The other day I met someone and we exchanged conversational pleasantries. As is the norm, our conversation meandered to discuss our origins. “Are you from West Michigan?” this person asked me. My answer: “I am now.”
After her look of puzzlement, I elaborated, “We have lived here for 15 years after relocating from Chicago. Before that, we lived in New York, and before that it was Philadelphia in the early ’90s.” And then I finished with, “And West Michigan is unlike any of those places.”
You may think that my emphasis was used to imply a negative, but I assure you it is just the opposite. Having lived and worked in three of the largest cities in the country, I possess a rather unique perspective in terms of drawing a comparison. One would assume, correctly so, that those cities offer arts, education and opportunity. They most certainly have great health care, wonderful mass transit capabilities and exciting nightlife. New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia exude energy and are magnetic to companies and highly skilled talent.
So why, you might ask, is this area of the Midwest so delightful in my eyes? Why did we put down anchor for the past 15 years?
The word “anchor”’ provides a clue. I’ve been here for 15 years, long before the COVID-19 pandemic gave many Americans a new list of priorities when searching for a place to live. The things that made large cities attractive — abundant nightlife, thriving arts culture, bustling shopping districts, small quaint restaurants, amenities at your apartment doorstep — are largely diminished. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan writes, “the old New York won’t come back.”
In contrast, the things that make West Michigan an attractive place to live have become even more important in the new, post-pandemic reality. Compared to large metropolitan areas, West Michigan has a much lower home-buying cost, which means you can even afford a house with a yard, or even a home office.
Another outstanding offering of this area is abundant outdoor recreation options. During the pandemic this has meant that you don’t have to be confined to your house while social distancing. But as always, you can be outside enjoying our 130 miles of trails or the longest freshwater coastline in the U.S., no matter what the season is. And yes, you can enjoy the outside even in the winter. If you’ve never seen Lake Michigan, it looks more like an ocean than a lake. All along Michigan’s West Coast, you can access the water without spending a fortune or sitting in an hours-long traffic jam. In West Michigan, we also have mountain biking, skiing, kiteboarding, hiking, 4-wheeling, dune riding and many other outdoor recreation activities.
Even our art scene is making a comeback, with all four of our largest museums open to the public, the symphony doing outdoor concerts, and ArtPrize (the largest art competition in the world) will be returning fall 2021.
If this is the first time you’re hearing of West Michigan, consider this: it was the fastest growing economy in the U.S. in 2017, according to Highlight Data. Between 2010 and 2019, over 26,000 new residents moved to the Grand Rapids-Wyoming MSA from other states or counties, according to the U.S. Census. That’s because they recognize the same thing I did 15 years ago: West Michigan is a great place to live and work. From IT to finance, marketing to engineering, HR to sales, manufacturing to health care, our companies are thriving. These job fields are spread across a few main industries — manufacturing, health care, agriculture and tourism. Innovative companies are growing here too, with a very robust incubator mindset, and growing resources and funding. In short, there is something for everyone in West Michigan.
And if you’re thinking, “I don’t know how to find a job and relocate to a new state, especially in the middle of a pandemic,” don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Our region is home to Hello West Michigan, an award-winning organization that helps new residents connect with hiring employers and find their fit in the community. Learn more about the region and their free services at www.hellowestmichigan.com, the regional hub of information.
Come visit, stay awhile, and find your place to thrive. If you make the move, perhaps, you’ll find yourself telling people you’re anchored here too.
Ann M. Harten is the CHRO and global vice president of Haworth, an office furniture manufacturer located in Holland. Her career in HR and IT has taken her all over the country living in top cities, but a move to West Michigan in 2005 opened her eyes. After discovering the hidden gem, she co-founded and leads a nonprofit called Hello West Michigan, which promotes the region as a destination for top talent.