Michigan's Upper Peninsula features a geography unique to the Upper Midwest – vast swaths of forested wilderness broken up by frontier towns built during the mining era. It's a dynamic, primal, creative space formed from the ancient rock that led people to extract its natural wealth.
Despite being an enormous source of natural inspiration for creatives, the U.P. is so remote that it is sometimes lost on the map, existing indeterminately north of the Mackinac Bridge and somewhere south of Canadian waters. Thus, as is the case for many young creative people trying to find themselves in rural America, it's a place that someone leaves. Yet, for a generation of people drawn back to the region, the U.P. has become a canvas primed for reinvention for those open to investing in themselves and driving a new creative economy.
You could call it the boomerang effect: a wave of young professionals returning to the U.P. after building professional lives outside the area. Drawn back home, in part, by a hospitable business environment, a low cost yet high quality of life and an overwhelming feeling that change is possible and inevitable.
In this fertile climate, U.P. homegrown residents Seth Anderson, Elsa Pontbriand, and Michael Johns founded Mountain Media House in 2020. An Iron Mountain-based media and communications company, Mountain Media House is one of a handful of companies blazing a new path in creative fields that were not quite feasible in the U.P. until recently.
Over the last decade, the ability to reach an audience via high-quality media that can be transmitted anywhere digitally has become increasingly valuable for businesses and organizations of all sizes. The demand for high-quality media and digital-first designs has enabled companies like Mountain Media to become a new economic driver to their local economy, employing talent that would have otherwise left the area.
The personal stories behind the Mountain Media House team exemplify the many reasons creative people feel compelled to leave the area, why the Upper Peninsula has a way of rooting someone's affection, and how time away can help put its potential into context.
Anderson and Pontbriand both share the Scandinavian roots that shaped the regional flavor of the U.P. starting in the late 19th century when mining brought migrants from Northern Europe, England and Italy, to Iron Mountain, in particular.
Anderson can point to several houses just up the block from the Mountain Media House office that housed his family dating back three generations. Media producer Taylor Andrews can trace her Italian roots all the way back to Iron Mountain's sister city of Sassaferato, Italy. The old-world cultures that settled in the U.P. have left a strong imprint on those that call the region home. As Anderson puts it, "This is a land that has been barely tamed, by close-knit people that value a strong work ethic. Durability, resilience and community are indelible aspects of the U.P. psyche."
Pontbriand spent many years building a resume in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Andrews pursued a life in the oil fields of North Dakota, and Anderson spent 13 years in Los Angeles to gain experience in the film industry.
Thinking back on the decision, Anderson wouldn't have done it differently. "Filmmaking became my vocation early in life, and the opportunity to explore that as a profession did not seem remotely possible in the U.P. at the time," he says.
After graduating from Northern Michigan University, Johns felt a similar call to go west, pursuing a commercial photography and video production career in St. Louis. He gained valuable experience working with a diverse group of professional photographers and videographers from all over the world on brands such as Nike, Starbucks, Jack Daniels, Budweiser, and more. As he honed his technical skills during this period, Johns remembers a peculiar epiphany: "I realized relatively quickly that we have a lot of similar talent all over the U.P."
It was a combination of family and new work opportunities that eventually led the Mountain Media team back to the area, but for some, the decision came in stages. For instance, Anderson remembers "during visits home, I was meeting all these new people in the U.P. with no relation to my past there, and I began to sense a way to do something more rooted than anything I'd experienced in L.A. I'm not sure I would have detected the possibility if I hadn't left."
Left to Right: Mountain Media House founders Michael Johns, Seth Anderson, and Elsa Pontbriand
In 2010, Pontbriand’s husband's job brought him back to the Iron Mountain area. She joined him in 2011, working remotely – an early digital nomad – before starting a marketing and communication consultancy. Drawing from her experience at global Fortune 500 companies and a leading public affairs firm, she offered niche digital expertise to small businesses and nonprofits in the Upper Peninsula.
Pontbriand also founded CWRK Collective
in 2017, a coworking community in downtown Iron Mountain. Since returning home, Pontbriand notes that she found the local community to be a very supportive business start-up environment for her ventures, with fewer barriers than typically found in large cities. Another factor in moving back was being close to family while raising the couple’s daughter.
Around the same time, Johns found himself in Utah working with USA Nordic on live streaming ski jumping and creating promotional material, which led him frequently back to Michigan to cover winter sporting events. Then, in 2014, Anderson began a remote filmmaking collaboration with a group of U.P.-based creatives as he worked to develop a feature film project based in Iron Mountain. The result was a web series called Northbound, which will wrap its third and final season in 2022. After meeting Johns on the Northbound set, Anderson recognized a kindred spirit and asked him to be the director of photography for the last season.
Andrews was returning home after the oil boom to raise her son close to her family at that time. She founded a photography business in 2016 after the birth of her second son. Following a self-curated education plan, Andrews pursued a two-year documentary photography mentorship that connected her with photographers from around the world, learning from photojournalists from the New York Times to National Geographic.
"It was a bit serendipitous. Coming back, I realized the beautiful thing about returning home now was how much access I had to pursue a creative education remotely, something that wouldn't have necessarily been possible in rural America 10 years prior," she says.
The Mountain Media House team became familiar with Andrews’ work shortly after her return to the area.
"One benefit of a small town is how creatives gravitate towards one another. When I first saw Taylor's work, the maturity just blew my mind considering how young she is, and I remember thinking we had to work together at some point," Anderson recalls.
Johns also recognized something had changed with the creative community he left.
“It was through projects like Northbound that I experienced a feeling of collaboration and creativity that I had not previously encountered in my younger years,” he says. “These experiences made me realize that I wanted to bring some kind of creative agency back to my hometown and collaborate with other creative professionals in any way that I could by sharing what I learned while away working in the industry."
Ultimately, Anderson decided to move back with his wife after his father passed away. "We were walking around Fumee Lake just after my father died, talking about a future in L.A., and my then-fiance said she could imagine nesting in Michigan. She grew up in Brooklyn, so this came as a surprise and hints at how self-conscious I've always been about where I grew up."
At the same time, Michael felt the same pull to return home after eight years out west, and together with Seth, formed the first iteration of Mountain Media in early 2018. Crossing paths with Elsa, thanks to mutual clients, the trio recognized they shared complementary skills and consolidated to form Mountain Media House in late 2020.
Mountain Media House is one of several new companies formed in Dickinson County over the last decade that are helping to diversify the local economy, a trend that has helped transform Iron Mountain's historic downtown core. This trend is echoed across the U.P. as many towns follow a similar trajectory of reinvention. The pattern of return and subsequent rejuvenation has only accelerated during the pandemic, as those with ties to the area and new residents alike are attracted to the low cost of living, abundant natural resources and fertile business environment.
Since its founding, Mountain Media House has developed a niche working with local businesses and nonprofits to find new ways to connect them with an audience that has become harder and harder to reach with conventional marketing. The company also serves as a stimulant for a small but growing community of creative professionals inspired by the new energy in the Dickinson area and who want to add their talent as it works to reframe itself. Since founding the business, the team behind Mountain Media House has been active with the “Northbound” web series, Mr. Black Presents, a nonprofit that organizes immersive events, and The Braumart, a vintage theater in downtown Iron Mountain, as well as working closely with economic development organizations.
For Anderson, it goes back to an epiphany he experienced before moving back home: “This part of the world has always been there for me, and on some level, it's inspired the entire creative course of my life. I just needed to see that new things could happen here and that others were seeing the same thing."