Is it jobs or the lakeshore driving professionals to GR? Recent relocatees share their stories

With low unemployment and an increasing number of jobs, Grand Rapids has a lot to offer relocating professionals. RG explores why professionals from across the country are making the move.
With unemployment in Grand Rapids being a good margin lower than both state and national averages, and with companies like Amazon bringing more jobs to the area each year, Michigan’s west side has a lot to offer relocating professionals. Thanks to beautiful green spaces and thriving urban and arts communities, people are beginning to take notice — though this wasn’t always the case. 

Michigan’s manufacturing and retail communities hemorrhaged jobs in the wake of the 2008 recession, and the area acquired the stereotype of being a behind-the-times community with few employment opportunities. As West Michigan’s economy has recovered over the last decade (Grand Rapids was rated the seventh fastest growing economy in the nation between 2011-2016), however, employers found themselves in the position of needing more talent, and due to a workforce shortage in the area, many began to turn to recruiting that talent from out-of-state.

This led to the growth of organizations like Hello West Michigan, which recruits and advocates for talent relocating into the area. Backed by 80 member companies, Hello West Michigan has helped to facilitate over 1,300 successful new hires in the area over the last decade. 

Over the last five years, however, the organization has noticed that perceptions of West Michigan have shifted. “Five years ago, it was still about combating the mentality that there are no jobs here,” observes Hello West Michigan Program Manager Rachel Bartels, “but now people want to come back on their own.”

More than for jobs, Bartels says, they’re moving here because … they like it. 

The largest category of relocatees, Bartels says, is “boomerangs” moving back to be near families. “They’re generally not quite so young — late twenties or early thirties. They’ve had their fun time in the city, or have had a kid, or whatever things they wanted to do, and now they’re moving back home to be near family.”

That’s exactly what led Justine Burdette, VP of Technical Services at the Right Place and MMTC-West Regional Director, back to the Grand Rapids area after spending her early twenties in downtown Chicago. She and her husband both had family in the area and were looking for new career opportunities and a place to start a family, so Grand Rapids was the natural fit.

Justsine Burdette enjoys a warm coffee in a geodesic dome at Outdoor Coffee, one of Grand Rapid's unique attractions. Also: beaches and nature. “In Chicago, you’d have to drive at least 45 minutes to an hour to get to any place to be out in nature where you’re not fighting for space with tourists,” she says. That — and Michigan’s side of Lake Michigan has the best beaches.

Kristen Ditta, also a Chicago “boomerang” from West Michigan, recently secured a job in Grand Rapids and relocated for the love of the lakeshore.

“After spending my summer vacations from Chicago on the beach here, and seeing how much downtown Grand Rapids had grown, I decided to try and come back. I always joke that I just like this side — the sunset side — of Lake Michigan more!”

The move allowed Ditta to upgrade her lifestyle, too, thanks to lower costs of living. “I find I am getting a lot more bang for my buck here. I was also happy to learn that even coming from a big city, I didn’t need to take a pay cut to come back to Grand Rapids.”

And the cost of living differences are clear. Using The Right Place’s Cost of Living Calculator, any Chicago residents can discover, with a click of a button, the attractive price differences in this big little city. For example, groceries cost 10.39 percent less, transportation is almost 16 percent less, and housing is a whopping 43.58 percent less in Grand Rapids than in Chicago.

And despite friction at the state level regarding Michigan’s minimum wage, Bartels stands behind  the quality of Grand Rapids’ wages — and of its quality of life. “People have no idea what West Michigan has to offer,” she says. “People in most other cities have to choose between buying a house and private school. We have great schools across the region — not just East Grand Rapids and Rockford. Here, buying a house is actually attainable, where in other cities it just isn’t. People who live here don’t understand how it is in other parts of the country.”

Many professionals are also relocating to the area because they’ve enjoyed vacationing here, or visiting to participate in events like ArtPrize — which is exactly what drew multimedia artist Jeffrey Songco to relocate from San Francisco two years ago. While packing up his fourth ArtPrize entry in 2016 — a show at the UICA titled “Let’s Dance America!” — Songco decided to stay an extra week with friends to look for an apartment.

“The real hook was that people are interested in artistry. Here, people have curiosity, and they also know what questions to ask. In San Francisco, that level of interest is reserved for tech people and engineers.”

Because San Francisco has been saturated in art culture for so long, Songco explains, people’s interest in it has waned, and been replaced by an interest in the fast-paced world of tech startups. It’s refreshing, he says, to be part of a community where artistry is still valued.

And, of course, there’s the lower cost of living, the readily accessible tech jobs (he’s currently a Project Manager for Mighty in the Midwest), and the open spaces (he went camping twice this last summer). Songco has also been able to keep his pedestrian lifestyle, for the most part — with a little help from Shipt, the online delivery service.

But beyond these, Songco says that it’s easier to make an impact and connections, as an artist. “I just met with a major gallery curator the other day, who drove up 40 minutes to talk to me here. In San Francisco, I lived two blocks from a gallery that never would have given me the time of day.”

Burdette agrees that it’s easier to access decision makers, and to generally make a bigger impact in Grand Rapids. “If you want to talk to the CEO of a company in this city, you can probably do that. It’s incredibly easy to talk to decision makers, and to get yourself connected here, because it’s not a huge city, so people are much more friendly and less guarded. If you’re in a big pond, you’re going to be a little fish. Here in Grand Rapids, you can be a big fish in a little pond.”

Rachel BartelsThe trend of relocating to Grand Rapids isn’t restricted to young working professionals, either. Bartels says she’s noticed quite a few white collar professionals approaching retirement, and looking for a career shift in an area where they can eventually retire into consulting. Here, they can make their retirement income stretch further, and there’s ample access to entertainment and nature. And, of course, it often allows them to be close to their kids and grandkids, who have moved here for similar reasons.

The attraction boils down to what Bartels calls “the GR factor”: the cost of living, the quality of schools, the easy traffic, the good wages, and an overall good vibe. West Michigan, it would seem, has bounced back from the recession tidily — not only in economic terms, but in opportunity for quality of life.

And the reality is that many of these “relocatees” are indeed boomerangs — people who grew up in the area, and have been enticed to move back home. The idea that a small, midwestern community like Grand Rapids has the right secret sauce to re-capture the millennials who have moved away, and to draw in their boomer counterparts as well, is an encouraging one.

Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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