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Do you live in Paradise? How’s it going?Those are questions we want to explore this fall on IPR News Radio in our series, Which Way to Paradise: Struggle and Promise Up North.Parts of northern Michigan are booming and we are constantly told Traverse City, in particular, is a top 10 place to live, work, and play. Who is coming here and why? How has the region changed and who's missing out on the boom?

Which Way to Paradise: Texas or bust

Aaron Selbig

Lots of retirees and even millennials are moving Up North. But people in their thirties and forties are moving away.

The Daniels family fits the trend. Amber Daniels and her husband, Ken, are from Traverse City. They grew up here and still have lots of family here. When Ken got out of the Navy ten years ago, they came home to raise their own family.

    

A struggle to make ends meet

Ken felt a calling to become a substance abuse counselor. So he went to school and eventually got a degree. But when his dream job finally came open in Traverse City, he ran into disappointment.

“They told me $13 and change and no benefits," says Ken Daniels. "And that was kind of the end of the straw for me to say I can’t continue to be miserable for five to six months a year when it snows and then get paid pennies and barely make my bills.”

“He is amazing and he should’ve found a rad job here," says Amber Daniels. "And he’s so good at it.”

Like a lot of families, the Daniels did whatever they had to do to stay. Amber worked as a hairdresser. Ken took a job as a truck driver. 

But life for them always seemed to be a struggle.

“And when we moved back here, we were on assistance," says Ken Daniels. "Our ultimate goal was always to get off it (and) to try to move up and do something different.”

Credit Aaron Selbig
Friends of the Daniels family made these sweatshirts before they left for Texas.

Businesses are hesitant to grow

“When I hear about someone like Kenny Daniels, my heart sinks," says Janie McNabb, chief operating officer at Northwest Michigan Works.

McNabb says it’s definitely tough out there for people in certain professions – like social work. There are lots of jobs in health care, says McNabb. And in advanced manufacturing, information technology and, of course, hospitality.

But the vast majority of employers here are small businesses.

“We don’t have large manufacturing plants or Google call centers or those kinds of things in our region," says McNabb. "So we have to have lots of smaller companies that succeed and can hire people at a sustainable living wage.”

But McNabb says there’s a chicken-or-the-egg thing going on, too. At the same time people of working age are leaving, there’s a shortage of skilled labor in those industries that are growing. That means that some small businesses that could expand are afraid to make the move because they think they won’t be able to hire all the workers they need.

“They know that they could get a new contract and expand their business if they could hire 10 people right now," says McNabb. "But if they aren’t confident that they could hire 10 people right now with the skills they need, then they’re not going to go after that contract because they know they’re not going to be able to fulfill it.”

McNabb says that’s where education could help – so people who are here can be trained for some of those jobs. 

But the group of people who might go back for workforce training is shrinking. U.S. Census numbers show that between 2000 and 2010, the number of people in their 30s and 40s dropped by more than eight percent.

“So we’re seeing fewer people of working age but more people of retirement age, demanding more services and products," says McNabb. "And you just don’t have the workforce to address those demands.”

The bluest skies you've ever seen

In August, the Daniels family loaded up a Ryder moving truck and headed for Fort Worth, Texas. Ken can make a lot more money truck-driving there until – he hopes – he gets into social work.

The family has a lot of goals. They’ve gotten rid of most of their stuff. They’re working towards getting completely out of debt. They want to live more simply and inexpensively.

Plus they hate winter.

“I like Michigan but I want to be a fudgie in Michigan," says Ken Daniels. "I want to only come here when it’s beautiful and perfect.”

And this may sound strange coming from someone who was born and raised here, but Amber says that since they moved back ten years ago, Traverse City has never really felt like home.

“It’s my home because I live here but it never felt … like when I go to my parents house and I walk in the door, it smells like home," she says. "This doesn’t feel that way and it never really has for me."

Eleven-year-old Marilee says she has mixed emotions about the move. She’s excited to meet new people but she’ll miss her school and her friends.

“I’m okay with it," she says. "It’s just going to be a little hard because of where our house is. I can ride my bike all around and I’m leaving all my friends. Especially it’s going to be hard because we buried our old dog here. So we have to leave Pebbles.”

The Daniels family is now getting settled in Fort Worth. Ken is back at work driving his truck. Daughter Marilee is back to school, fending off advances from potential boyfriends.

Amber says the family is still getting used to the 90-degree heat but Texas, she says, has the bluest skies she’s ever seen.