for 16 years.

Maha Freij, 59 or 60, of South Lyon, president and CEO of ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Service).

Ollie Howie, 28, of White Cloud, managing director of New Community Transformation Fund. Howie previously was head of finance for Afriex, an international money transfer platform.

Santa Ono, 60, of Ann Arbor, president of the University of Michigan.

Bill Parfet, 76 or 77, of Hickory Corners, chair and CEO of Northwood Group. Mr. Parfet has held numerous public company positions, including Chairman of the Upjohn Company (now a part of Pfizer) and Stryker. 

Jennifer Root, 46 or 47, of Howell, executive director for SEIU Michigan, which represents four local unions and about 30,000 members.

Nickolai Vitti, 46 or 47, of Detroit, superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District.

There will eventually be 28 members on the commission. Among those not yet appointed are four members of the legislative branch and two members with expertise in demography and economics. Friday’s announcement indicated those positions are expected to be filled in the coming weeks.

In June, Rakolta and Stancato said they hope to publish an initial report by the end of the year that is expected to include some policy proposals.

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