SW Michigan economy, how bad?
February 15, 2009 11:41 AM   Subscribe

I'm panicking about moving to southwestern Michigan. Just how bad is the economy there?

My SO has a job offer in Kalamazoo, but I'm absolutely freaked out about the economy. Thanks in part to Any Moose In a Storm's previous question, I've calmed my nerves regarding the quality of life there, but I can't get my mind past the economy issue. The thought of living in such an economically depressed state is overwhelming. My greatest fear is a "brain drain," as everyone with any sense and mobility moves out.

For what it's worth, I work remotely and my job will go wherever I go, so finding work isn't a problem.

Sorry about being anon, but some co-workers know my mefi-name, and I haven't told them yet.
posted by anonymous to Grab Bag (12 answers total)
The economy is super bad in the state right now, and most people have no confidence that the state government or major industries have any viable strategies to save it. Our problems pre-date the current national crisis by years, but they've certainly been exacerbated by it. A brain drain is a very real possibility (I'll most likely be trying to leave when my current gig goes tits up). Caveat: my views are certainly colored by my proximity to Detroit, but I haven't heard anything about Kalamazoo bucking the statewide trend.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 12:00 PM on February 15, 2009

The economy? It sucks. Bad. Really bad. And depending on what happens with the auto industry in the next couple of months it could completely tank. A lot of the white-collar jobs in the Michigan/northern Indiana-Ohio region are dependent, either directly or indirectly, on the auto industry. This includes parts manufacturers who may go completely bankrupt if the Big Three don't turn things around, but also other engineering firms--including some arms contractors--who will survive such an event even if they shut down the aspects of their business that cater to the auto industry.

I live in northern Indiana right now, and several people I know personally have either lost their jobs, taken pay cuts and furloughs, or are worried about their prospects for continued employment as a result of the current downturn.

That being said, it really does depend on what your SO's job is. If she's in one of the health professions I wouldn't worry too much. Education is probably a reasonably safe bet too, all things considered. But a job in a firm that is even related to manufacturing, even if that firm does no manufacturing itself, could be pretty shaky. Still, if the company making the offer is actually hiring people, that might indicate that they feel confident enough about their position to be making such offers.

MeFi mail me if you want more specific details. I can look into things on the ground here and get back to you, if you like.
posted by valkyryn at 12:13 PM on February 15, 2009

I lived in Kalamazoo for a few years at the beginning of the decade, left in 2003. (MeFi mail me if you like.) I don't think you'll see a major brain-drain in Kzoo itself by virtue of the current crisis. The three big employers of brainy types are Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo College and Pfizer. (Yes, a minority of the local brainiacs work in these three, but they are the three *largest*.) Both WMU and K College are likely to be relatively stable in size and mission in the years to come, while Pfizer shook out a lot of the plant staff back in 2003 when it took over from Pharmacia, so I wouldn't anticipate major shakeups there. The cost of living is already very cheap and what makes it hum along is not tied that directly to the current crises. Of course, if the economy goes to hell and stays there for ten or more years, leading to Road Warrior conditions across the country, even those stable sources will go wobbly and things would be really bad. But if it gets to that level, I would anticipate things being pretty uniformly bad.

More generally, I would say that Kalamazoo is a small town and going to stay a small town for good. There are no growing industries in the area and no reason for those likely to grow in the near term (IT, biotech, etc.) to locate there. Yes, Pharmacia and the universities are there, but neither establishes a core that pulls others in. But it will remain a disproportionately brainy town for its size and geography. No one will mistake it for Austin or even Ithaca, but it's not Des Moines, either. It is by no means a culturally thriving city like a major metropolis or even the aforementioned college towns; we made do mostly by hanging out with fellow academics in unpretentious settings. I think that if you are inclined towards simple pleasures and busy with your work, it would be fine for a while, maybe even long-term. It's not like moving to Flint or Detroit, places where the economic woes are so deep (and deepening) that basic services and everyday life are in danger of collapse. Its economic condition will probably stay flat or sink just a bit over the next twenty years.

