Traverse City has one of the state’s fastest-growing populations of young adults. Read on to meet the seven young professionals in Traverse City that are shaping the town into a great place in Northern Michigan to work. Find the original spread in the August 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
Allison Beers, Events North
Nine a.m. is the slaughtering hour at Pigstock, an annual autumn celebration of harvesting the whole animal, from snout to tail. The sun has just risen over the Leelanau Peninsula, and a crowd of chefs, farmers and filmmakers are already raising glasses of Captain Morgan rum to their lips in a toast. Two Austrian butchers are about to put down a 200-pound Mangalitsa pig—considered the Kobe beef of pork. The swine will be split in half and carried by four people to the kitchen at Black Star Farms, where the culinary artistry will begin.
Standing in the center of the crowd, sipping an Earl Grey Breakfast Tea, is event planner Allison Beers, whom Cherry Capital Foods (the sponsor of Pigstock) hired to be the organizational force behind the event. Beers awoke at 4 a.m. at her home near Long Lake and drove to Suttons Bay. With a headlamp beaming from her forehead, she has spent the morning directing traffic, calling the butchers, organizing volunteers, giving the filmmakers a walking tour of the farm, and ensuring the coffee and cider are warm. Her clipboard is her weapon. Her phone buzzes every 30 seconds. She relishes every moment.
“Pigstock is unique, there’s no other program like this,” says Beers. “It’s like chef camp. They come and learn to use the whole animal and not waste a thing.” The bonus for the region is Traverse City gets to be the thought leader on whole-animal use.
But for Beers, as an event planner, the skill set for Pigstock is the same as the skill set for all events. “It’s about organization and dealing with 27 people at once. It’s like herding cats,” she says.
Beers’s company, Events North, plans corporate meetings, weddings, harvest celebrations … “there’s no typical Events North event,” she insists. “Each one requires detailed coordination and organization.” Calling the shots comes naturally to Beers. Her daughter Anna used to think that mommy’s job was literally “telling people what to do.”
Prior to founding Events North in 2008—at the onset of the economic recession—Beers volunteered with the Traverse City Film Festival during its initial years and planned its parties and special events. Film Festival executive director Deb Lake says Beers had an incredible founding impact on the festival, calling the event planner “one of the most together people I’ve ever met. She’s calm, she’s cool, she’s intelligent, and she’s also warm and personable.”
Beers’s local accolades have grown since then. She is president of the Cherry Festival Foundation, sits on the board of Rotary Charities, and co-founded the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce’s Young Professionals program. In May 2014, Michigan Meetings + Events Magazine inducted her into its hall of fame as “best event planner.” And the Minervini Group recently hired Events North to manage Kirkbride Hall, the recently restored historic chapel turned event venue at Grand Traverse Commons.
The Film Festival, the Cherry Festival, the GT Commons, destination weddings—these are the thumbtacks that put our region on the national map, and Beers has impacted them all.
The same opportunity to have a regional impact didn’t exist for Beers and her husband, Adam, in Philadelphia, where they moved after college and lived until 2005. Beers did, however, take on some major events in the City of Brotherly Love, including orchestrating the grand opening of the Philadelphia Eagles’ new football stadium in 2003. They appreciated the urban pulse and the diversity of food options. But their native Michigan called them back.
Adam was from Traverse City. He missed the Midwestern friendliness and easy access to nature. Driving two hours to the Pocono Mountains to go skiing, or two hours to Atlantic City to visit a beach no longer cut it. More than anything, Adam missed fresh water. Allison had grown up near Detroit and met Adam when they were students at Albion College. All she knew of Traverse City was that she had once played putt-putt golf there while visiting family friends in Elk Rapids.
For Beers, leaving Philly for the northern woods seemed like a gamble.
“It felt like career suicide,” Beers admits. “I went from being a director of operations at a branch of the world’s largest event planning company to asking myself, ‘what am I going to do here?’ At first, I cried and told Adam how I couldn’t stand it.”
