Crain's Detroit Business
After graduating from the University of Michigan in 2006, Elizabeth Redmond moved to the Windy City to try to turn a school project into a business.
Her clean-tech design project would use high-tech ceramics to convert the energy generated by pedestrian and vehicular traffic into direct current that could be stored in batteries. She worked by day trying to secure funding and at night as a waitress in a high-end vegetarian business.
Redmond, 25, grew up in Dexter and missed the Ann Arbor area — especially bike rides along the Huron River — but what got her back to Michigan last year were the economic support systems at the state and regional level.
“Chicago is a really neat town, but the resources of a small community in Michigan are much more accessible than those in Chicago. I couldn't find much support there,” she said.
Her company, Powerleap Inc., is now a virtual tenant at Ann Arbor Spark's downtown Ann Arbor facility. She doesn't have an office there but uses its facilities and has been provided a wide variety of support services, including help with a new business plan and a due-diligence package for potential investors.
“I think this company is going to be huge, and I want it to be in the state where I grew up,” she said.
These days, it's never a surprise to hear of a 20-something who has moved to Chicago, New York or L.A. in search of greener pastures. Redmond, though, is among a crop of young professionals who realized the region's perks and potential and chose to return.
Brian Mooney seemed to have it made as an up-and-coming 20-something in Chicago, where he worked from 2002-2004 as a project manager for a construction company. But Mooney, who grew up in Rosedale Park and went to University of Detroit Jesuit High School and UM, found himself missing Detroit.
“I loved Chicago. I loved everything about it, but I have an absolute love for the Detroit area, he said.
“Being able to invest my time and energy in the city and help bring it back, preserving some of the world's best architecture, pulled me back,” he said. Mooney, 29, is a project manager for Detroit-based J.C. Beal Construction Inc. and has worked on projects at the Detroit Athletic Club, the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, Christ Church-Detroit downtown and a number of projects for Ilitch Holdings Inc. In addition, he serves on the Clawson Downtown Development Authority and is active with the Motor City Blight Busters.
He has no regrets about having left one of the most vibrant cities in North America.
“We've been hit really hard, here. Everyone is tightening their belts. I see it as an opportunity to be more creative,” he said. “People here are tough-minded, focused and passionate. Detroit's going to be a success story, maybe the biggest success story.”
When Tim Atkins, now 27, graduated from Eastern Michigan University in 2006, he, too, moved to Chicago.
“It was a graduation present to myself. I loved Chicago. I thought it was great,” he said. “I loved everything about it, but I missed the community feel of Ypsilanti, and I missed my friends.”
After 13 months, Atkins moved back and is now managing partner in Pakmode
Publications L.L.C., which has published a series of student survival guides for Michigan and Ohio universities and which publishes emYOU! The Magazine, a monthly that covers the EMU campus and Ypsilanti community.
“I wanted to start my own business, but rent everywhere in Chicago was going to be ridiculous,” said Atkins, who rents space in downtown Ypsi, where he avails himself of networking opportunities through the Spark East incubator across the street.
“There's a sense of community here — people helping each other out. I can make a difference here. I couldn't make a difference in Chicago,” he said.
Sean Forbes, 28, grew up in Farmington Hills and lived in Rochester, N.Y., from 2000-2006 while attending the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
He moved back to form the Deaf Performing Artists Network, now Deaf Professional Arts Network, which produces music videos for the hearing impaired. He works with Joel Martin, Eminem's publisher, owner of 54 Sound Studio in Ferndale, and the sort of music impresario that has helped make Detroit famous for generations.
“I just love being here,” he said. “It's a comfort thing. ... All of the other places I've lived and visited, one thing has always rung true in my head: You can take me out of the D, but you can't take the D out of me.”
Peter Allen, president of Ann Arbor-based Peter Allen & Associates, a developer of mixed-use urban projects and an adjunct professor at UM for 30 years at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business and the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, said the examples above are part of what he sees as an emerging and long-term trend.
“I've been taking my students to downtown Detroit on the first Saturday of February for 15 years. They get to see the city at an ugly time. It's a great time to measure their enthusiasm. This year, the metric for enthusiasm was off the charts,” he said.
“These are all graduate students. They're MBAs or law students or architects, and many of them have lived all over the world. They see Detroit and they see some of the greatest empty buildings in the world. And they say three things. "One, I can have a lot of fun here. Two, I can make a difference here. Three, I can make some money.' Students see themselves making a difference, and they can't do that in New York or Chicago.
“Detroit is the most undervalued big city in the world. They get their leadership and safety and education issues under control, and it's going to be a lot of fun watching it come back.”
“With all the national attention on Detroit recently, this generation, which wants to save the world, sees this as the place to do it,” said Lou Glazer, president, Michigan Future Inc. “The irony is that we may have momentum now to keep these young professionals. They see Detroit at rock bottom and they want to help fix it.”
Between October 2007 and March 2008, Michigan Future surveyed 5,360 recent Michigan college graduates. Forty-nine percent had left the state, with 17.7 percent of those who left living in Illinois, 10.7 percent living in California and 8.2 percent living in New York.
Glazer said good numbers are hard to come by, but he assumes the recession that hit after his survey accelerated the issue of out-migration of young professionals. Thirty-three percent of those who left said they had no job offer in the state, and an inability to find a job was easily the No. 1 reason for moving.
Another study was published in July 2008 by Michigan Future, titled Young Talent in the Great Lakes: How Michigan is Faring.
It showed that 21.3 percent of all households in metropolitan Chicago, or 744,000, where headed by young professionals, compared with 21.3 percent, or 269,000, in metro Minneapolis; 14.7 percent, or 311,000, in metro Detroit; and 4.9 percent, or 15,000, in the city of Detroit.
“The brain-drain issue is entirely a function of the job market in Michigan,” said Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan. “Michigan has had a history of young people who left and came back when they were ready to raise a family, which speaks to the quality of life here.”
“If you look at the most dynamic economies in the U.S. — Austin, Texas, Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle, Boston — all have a strong entrepreneurial culture,” said Greg Main, president and CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. “It's absolutely imperative we keep our young professionals. That's where a lot of entrepreneurial energy comes from.”