A majority of my work is interviewing people in a community and turning their stories into social media content in the form of photo essays, videos, and podcasts.
Yesterday, I interviewed six people in the City of Saginaw, Michigan.
Dawn Goodrow has owned and operated Dawn of a New Day Coffee House and Cafe in downtown Saginaw for the last 15 years. Many entrepreneurial gurus and business consultants would have looked at downtown Saginaw in 2005 and said it was a terrible place to open a business: mostly vacant, abandoned, and assaulted by crime.
I asked her why she opened a coffee shop.
“I believe in the people here,” she said. “I remember just sobbing on the floor after peeling back the fifth layer of linoleum and carpet in the Behringer building thinking, ‘What am I doing?’, when someone stopped by, a little angel, and said ‘I’m so glad that you’re here.'”
In my next interview, I talked with Andrea Foster. She’s employed in Midland, a neighboring city, recently moved to Saginaw Township, and works remotely in the city limits inside a coworking space.
I asked her the same question, “Why?”
“The city has a form of strength not everyone has or is afraid to have,” she said. “When I buy food here, not only am I getting something to nourish my body, but I get strength from the people that give it to me because they’re giving it to me in love. The word ‘community’ gets bandied about so much by places that don’t actually have it, but Saginaw is a community. It’s a community of strength and resiliency, full of fighters.”
In the next interview, I talked to Dom and Amanda Moes. They had moved 17 times in 20 years, but three years ago, decided to buy a house in Saginaw. Last year, they opened a business in downtown, City Cafe.
“We came here and saw the potential,” they said. “We saw how many people in Saginaw were focused on building a better future and understood what the city can become. We wanted to be a part of that, and for our children to be a part of that.”
You might be noticing a trend.
It’s easy and appropriate to think that the things that attract people are big, shiny, and expensive. We think we need to have “all the things” before we have can have a place people can love.
Fix every road in the city and THEN people will want to live here. Fill every vacant storefront with new businesses and THEN people will want to come here. Bring us a factory, a casino, a Costco, an amusement park, things that Traverse City has, a minor league baseball team. Bring us something, ANYTHING, that is new and different and “not from here” and THEN we’ll become a place people want to be.
“If our place isn’t polished and perfect, how could anyone want to live or invest here?” we think, and sometimes, the way we market our places supports this idea that what people really want, above all else, is a perfect place to live.
The only way a place using “Work. Play. Live.” or any variation of it against every other place other using the same slogan is by being better than every other place that uses the same slogan.
After all, any person can work, play, and live anywhere. But what would make someone want to do those things here?
Because we’re better. More polished. More perfect.
I asked a city official during an interview, “What would you change to make this place better?”
Their response, “Nothing! I think it’s perfect!”
Sterile and overly-professional sounding press releases, immaculately crafted social media posts, and relentless courting of outside talent and investment make our cities seem like places that are more focused on selling than living.
But perfection and polish aren’t why people love a place.
Here in Michigan, we have a couple notable tourist towns that people love to visit.
People go for a day or two every year or stay at a second home for a couple months during the summer and then leave. The cities burgeon during June and July and then evaporate during Fall and Winter.
You would think with how clean, polished, and nice these places are, their populations would be swelling every year, and that’s just not the case.
When I ask the people I interview, “Why this place?” they will almost always respond, “The people and the potential.”
The people, the potential.
We’re captivated by people because we are people, too. They inspire us. They make us feel connected. People are interesting, they make us feel good, they help, they have stories. They are part of a team.
We need Tourist Towns. They are fun, important.
But marketing a place for tourism is different than marketing a place for pride, investment, development, relationships, and growth. That kind of marketing takes telling the stories of people: what they’re doing and what they’ve done, lived through, and experienced.
The personality and relationships of a community is what determines potential. Find a wealthy, disconnected community and you find a place that’s reached its ceiling of potential. Sure, it might get bigger, but it definitely won’t get better.
But on the flip side of that, find a poor community that is full of hope, grit, and relationships and you find a community people are willing to throw their hat into the ring for because that place will get better, and the potential of always getting better is an exciting thing.
Vibe and environment, community and connections, potential and people. These are the things that attract and retain talent, investment, build resiliency, and determine the fate of a place.
These are things we, as people, control because we, the people, should make (and market) our places.
Let’s make and market them better.