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Here Lies a Beloved Place

An entrepreneur defends a rural region's true substance

March 19, 2004 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Traverse Magazine/Brian Confer

People aren't coming because the Grand Traverse region of northern Michigan is a lousy place to live. They're coming because it’s a great place to live. There are jobs to be found for entrepreneurs, and a tremendously important civic discussion is under way about how to manage growth.

I didn’t come to northwest Michigan 24 years ago to get rich, not in the conventional sense. I knew this small, spectacular, forested corner of Michigan was where and how I wanted to live. The life offered here was more important to me than what I might find in other places where the path to professional and financial success is more assured.

With all the optimism and naivete that come with being 23, I launched Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. I had two goals in those early years. The first was repaying every nickel I owed in starting the monthly. While that appeared for the first 14 years as a “when hell freezes over” goal, the true Holy Grail was my second goal. I wanted us to produce a magazine that so captured the essence of northern Michigan that anyone reading it would be immediately struck with the need to both celebrate this region and protect it.

A Good Life Lived Well
That challenge started with me. Could I succeed financially and still keep faith with the magazine’s commitment to conserving our natural resources and small communities? Wouldn’t working to grow my business be inconsistent with my belief in the preservation of the quality of our lives here?

What I realized is that the answer was with me all along. The reason I was able to hang on through the first decade of the magazine’s development, and begin to prosper in the second, was because celebrating and working to ensure the beauty and the lifestyle of this place, my place, is good for business.

Traverse City, which was recently named one of the best small cities for business development in the country, is a first-rate example of how cleaner, greener places promote economic development. Our natural resources are the foundation of a superior quality of life that is attracting record population growth to this region. Benzie County, south of Traverse City, grew 31 percent in the 1990s: Leelanau County grew 27 percent. All of northwest Michigan, from Mason County to the Mackinac Bridge, is one of the fastest growing rural regions in the country.

People aren't coming because this is a lousy place to live. They're coming because we're a great place to live. There are jobs to be found, particularly for entrepreneurs, and we've generated a tremendously important and spirited civic discussion here about how to manage our growth and secure our natural resources.

What Do You Do?
Those of us who live in northern Michigan, or any other truly beautiful place in the United States, are the lucky ones. The land is so much a part of our lives that we aren’t defined by wealth or status. I remember when I first moved up here in 1980 and was waiting tables. I’d left Chicago and my impressive job title as managing editor. What would I say when people asked me the first question you get in the city, “So, what do you do?”

I needn’t have worried. Here people asked me if I’d seen the moon the night before, if I thought we’d have a frost before the weekend, or did I ski?

Now what I worry about, as do some of my friends, is how the dreams that brought us here can get overwhelmed by other pressures beginning to define our region and ourselves: Buying a bigger house, saving for college, preparing for retirement. The original inspiration for making the choice to be here can sometimes get clouded.

But no amount of money equals the value I find in being able to go home on a gorgeous day and ski out my backdoor. It is meaningful to me in a way money can’t buy that my children are at least as comfortable running through the woods as they are behind a computer screen. No money can replace the peace and perspective I discover drifting on a quiet lake or the sheer joy I feel cresting a hill and seeing there before me one of our spectacular vistas. Every time I walk in the woods, watch a sunset on the lake, or listen to my kids howling on the swim raft I know, with utter conviction, that I made the choice that was right for me.

Why We’re Here
We who live here have a special charge to ensure that the soul of northern Michigan endures for all those who ask nothing more from it than cool, fresh waters to swim in and warm bonfires to gather round.

We have it in us to be the generation that ensures that some of the finest land for growing fruit in the world doesn’t simply disappear forever. We have it in us to hold onto our vibrant and human small cities and villages by supporting our entrepreneurs and finding smart, innovative ways to ensure a strong economy while preserving our quality of life.

We have it in us to believe that for all this region gives us, we can give something back by making sure that families can still camp along pristine shorelines and people everywhere can find the solace and joy they are seeking in our woods and on our rivers.

Let it not be said that under our watch, we paved northern Michigan over and saddled it with sameness. Together, as the people we were when we followed our hearts north, let’s work to make our legacy a northern Michigan where the dream of a life lived differently is still available for those who follow.

Deborah Wyatt Fellows, the founder and editor in chief of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine, lives and writes from her home in Leelanau County, Michigan. She is the author of an upcoming collection of essays, Reflections of a Life Up North. This article is adapted from her speech this month to the Economic Club of Traverse City. Reach Ms. Fellows  at debwf@traversemagazine.com.

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