Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Trouble With Ann Arbor

Why is Madison (Wisconsin) doing so much better than Ann Arbor (Michigan)? Michigan Future looks at the differences between the two college towns. Lou Glazer explains why Ann Arbor must look to Portland (Oregon) for answers:

We use Madison as a comparison for both Ann Arbor and Lansing/East Lansing both because of the major research university and to take cold weather off the table. Lots of folks think Michigan can’t compete for talent because of the weather, don’t believe it. But in terms of development policy a better model is Portland, Oregon. They have developed the playbook for land use.

Madison is more like Portland. Hence, it does a better job of attracting talent. I disagree with this assertion.

The closest major city to Madison is Chicago. The University of Wisconsin uses this proximity as a selling point to prospective employees. The closest major city to Ann Arbor is Detroit. The current poster child of Rust Belt collapse, Ann Arbor struggles to get out from under that ominous shadow:

As transportation and communication costs fell, and countries like Japan and, now, China, increased their manufacturing capability, Michigan's advantages have faded. Those same forces of globalization benefited educated workers -- an area where Michigan largely fell short.

Except in Ann Arbor.

Over the years, the city developed the types of schools, cultural institutions and amenities that made it an attractive place to live and work. Google, whose co-founder Larry Page attended the University of Michigan, opened an Ann Arbor campus in 2006. About 70,000 people commute to this city, about 40 miles west of Detroit, each day. ...

... Ann Arbor's burgeoning start-up culture hasn't fully shielded it from the economic downturn. The city's shops and restaurants are a weekend destination for many in Michigan, but with the state in trouble, they have seen business drop.

And despite Ann Arbor's educated work force, employers here find Michigan's reputation as a failing manufacturing economy can deter potential hires from moving to the state.

At HandyLab, an Ann Arbor firm that makes a DNA-analysis device, Chief Executive Jeffrey Williams says he has had a hard time finding Ph.D.-level workers with highly specialized skills. His company, which has doubled to roughly 60 employees in the past year, has 10 job openings.

"It's definitely gotten much harder with all the stigma around Detroit," he says. "Somebody tries to pigeonhole us as Detroit, we say, 'No, it's Ann Arbor, it's a completely different environment.' "

I've cited that story at least a half-dozen times. Geographic stereotypes influence talent migration. Ann Arbor doesn't have an urban planning problem. It has major branding issues. Mr. Glazer's suggestions won't help. Ironically, a better model is available in Michigan:

Public and private sector leaders in the Lansing, Mich., region increasingly realized that their greatest economic competition was coming from cities around the world, not neighboring communities, and created the Greater Lansing Economic Area Partnership. Through a regional economic development strategy and branding, the partnership offers targeted business incentives, networking opportunities, regional business development programs and workforce development programs and services. Government officials hope that coming together to showcase the region’s strengths and assets will be beneficial both individually and collectively.

In order for a brand to be effective, all stakeholders must communicate the collective vision and message. Local officials are in a unique position to ensure that economic development partners have the information that they need to support the message and to accurately convey the message to others.

Local officials can also use public speeches, interviews or contacts with prospective businesses to convey the community brand. Consistency builds support among economic development partners and other community stakeholders for the economic strategy. It can also help build trust among business owners and others interested in investing and expanding in your community.

I've emphasized the part of the passage I've seen work for Youngstown. I'll describe that branding campaign in my next post. I think Ann Arbor should leverage Detroit's current 15-minutes of fame. Madison doesn't have access to that kind of urban laboratory. Take stock of your city's unique assets and sell that to talent. Don't try to be the next Portland.


John Morris said...

Good post. I agree, almost everyone knows Ann Arbor is close to Detroit. What's the point of selling itself as the "anti Detroit" which is just of local value at best.

For better or worse, Ann Arbor is linked to Detroit and needs to find the strengths and synergies between their brands.

One good idea would be to put some Of the University Of Michigan's programs in Detroit itself. The Art, Music Deptartments and urban planning departments come to mind.
Remember that Cranbrook which is close to Detroit, is also an important art school.

This has to be done in a careful rational way.

Jim Russell said...


You succinctly summarize the problem. To date, most shrinking cities are branding themselves as no longer part of the Rust Belt. Or, they are trying to be the next Austin or Portland.

Detroit is basking in attention. Ann Arbor should leverage that.