I was a ghost. Thanks to two key trends at work in the Blue Water Area I’m becoming less ghost-like and am slowly able to contribute to the local economy in ways that would never have happened 10 years ago.
Two parallel trends giving me presence in my hometown area? Remote work and a new vibe.
Our Workforce and Remote Work: 36% of our 75,000 strong workforce work outside St. Clair County. At least 25,000 of us worked outside the county back in 2009/2010. The rest of the Blue Water Area is likely not too different. The trend to more and more remote work impacts us too. Remote workers, those who work 50% or more or their time from home or remotely, grew by 115% in 2017, to just under 3% of the national labor force. That’s a notable trend and it doesn’t include people who are part of the freelance economy. So in our county that’s perhaps a pool of 1,000 to 2,000 remote workers - and growing!
How was I a ghost? “Ghosts” shop and live locally but work as expatriates in other cities. The 37% of the county that work outside the county and likely have a 30 minute or more commute each way -- pay taxes: city taxes, property taxes, and local sales taxes. My brother in law first told me the term “ghost”. It’s how he referred to folks like him, who lived in the area, but worked in Detroit. We were functional ghosts - rarely seen, mostly at night or at the local gas station, or on the weekends. Many times we’d be mistaken for tourists or Canadians! Not locals but still connected - just nearly invisible.
The New Vibe: I had to go digging for this one. A little more than 8 years ago, the EDA of St. Clair County, County officials and other organizations launched the Strategic Plan for St. Clair County. It wasn’t a plan handed down from on high -- but an effort to engage the community, get input, participation, ideas and energy. Together we could re-energize our thinking, local business, and our community.
Since ghosts are usually not on anyone’s radar, I remember I was shocked when I got an invite to the icebreaker meeting to be held at the St. Clair Golf Club in January, 2010. There were about 100 of us. We heard from some out of town experts and consultants about what we were about to embark on, got encouragement, and an rough charter on the general objectives that we wanted to achieve. They and our local organizations were going to facilitate a process to we could explore and find out from the community what mattered for change and ways to seed that change.
I went to each meeting and contributed what I could. Now parallel to this of course there were other major economic and social trends changing our town -- just as they have changed every other town in the midwest: retirement of the Baby-boomers, serious manufacturing changes, rise of freelancers, a new generation of workers with much different expectations regarding work and career.
During this time we saw the organic rise of community organizations, an increasing sense of shared destiny as a geographic area - the Blue Water Area, and the global, rapid growth of the Internet economy and it’s penetration into almost every facet of our lives.
All these forces mixed to produce a new vibe in the Blue Water Area: EDAs, DDAs, Mainstreets, community organizations, and others realized that working together brings better results that working alone.
Remote Work and Fewer Ghosts: One result of a meeting I remember attending in the McMorran basement was the idea of coworking centers to support the growing freelancer and remote worker community. It took awhile and a few missed attempts - but the Blue Water Area has at least two coworking centers now that I know about in downtown Port Huron. There’s likely another coming to a town near you. Remote work, especially in coworking centers, give opportunities for “ghosts” to stop being ghosts and connect to the local business community.
Remember, the business community was already changing thanks to the Strategic Plan and the broader developments in technology, communication, and society. Suddenly having coworking centers hosting business professionals who were previously “ghosts” - enriched the already changing business climate in the area.
The new vibe and its positive energy have given us: new businesses coming into the area and more Blue Water expats, once young and restless coming home to raise families in the best of Small Town USA. Towns like Marine City, Lexington, Port Huron and others continue investing in “place” and their own unique town characteristics to attract visitors, residents, and new businesses. The growing army of remote workers, who can pick and choose where to live - seem to be casting their eyes more and more on the Blue Water Area as a place that gives outstanding quality of life, fresh air, and lots of clean water to play in.
We are on the rise. We aren’t going back to what was - but moving into the future to become what could be.
Joe Vandervest is CIO at Campbell Marketing and Communications ( www.campbellmarketing.com ), a single stop, soup to nuts, 100 person marketing agency in Dearborn, Michigan, and is helping build Campbell Tech Solutions ( www.campbelltechsolutions.com ), a new kind of IT service and support company for the Blue Water Area focused on small and medium sized businesses. Campbell Tech Solutions - “Service, not stuff”.