It would be a staid, inexpensive place to live where there were some cultural offerings, but little economic growth or change. You would go to Chicago a couple times a year on the train. You would make it a priority to get to Food Dance Cafe at least once a month. It snows A LOT because of the lake. Rent Fargo to get a sense of the accent. (And the snow, I guess.)
posted by el_lupino at 12:29 PM on February 15, 2009

I would definitely not want to be looking for work in Kalamazoo right now. Of course, if your SO already has a job offer in hand, and your job is not at risk, I'm not sure how concerned you need to be with that.

I firmly agree with everyone above that Michigan as a whole is really close to the edge; the state government is gridlocked and the auto industry is about to tank. Actually I can hardly blame the state government as I'm not even sure what they could do with tax receipts being so crappy. Kalamazoo has a couple of things going for it that most other Michigan cities do not: a toehold in the medical technology industry (via Pfizer research / manufacturing facilities, and Stryker) and relatively strong education (large public institution and small liberal arts school).

As long as those hold up there will always be at least a little support for ancillary industries. But the possibility for brain drain is very real - Pfizer for one is probably not going to invest much of anything new in Kalamazoo / Portage going forward. Stryker seems more solid but there are no guarantees. Just anecdotally, most of my high school friends who got into good schools out of state have left and never looked back, though there are exceptions.

(I grew up in Kalamazoo, but flew the coop long ago and so most of my info comes from family stories and sporadic visits.)
posted by rkent at 12:55 PM on February 15, 2009

Kalamazoo received a massive anonymous donation in 2006 that guarantees college tuition for all kids in the Kalamazoo pulic school system. It's called the "Kalamazoo Promise."

I went to college at WMU and lived in Kalamazoo for a few years during that time. I remember it being incredibly difficult to get a job because I was a college student. But the town has a number of large employers that kind of anchor its economy.

Kalamazoo is close enough to Lansing, Chicago and Grand Rapids that you could easily pick up consulting work and make it to meetings without too much trouble, as long as you realize that by "close" I mean within a 3-hr drive.

Most of my family lives in Northern Michigan near the Traverse City area. That area's economy is driven mostly by tourism, so during a recession it suffers pretty badly. The non-tourism industry jobs are also disappearing as small factories close because jobs are being sent overseas or to Mexico. I know that a lot of people simply can't afford the necessities anymore and many are supplementing their diets with more venison and other game animals. It's a normal thing to do up there.

The economy is getting rough in every part of the country. Michigan is hurting more because of the big automakers. Unless your SO's job is in this industry, I don't think you have as much to worry about.
posted by camworld at 1:56 PM on February 15, 2009

>Rent Fargo to get a sense of the accent.

Huh? This is Kalamazoo we're talkin', not Mankato.
posted by megatherium at 1:59 PM on February 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

Don't listen to anyone who tells you to rent Fargo to understand Michigan...sheesh...

Yes, things are tough in Michigan, and they will be tough in about 80% of this country before all is said and done...

Michigan is a beautiful state, and, believe it or not, there are still a few of us here that aren't married to their sisters and making moonshine in the woods. Kalamazoo is an interesting place, the economy on the west side of the state should not be equated to the mess that is Detroit, 150 miles away.

If your SO has a job, if your job follows you, get off the panic wagon, things will be fine. Lake Michigan will thaw in the spring, the beaches are beautiful, Ann Arbor is a couple hours drive away, Chicago is not that far (although you have to go through Gary to get there)...
posted by HuronBob at 2:23 PM on February 15, 2009

I would not want to have to look for work in Kalamazoo right now. But it's actually a pretty nice place to live. As people have mentioned above, WMU and K College have a big impact and there is a certain 'arts & culture' vibe to the town that you don't get other places. There are nice restaurants to go to, including Food Dance, a pretty nice sushi place, a good Indian place, nice brunch places, good Italian restaurants. There are some great cafes (Water Street Coffee Joint) and good places for craft beers. There are concerts, there is theatre, there's a local modern dance troupe. The train line runs through the center of town and it's a nice and easy three hour ride to Chicago, leaving at least three times a day. I know people there without cars who are able to rely on walking and buses. And if you do drive, there's hardly any traffic. Plus, housing prices there are awesome. If you are going to have the same income from your work, I'd bet you'll have a pretty nice standard of living.