But she remembers a day sunbathing at North Bar Lake in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore that softened her up. “This place has got to be heaven,” she thought. Then one summer day she was driving down Front Street in Traverse City just after Cherry Festival had ended. Anna was in the back seat looking out the window. “I love our town,” her daughter said. The matter-of-fact words brought tears to Beers’s eyes. She couldn’t ever remember articulating that about Walled Lake, the town near Detroit where she grew up.
Allison and Adam Beers are shining examples of boomerangs, young adults who have returned to the mitten state with professional skills harnessed elsewhere are now having a profound impact on their community. They are antidotes to the state’s “brain drain,” which saw young talent leave Michigan by the tens of thousands over the past two decades. Pockets of young professionals are now growing elsewhere in Michigan, too. Like boomerangs who are returning to Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Lansing and parts of Detroit, Allison and Adam chose Michigan for its natural beauty, for access to family and for the opportunity to have an impact.
“In this community I get to go out and be the connector and introduce people and make a difference,” Allison says.
(Anna has jokingly asked her dad, “Does Mom know everybody?”)
The migration of young people has brought vibrancy to downtowns where empty storefronts once marred the streetscape. Traverse City now bursts with microbreweries, wineries, cafes, food trucks, movie theaters, bike commuters and yoga studios.
“There’s something about seeing the lights at the State Theatre on at night, and when people walk out of the theater, there’s still something going on,” Allison says.
The chamber’s Young Professionals group—known as the YPs—are working to bring more “creative class” millennials back to Traverse City. They use social media networks to help find jobs for those interested in boomeranging home. And the YPs launched a business incubator program in 2015.
Fellow YP founder Warren Call, a banker at Huntington Bank, calls Allison Beers the matchmaker for young professionals in Traverse City. “She’s the hub that connects all the spokes. She’s the person you can go to with any issue, any question. She knows everyone.”
Warren Call, Huntington Bank
As a young adult, Benzie native Warren Call never thought the Traverse City area was worth coming back to. The ambitious businessman, who’s now a vice president at Huntington Bank, moved to Rome for his MBA, and later to New York City, with his wife Marina. But he quickly realized that the Wall Street rat race wasn’t for him.
“That’s not where I wanted our daughter to grow up. So we moved back to Northern Michigan for the natural environment, the small-town feel, and the ability to have a larger impact on our community.”
The Traverse City that Call discovered in 2006 was entirely different than the one he had known as a child. The shuttered power plant along West Grand Traverse Bay had given way to parkland; the State Theatre was re-opened; the town’s center of gravity had shifted downtown once again, and the cultural amenities had improved as Traverse City enjoyed a renaissance.
By 2010 Call was enmeshed, together with Allison Beers, with the Traverse City Chamber’s Young Professionals.
“We were trying to take the YPs from a loose conglomeration of people who would network over cocktails to an agenda-driven group that was trying to accomplish something for our generation,” says Call.
Thanks to those efforts, today the chamber has a full-time staff person devoted to the YPs.
Aaron and Chelsea Bay Dennis, media and marketing
Aaron and Chelsea Bay Dennis grew up two blocks from each other in Traverse City, and both went to college at the University of Michigan. Remarkably, they didn’t meet until 2010 at a local environmental film festival. Both chose to return to Northern Michigan after stints in big cities and travels around the world.
“We chose Traverse City, we didn’t end up here,” emphasizes Chelsea, who moved back from San Francisco in 2007 and retooled her graphic design company, C. Bay Design, to work with local, altruistic companies and organizations. “I was living halfway across the country from my family. I didn’t feel the joy of being part of an invested community as I do here.”
Chelsea served on the board of On the Ground for six years, a local nonprofit that holds ultra-marathons in developing countries to support farmers; she also serves on the board at Oryana Natural Foods Market and has been part of the local Bioneers planning committee. Chelsea’s interest in good causes led her to Aaron, a filmmaker who returned from New York City to be near family and start his company, Stone Hut Studios.
Aaron teamed up with On the Ground to create the 2012 documentary The People and the Olive, about the daily struggles of Palestinian olive farmers in the occupied West Bank. Last year, Aaron and Chelsea produced Connected by Coffee, which examines the impact of the fair trade movement on Central American coffee growers.
