Blog: John Bebow

John Bebow is executive director of the Center for Michigan. Before that he spent 16 years working as an investigative reporter for The Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, and Detroit News and helped found and serve as editor-in-chief of John will be writing about how we can better provide for Michigan's future. 

Post No. 1


Several years ago, I escaped Michigan and its so-called lousy, backwards 20th Century economy, its winters filled with one gray day after another, it’s busted up highways and railroads on which mass transit never rolls.

I escaped for Chicago, city of opportunity. City of great restaurants, great blues joints. City of neighborhoods, the Midwest’s greatest boomtown, and envy of so many young people stuck on the eastern side of Lake Michigan.

As a journalist, I’d climbed near the top of my profession by landing a job as a staff writer at the Chicago Tribune. My wife, a professional singer and voice teacher, earned part-time teaching jobs in two schools and landed a spot in a professional jazz choir.

So, we’d "made it." But we’d traded our spacious, 75-year-old Michigan house with the giant hickory tree out back for – at the same monthly price – for a tiny apartment within earshot of the constant clacking of Chicago’s train system and right underneath the landing route for the jets coming into O’Hare Airport. Our "amenities" included a washing machine shared by three teenage girls who lived below us. So much concrete hemmed us in. The city beaches were nothing compared to those in South Haven, or Empire, or Holland.

We sure missed home.

We missed the short drives to northern Michigan. We missed Michigan’s great main streets in places like Ann Arbor, East Lansing, Plymouth, Royal Oak, and Traverse City. We missed old familiar hangouts for hot food and cold beers: the Sidetrack in Ypsilanti, Spike’s Keg ‘O Nails in Grayling, El Azteco in East Lansing, and the Anchor Bar and Los Galanes in Detroit. We missed the Cherry Street Market in Kalkaska, the Detroit Opera House, and Michigan Stadium. We missed regular gatherings with regular Michigan folks – good friends with whom we shared wine, book clubs, and poker games.

So we left Chicago, that cool city to which so many young Michigan natives move. We came back to Michigan. And despite all the state’s troubles, it sure feels good to be back home. 

Chicago's still a great place to visit. But I want to grow old right here. In Michigan. And, as a grow older (I’m 40 now), I’m confident I’ll be living in a revived and envied place. Here are four reasons I believe Michigan will once again be a boom state in the 21st Century.

Water. We’ve got it. Everybody else wants it. Eventually, employers both big and small will want to locate near dependable, abundant supplies of fresh water. That means we have tremendous responsibility in the Great Lakes Region to plan for future growth and water use. It also means we have tremendous long-term competitive advantage over the arid West.

Quality of Life. I’ll gladly accept those cloudy winter days so long as we avoid California’s earthquakes, mudslides, and inflamed mountains and the South’s tornadoes, hurricanes, heat, and potentially rising ocean levels. I’ll gladly “settle” for our abundant forests, rivers, relatively short commutes, excellent symphonies and museums, great college towns, good schools, country roads and open space, Great Lakes beaches, and everything that is Up North.

Affordability. Michigan is a place where a family can still buy into the American dream and still have a little cash left over every month. Employers and America’s increasingly free agent workforce are eventually going to figure this out.

Citizenship. There’s growing citizen engagement in this state. All kinds of interest groups are working harder than ever to improve our state. Adversity breeds citizenship. Sure, things are a mess in Lansing right now, but Chambers of Commerce, think tanks, education leaders, non-profit groups, foundations, and others are getting leaner, meaner, and smarter in grappling with Michigan’s challenges.

I’m in the unusual position of working on Michigan’s future on a daily basis. I’m executive director of a “think and do tank’ called the Center for Michigan. We’re a 501c3 non-profit “think and do” tank founded in 2006 by a bipartisan Steering Committee of experienced statewide leaders. The center hosts conferences, distributes a weekly policy and current events newsletter, collects and distributes public policy research focused on Michigan’s future challenges and opportunities, and works to promote citizen dialogue and action. The Center’s web site is

So, that’s my story. Tomorrow, I’ll share the stories of a few proud Michigan residents who each have a unique take on Michigan’s future. Thanks for reading!