Kalamazoo is a small city / large town. It will have nothing compared to Chicago or New York. But it's not Flint, either. Not by a long shot. If a quiet atmosphere and lots of snow appeal to you, and it's a good work opportunity, I'd say go for it.

p.s. Mefimail me if you want more info or if you decide to go and want introductions to people I know around there.
posted by mosessis at 3:28 PM on February 15, 2009

After attending my first job fair (for college students) on Thursday in Lansing, I'm sure the econ. around here hasn't bottomed out. Anecdotally from other students, the fair had fewer employers than in the past and nearly all of the positions were in the financial [specifically sales and marketing, but surprisingly, JP Morgan is still hiring), health care/research, or retail. Looking back at it, only 2 (out of 30) were related to the auto industry. My classmates and I (college seniors in Kalamazoo) aren't finding many opportunities in the area.

Your SO's job offer depends on a lot of variables. Is that employer likely to cut him/her in the near future ? Is it for a longer-term position ? My 2 cents, if both of your jobs are likely to be stable in the near future, then don't worry much.

As for the brain drain and those whom I know, quite a few of the grads leave, but some get attached to Kalamazoo [jobs, family, or other reasons] and stay after school [and will continue to do so, especially if they have kids].

Feel free to mefi-mail me if you'd like more info.
posted by fizzix at 3:36 PM on February 15, 2009

SW MI /= SE MI. If anything, SW MI will recover before SE MI does. They're much less attached to the auto industry.

If SO actually has the offer in hand, and the company is stable, I'd do it. mind you, I once quit my job, packed up the household and moved 500 miles so MrR could try his hand at starting a business, so take that with a grain of salt. MrR grew up on the west coast of MI, and his family is still there, and we're only halfway across the state. It's not much worse over in K'zoo than it was 10 years ago, it's just that the rest of the state has caught up. K'zoo is a fine place to live -- yeah, the state economy is in the tubes, but who's to say the rest of the country isn't going to catch up soon? Any real 'brain drain' probably already happened, when Pharmacia got bought and then Pfizer left town -- WMU and KCollege cushioned a bit. There will probably be turnover, but there always is.

Lots of snow in K'zoo, especially on the west side, but the lake effect diminishes as you go across town. Fargo has very little in common with K'zoo, other than snow -- the accent and attitude are pretty different.
posted by jlkr at 7:06 PM on February 15, 2009

Southwestern Michigan may be economically depressed, but there are very beautiful parts and lots of outdoorsy things to do - hiking, cross country skiing etc. Even in very small towns, there's a wide range of people, some maybe refugees or weekenders from Chicago, which is only a couple hours away (in case you need a big city fix). It's a diverse bunch, and I bet you can find a community you relate to.

A big advantage is that living there can be dirt cheap, especially now. Even if your SO loses his/her job for some reason, if you have steady work you might still be okay for a while.

I bet it will actually be a nice place to live. Good luck!
posted by walla at 10:18 AM on February 16, 2009

As far as "brain drain", I was born and grew up in Kalamazoo and once I left, I swore up and down I'd never come back. I went away to UM for school, worked in Detroit for a year, and then moved to Chicago for nearly a decade.

Now, here I am again, back in Kalamazoo, after looking for a job in Chicago in the library world for a year and finding jack squat. There was a children's librarian position in Kalamazoo that I was able to land, so I took it. I'm still somewhat surprised by my decision to move back here, especially after living in the relative cultural mecca of Chicago for so long. It's a nice place to live, for sure- the summers can be wonderful, especially being so close to the big lake. Having Western Michigan University, Pfizer, Stryker and Kalamazoo College in town might have something to do with it, but I don't know anyone who's lost their job or had to take a pay cut.

posted by 40 Watt at 10:41 AM on February 16, 2009

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