Jeanette Pierce
Jeanette Pierce is founder and president of the City Institute (Courtesy photo)

I am a native and current Detroiter from the east side. Through a series of government committees, regional programs and my own organization, I have been working on attraction and retention for 20 years.

At the recent Mackinac Policy Conference, that conversation was front and center again, and it made me realize how so many initiatives and programs have come and gone over the years that many people might not know about. I thought now would be a good time to remind folks of some of those initiatives and share some of the lessons learned along the way. 

In 2005 I founded City Institute, a nonprofit to lift up Detroit’s stories and connect locals to the people, places and projects in their own backyard. Almost immediately the positive impact on attracting and retaining folks became evident, and we have leaned into being a resource over the years. For example, our tours and learning journeys are part of the interview visit for out-of-state candidates and part of the orientation process for new hires and interns. 

One of our main goals is to help residents understand, appreciate and connect to their community. We have taken 150,000 people on nontraditional tours all around the City of Detroit, 80% are current or potential residents, employees or college students in the region. Of those surveyed following our tours, 93% feel more connected to Detroit, 80% said they were more likely to take a job in Detroit, and 78% of participants have a better understanding of Detroit. 

It started with me answering the question everyone asked: Why Detroit? Well, here’s the answer I’ve come up with. 

Detroit has all the big city amenities you could want: the second largest theater district in the U.S., world-class museums, five major professional sports teams, unparalleled public spaces, beautiful architecture and historic neighborhoods, more than 800 bars & restaurants, access to an award-winning riverfront, and even Canada right across the way. 

Those are all amazing assets, but the real reason why people have stayed or want to come is the sense of community here. We know our neighbors. We know the owners of the bars and restaurants and small businesses, because they frequently are our neighbors and most importantly you can have a positive impact here. 

Detroit certainly faces more than its fair share of challenges and we definitely discuss those, too. But it’s important to recognize that good and bad, assets and challenges, are not mutually exclusive. They exist simultaneously; and they do in every city. It’s necessary to know about the wins, big or small so that you have the energy to keep working on the challenges.

Here are a few things we’ve learned at City Institute over the years.

How do you know what you need if you don’t know what you have?

We often focus on the things we need to change versus what we already have. Of course improvements can and should be made but in the meantime, make sure people know that there’s reasons to stay or come today.

Retention is as important as attraction 

As the adage says, It’s easier to keep a customer than get a new one. Too often our young people assume they know a place because they grew up there or went to school there, but being a kid somewhere is different than being an adult somewhere. We need to show them the opportunities in their own backyard and make sure that they know success doesn’t have to mean leaving. This also means helping existing residents make connections and understand the region’s amenities so that they stay and become ambassadors for the city. 

It’s not just about jobs 

Research and my personal experience have demonstrated that when people decide whether to stay or move, their job is not always the biggest factor. While employment is important, individuals with options tend to prioritize the lifestyle they want and the type of environment they wish to reside in before seeking employment opportunities. According to Lou Glazer of Michigan Future, “Mobile talent –– particularly young talent ––  values quality of place in choosing where they live and work after college. Quality of place isn’t something you do after you grow the economy and have more resources to do the extras. It is one of the essentials that you do to grow the economy.”

In today’s world, remote work has even made it possible for people to bring their jobs with them wherever they go, and what people are looking for is a better quality of life.

Next Steps and Recommendations

Cities around the country were asking for our help to tell their story, so in response we just launched the Sought-After City Program. It provides tools, templates and on the ground support to help cities attract and retain residents by making sure people understand and appreciate where they live and work. 

Gov. Whitmer’s Growing Michigan Together Council should be aware of what other groups have done before in hopes of finding ways to repurpose ideas and information, so they don’t have to start from scratch. Ideally there would also be members of the council that have worked with other groups and have some of the institutional knowledge that could be shared with those newer to the conversation.  

Consistency is so important, and it’s what we’ve been missing over the years, and I believe the governor sees that. She hopes that by creating a position of Chief Growth Officer and by not serving on the council herself it will last beyond her administration. That is so important and I hope that will be the case. Many previous groups ceased operating and lost all their momentum due to changes in administration.

Support existing organizations doing the work around the state. Each region has people on the ground working on attraction and retention with frequently very little resources. These organizations have ideas that work that could be scaled and replicated.

Bring back LiveWorkDetroit and expand it to include other cities. LiveWorkDetroit brings college students and recent grads from Detroit and around the state to the city for a day that includes networking with employers, introductions to young professionals in the community, and LiveWorkEngage Tours that showcase residential, entertainment and engagement opportunities.

We say that Detroit is big enough to matter in the world and small enough where you can matter in it. Leaning into that idea, and focusing our efforts on practices that capitalize on it, is the path to the growth we all want, and need. 

Jeanette Pierce is a lifelong Detroit resident and founder and president of the City Institute, which helps cities attract and retain residents.

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