Stone Hut Studios is best known locally for Aaron’s breathtaking time-lapse videos of nature-scapes, such as the Grand Traverse Commons. Aaron once spent the night under the Mackinac Bridge, in knee-deep water, in order to shoot a time-lapse of stars dancing over the Straits.
“Time-lapses are the basis for visual storytelling,” Aaron says. “They are a unique way to step outside of human perception and see the beauty of nature in a whole new way.”
Simon Joseph, Roaming Harvest
Travel magazines and marketing brochures consider Traverse City a food town, but until recently, Simon Joseph disagreed.
“If you want to be a food town, you need to have street food,” says Joseph, who grew up in nearby Onekema and recently returned to Michigan after stints in Florida, Seattle and Alaska.
“You also need to have all levels of food. Sure, you have high-end restaurants where you can go once a month, but there has to be good food that’s available at everyday prices and is not just good but quick.”
Joseph opened his food truck Roaming Harvest in 2011 in the Little Fleet parking lot, but the food truck space shuts down at the end of the summer tourism season. Last June he launched Harvest, a simple, standalone restaurant tucked behind Union Street Station. Prices for street food entrees top out at $9, and arrive at your table fast.
The menu choices are delicious and daring. They reflect foods that you wouldn’t have found in Traverse City five years ago. The Korean beef tacos are the fixture around which Roaming Harvest was built, but don’t miss the “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” section of the board. Ethnically diverse choices like the samosas, yellow chickpea curry or roasted pork bahn mi give Traverse City street cred as an up-and-coming “food town.”
Joseph shrugs off his impact on the local culinary scene, but thinks the upward trend will continue. “The more good food you put in one place, the more people will show up,” he says. “Contrary to the traditional business model, which is about protecting my piece of the pie, we need to continue to grow the entire pie.”
Julie Clark, TART Trails
Julie Clark moved her family to Traverse City in 2010 ostensibly when she got the job as executive director of TART Trails, but she says the place was the true catalyst.
“We were chasing the perfect place, not the perfect job,” says Clark. “After living in Charlotte, North Carolina, we decided that the next place where we’d live had to meet certain criteria: it had to have clean air and water, a good school system, and it had to be walkable and bikable. This place had those elements.”
TART has helped turn Northern Michigan into a bicycle destination that stimulates the local tourism economy. The Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail in the National Lakeshore is a prime example. Its first leg, between Glen Arbor and the Dune Climb, opened in 2012. Bikers can now ride from Empire to the Port Oneida Rural Historic District (13 miles), and other than a short jaunt through Glen Arbor village, the trip is car-free.
“People ask how important it is to have a trail through the National Park,” says Clark. “But the investment it has brought to Glen Arbor and the investment that local businesses have put into the trail are huge. The key is to leverage the benefits from this attraction.”
Clark, her husband, Bill, and their two daughters live in Traverse City’s Central Neighborhood, which is also bicycle-friendly, helped by a trail that runs through town. Clark concedes that technically she’s not a boomerang-er, since she never lived in the Mitten previously, but she has embraced it as her own. Her ideal day includes a jog through the Grand Traverse Commons, a family bicycle ride to the Sara Hardy Farmers Market on the Boardman River and a trip to Clinch Park beach on West Bay.
Jessica Wheaton, Traverse City Light & Power
Michigan has an energy-efficiency mandate, and Jessica Wheaton is helping local electricity customers to use less power to meet the goal.
Wheaton, is Traverse City Light & Power’s manager of energy services and key accounts. She has the job of educating residential, commercial and industrial customers on how to become more energy efficient.
Last fall she was literally giving away 1,500 LED bulb kits to TCLP’s customers, to demonstrate how they can save money, get better light quality and do the environment a favor.
But altruism is not her stated aim—it’s to do good business.
“It’s always been a directive of the board to find ways to conserve energy,” says Wheaton. “Coal plants are no longer being built, so how do we as a utility make up that lost access to generation? Energy efficiency is a great way to help decrease the utility’s dependence on coal and not put all our eggs in one basket.”
Wheaton finds it gratifying to see others in her age bracket influencing the direction of change in her town. “Traverse City has been known for years as a retirement community,” says the native of nearby Lake Ann. “Now you can walk down Front Street and see young professionals in suits and ties. They’re coming here to do innovative things.”