Brains! Michigan Needs Brains!

For nearly two decades, Lou Glazer and his think tank, Michigan Future Inc., have been trying to generate ideas for how Michigan can recapture prosperity. Although the road back from near economic ruin is still unmapped, Glazer and his organization believe that any forward movement must include large numbers of young, talented professionals. The good news? Washtenaw County has one of the largest concentrations in Michigan. The bad news? We don't have nearly enough -- and we're losing them as fast as you can say "One ticket to Chicago, please."

After nearly a decade of employment decline, the youthful graduates of our universities are stampeding out of Michigan to find better opportunities and more interesting places to live. Even Ann Arbor, a traditionally recession-resistant community, has seen its unemployment numbers hover between 10.3 and 10.6 percent this summer.

As the trickle became a flood and the economy's direction continued its descent unchecked, Michigan's leadership finally took notice of those brainy thinkers who offered fresh ideas and real answers about what was needed to make a change. One such brain is in the head of Ann Arbor resident Lou Glazer, founder of Michigan Future Inc., an organization that both poses and sometimes answers the question, "Where do we go from here?"

Lou Glazer founded Michigan Future in the early nineties, basing its focus on a set of ideas he generated along with the economic development team of then-Governor Blanchard. Their idea -- that Michigan needed to transition away from the automotive industry -- has matured and strengthened over the years.

A Michigan native, Glazer attended high school in suburban Detroit before going on to earn his Bachelors and Masters degrees in Urban Planning at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. After a stint working for the Detroit Public Transit Authority (now SMART), a job which familiarized him with the power and importance of commuter trains in connecting downtown areas, Glazer served as Deputy Director of the Michigan Department of Commerce (now DELEG) during the Blanchard Administration.

When that administration came to an end, Glazer began to work toward helping the state make a transition from its industrial age to a technological one, and soon cofounded Michigan Future, Inc, which is today funded by Michigan foundations like Kellog, Mott and Dow. Today Glazer is still maintains a small orbit: he lives near University of Michigan’s beautiful North Campus, and works mostly in Ann Arbor. Demand for his ideas and speeches routinely carry him throughout Michigan and beyond.

Michigan Future houses several growth-related initiatives, primary among them the analysis of Michigan's economy in relation to others and the determination of what must be done to change it.

"We began to understand that transition is driven by talent -- but not just talent -- a large concentration of talent," says Glazer.

According to Glazer's research, college-educated adults of all ages are increasingly concentrating in the largest metropolitan areas. Indeed, in 2006, 27 percent of all adults had four-year college degrees nationally. In metropolitan areas of over 3.5 million, 32 percent had four-year college degrees. In urban areas of less than 3.5 million, the percentage was significantly lower: only 21 percent. Glazer's research shows a similar phenomenon in MIchigan - the largest percentages of young talent are concentrated in our largest urban counties.

The conclusion Michigan Future offers is this: To achieve success, communities must make the transition to a new, knowledge-based economy, and help to do so by attracting and retaining knowledge-based workers -- lots of them.

It sounds simple enough. Yet convincing Michigan's people and its leadership to let go of the past, laden with automotive industry glories, is no easy task. In many ways, Michigan and its communities can be accused of resting on past laurels - buoyed by a history of prosperity for workers with little education. But sadly for Michigan, that economy is a thing of the past.

The trouble with Ann Arbor

Anchored as it is by the University of Michigan, it's no surprise that the little city of Ann Arbor (population: about 110,000) boasts a higher concentration of educated knowledge workers than many other Michigan cities.  Indeed, quite unlike the rest of the state, it never depended on the automobile manufacturing industry. And it certainly has the kind of talent Glazer believes is necessary to drive economic success. The problem with Ann Arbor, however, is that young talent cultivated by the university evaporates soon after graduation, heading to Chicago and other dense urban areas to find fortune. For this group, the city just doesn't hold interest.

The problem? Ann Arbor is allergic to population growth, says Glazer.

He cites Ann Arbor politics as one of the main obstacles to improving the city's economy. According to Glazer, in order to attract and retain talent, Ann Arbor needs to increase its density and foster a more dynamic, youth-friendly downtown. Yet, long-established political views are dead set against population growth and concentration. Ann Arbor leadership routinely votes down or rebels against developments like affordable downtown housing or public inter-city transit. Its neighborhoods have a sameness about them that counters efforts to attract young talent. And despite the city's popular downtown, only two percent of the populace lives there, a shameful number by any standard.

At the same time, Glazer acknowledges, Ann Arbor does try to encourage technology companies to move in or start up --a definite move in the right direction. But while it's true that Ann Arbor participates more fully than its neighbors in the "new economy" so important to Michigan's survival, it is also true that the city resists critical developments.

"Ann Arbor has not yet devoted an agenda to improving quality of place. It needs to embrace being a real city, with dense, 24-7, interesting neighborhoods," stresses Glazer. "Without them, you won't end up with large enough numbers to drive the economy."


Just to the east sits Ypsilanti, a town that hovers between slum, college town, and burgeoning creative community. Grand old waterfront mansions speak of a better time, and a constant summer line-up of events and festivals keep the city busy. But with its many vacant storefronts and boarded up houses, this city is a solemn example of how what made us rich in the last century -- the automobile industry -- is now making us poor. Being stuck in the past is keeping it from taking advantage of opportunities today.

"Ypsilanti could be what Ferndale is to Royal Oak -- an interesting environment that is lower cost but still attracts young people and artists," says Glazer, who believes that a transit system connecting Ann Arbor with Ypsilanti is an important move. "In that case, the entire corridor could be developed, anchoring more professionals to not one, but two interesting downtowns. That move," he says, "would be to start providing the quality that the county needs."

Progress in Washtenaw County
"As much as I’m critical, in the last several years there has been more energy put into creating higher density downtowns," he says. And he also concedes that leaders are harkening to Michigan Future's message more than they have in the past.

Indeed, he says, that, oppressed by the worsening economy, the state as a whole has made some moves in the right direction, such as creating tax breaks for technology companies and filmmakers, more stringent high school graduation requirements, green projects, and more.

"Michigan and its communities are taking action that will connect us to the economy of the future and not the economy of the past -- we're just not at the right scale yet."

Not just talking the talk

"Everybody has to get together and make the case that there is a need to grow the economy. The only way to do it is to be active in politics – vote for candidates that have a similar agenda to yours. Get out and get involved in talking to elected officials about these issues; join groups with the same agenda. Ultimately, those with this agenda need to run for office," Glazer concludes.

Indeed, any change means winning elections. Yet, very few people are running on an agenda of change and population growth, at least in Washtenaw County.

And in the meantime, in a region replete with layoffs and slim employment pickings, is even the most hardy of loyalists to stay put? Michigan Future certainly has a great-sounding agenda, but how is one to eat while waiting for it to happen? 

"Explore starting your own business. This is a great time to do that with tax breaks. A transition is the best time to be part of creating something new. It's hard, but that is really an option," he says. "One of the reasons Michigan is suffering is because it became overspecialized in one thing."

"Our communities are going to have to reinvent themselves -- but so are a lot of us," says Glazer.

Leia is a freelance writer in Ann Arbor.  Her previous story was The Original Third Place - Diners

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All Photos by Dave Lewinski

Photos Taken at Washtenaw Community College 

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