Western Michigan reverses Chicago exodus, gains residents as state stagnates

As the executive director of Hello West Michigan, Gray promotes the region on behalf of the 80 employers who fund the agency so they can more easily recruit from people who may be attracted to large cities and towns. other states.

It wasn’t always easy. Isely, the Grand Valley economist, remembers 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 draws workers to the health sciences, all join in the action.

Today the city center is “alive at night,” Isley said. “This is the energy that people are looking for.

Concerts, traveling Broadway shows, and sporting events combine with cultural elements, like the Grand Rapids Art Museum, as well as the city’s opera and ballet. The structure was put together with the cultural venues, and the nightlife followed.

“You don’t see this stuff outside of big cities or places that have level one universities, and we have them here,” Isely said, noting the concentrated efforts of city leaders over the past 30 years. “It attracts people here in a way we never anticipated. “

Few parts of Michigan attract people from other places – both from other states and countries – like the great Grand Rapids.

From 2010 to 2019, Kent and Ottawa counties attracted 24,068 people from out of state. 4,500 others have moved to two other counties in the region, Barry and Montcalm, according to data from the Gray agency.

This migration accounts for 34 percent of the population growth of the four counties over the decade.

Gray’s job is to keep up or increase the pace.

She uses digital messaging and other advertisements to target recent college graduates and other young professionals who have moved from Michigan to Washington, DC, Texas, the Northwest and Chicago and who may be ready to escape. to life in big cities and to get closer to their families.

Before the pandemic, the competition was made up of small towns like Denver and Austin. But new dynamics – like people working from home and moving out of central cities – could still reshape the Grand Rapids area, Gray said. So far this year, the top 20 driving areas for the Hello West Michigan website are Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and San Francisco.

Newcomers are expected to fill vacancies in the region’s largest manufacturers and healthcare, two sectors that are driving much of the job growth that, like population gains, set the region apart.

Immigration helps fuel boom

Immigration plays an important role in population gains, with 58% of new residents of Kent and Ottawa from 2010 to 2019 coming from other countries, or nearly 18,000. Mexico, Guatemala and Vietnam open the way today.

In 2018, when immigrants made up 8% of Grand Rapids’ population but nearly 10% of those of working age, they were credited with preserving at least 2,000 manufacturing jobs in Kent County, according to a report from Samaritas, a nonprofit social service organization. , the City and the Chamber of Commerce of the Grand Rapids area.

Two years earlier, immigrants were credited with adding $ 3.3 billion to the regional economy, according to a report by the bipartisan New Economy Initiative.

By this time, the regional unemployment rate had fallen below 3%. It was 4.5% in June. In addition to manufacturing, many are employed in the warehousing, hospitality and construction industries.

Up to two-thirds of immigration has been generated by refugee resettlement agencies in Kent County, run by Bethany Christian Services and Samaritas. It all started after the Vietnam War, when the Freedom Flight Network brought Vietnamese families to the area. Later, many “lost boys from Sudan” were welcomed into the community.

As the United States has lowered the cap on refugees allowed into the country over the past four years and COVID-19 has further disrupted immigration, the numbers are rising again, said Chris Cavanaugh, new head of U.S. services at Samaritas.

Employers cannot wait.

“(They) contact me several times a week,” Cavanaugh said. “So many employers are looking for workers. “

Refugees undergo up to two years of control by the US State Department, Cavanaugh said, and some wait decades to be able to reunite with family members. Self-sufficiency in the months following arrival is a goal of the program, and new residents appreciate the job that provides a predictable 40-hour work week. Several employers are filling their positions by working with agencies, Cavanaugh said.

The new arrivals are Congolese, Syrians and Burmese, Cavanaugh said, and Afghan refugees are expected to join the mix soon.

The community welcomes refugees, Cavanaugh said, with many churches and volunteers getting involved because of what he called carrying out a faith-based call for “human-to-human lifesaving work.” “.

But it is also recognized that they meet the labor needs of manufacturing and hospitality in the community.

“Economically, things are booming,” he said. “There is a need and a willingness to hire these workers.

The challenges of diversity

Hello West Michigan started a decade ago when CEOs noticed that “when they tried to recruit from outside the region people weren’t interested in coming (here),” Gray said.

“Not only do they have to sell the business. They also have to sell the community, ”she said.

People who are considering moving to the area ask themselves: Will they meet other people like them?

As the region grows, it becomes politically diverse: once a Republican stronghold, Kent County voted Democratic in the 2020 presidential election.

Racial diversity is lagging behind: about 21% of the county’s residents are either black or Hispanic, a rate that has not changed in 10 years. This worries people coming from big cities and college campuses.

“Grand Rapids has a challenge and an opportunity,” said Guillermo Cisneros, CEO of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

About Jonathan Bell

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