“Twenty-Something” Entrepreneurs Return To Northern Michigan
May 24, 2013
HARBOR SPRINGS—As Governor Rick Snyder wrestles with growing the economy and creating jobs, Northwest Michigan finds itself experiencing a “twenty-something” phenomena: Young adults are returning home, often to create their own opportunities.
Most have left big city jobs to return home for the slower pace and old-fashioned values. They miss being by the water…and their families. In the sleepy, 1,200-people, posh resort community of Harbor Springs nestled alongside Lake Michigan, at least a dozen have returned in the last year to either set up shop or buy an existing business. The pattern is repeating itself throughout the region as young entrepreneurs exit Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Twenty-seven year old Jordon Breighner returned after successful, lightning-speed ascensions in both the Obama White House and then New York-based advertising agency SS+K. The 2004 Harbor High School graduate just signed a three-year lease for a main street building to launch “Cool Labs”, a technology start-up business.
“I call it the ‘farmers market’ tipping point,” Breighner said in a recent interview with the weekly Harbor Light. “People are coming back to understanding the importance of quality, community, and relationships. These things are what we’ve always had here in Harbor Springs.”
He adds that along with the natural resources, he can buy an apple from the farmer that grows it as opposed to shopping the produce section in a box store. Organic farming and wine production has become another growth area drawing this generation back to the region, as has the market for fine arts and hand-created crafts driven by the growing number of street fairs, co-operative art stores and centers that draw year-round tourists.
Breighner also noted that with the growth of technology, people can work anywhere. He has seen tech companies needing $5,000 to $5 million to launch become successful. His Cool Labs concept is simple: bring in young entrepreneurs, give them seed capital in exchange for a little equity in their company, and pair them with mentors as they build product. He continues to seek more capital investors.
“In Harbor Springs, we have all these resources, mentors, capital,” he said about the upscale summer resort community that has attracted millionaires and business tycoons like the Freys, Fords, Gambles and Wrigleys for generations. “It rivals anywhere in the country, and we’ll be giving start-ups access to the things they wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else.”
Just up Harbor’s Main Street, 29-year-old Petoskey High School graduate Katie Capaldi just purchased the long established independent bookstore, Between the Covers after having been a professional dancer and instructor in Chicago, San Francisco, Montana and across the country. She had worked in an independent Petoskey bookstore managed by her mother while attending school. She still offers dance lessons in the evenings.
“I like the water more than other geographic landscapes I found,” she said. She also wants to be close to family. “I prefer the four seasons and, from more of a business perspective, people living around here are readers and offer strong support during summer season.” She added that a lot of people from downstate have lost their own independent stores so they have a greater appreciation for smaller stores where they can talk to people about books.
Harbor Light News Editor Jessica Evans, 28, returned to her hometown weekly newspaper job last year when her husband finished his military service. Both Harbor Springs High School graduates, they said it was a natural decision to be close to water and home after traveling the world. Other local, young Harbor Springs entrepreneurs have returned to establish landscaping services, flower shops, yoga and photography studios, catering or event planning businesses.
While local Chambers of Commerce and Economic Development organizations focus on attracting larger businesses to provide jobs, entrepreneurs pursue their own opportunities to maintain control over their lives and destinies. They’ve chosen the slower place, time with family and great outdoors of “home” over the bright lights of the city that once lured them away.
Leelanau County Commissioners just voted to abolish their own economic development corporation and rejected a partnership with nearby Grand Traverse County designed to promote growth. Meeting in Suttons Bay on April 8, commissioners said that their Northwestern Lower Peninsula County is wealthy enough already and doesn’t need to grow. They said it’s up to people to find their own jobs or businesses and make their own plans.
“We’ve been a county for over 150 years,” Commissioner Karen Zemaitis told the The Detroit News. “The people in this county have always managed to make a living, whether it was fishing or ice-marketing. Times changed, that didn’t work, they went to agriculture, cherries. Now they have the wineries. These independent, intelligent people in our county can make a living for themselves. They can develop their own economic community, they can figure out what it takes to have a business here. They can adapt.”
Ken Winter, former editor and publisher of the Petoskey News-Review and member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, teaches political science and journalism at North in Petoskey and Michigan State University.