2016 Get Local Party

Attracting Young Talent (Back) to Michigan with Passenger Rail

January 29, 2018 |

Owosso has always been “home” for Alyson Caverson, a 34-year-old native of the longtime railroad hub and the town of 15,000, located midway between Lansing and Flint. She continued to call it home even after leaving for college in Ann Arbor and spending seven years in Chicago after that.

Caverson returned to Owosso five years ago in what she thought would be a temporary transition before moving to Ann Arbor or a more populated city in Michigan. Instead, she grew roots, bought a home and started a business, Happy Girl Granola.

“I happened to move back to Owosso when a lot of exciting things were starting to happen here,” she said recently while sipping a lavender latte at Foster Coffee, the hip café and community gathering spot that opened in 2015 near the corner of Washington and Main streets. “Young entrepreneurs were starting new businesses. It made sense to start my own small business in my hometown, too.”

Caverson is excited about the Ann Arbor to Traverse City passenger rail project, initiated by the Groundwork Center, which will run from the population centers of southeast Michigan to the emerging economies in the northwest, and pass through Owosso and towns like Howell, Durand, Alma, Mt. Pleasant and Cadillac—all opportunities for her to grow Happy Girl Granola.

“I would travel, probably once a month, to these locations for either delivery or an in-store event if I could,” said Caverson.

The rail route travels through thriving downtowns that include growing businesses, tech sectors, and colleges that are collectively home to 90,000 students. Those towns also include more families and young professionals who are looking for a reason to put down roots in Michigan. The line would also intersect Amtrak’s Blue Water and Wolverine lines, which could connect passengers to larger metro areas like Lansing, Detroit and Chicago.

“Owosso is no longer a bedroom community where people sleep and leave town every day, but a destination that people seek out for shopping and dining,” said Caverson. “The train would bring people to Owosso instead of Owosso residents driving away to Lansing or Flint.”

Owosso enjoys a long history of being a railroad town. The railroad first came through Owosso in 1856, and it became an important junction for the Ann Arbor Railroad, the Detroit & Milwaukee Railroad, the Michigan Central Railroad and the Grand Trunk Railroad. Owosso is the headquarters of the Great Lakes Central Railroad, which provides freight service to northern and southern Michigan, and is home to the Steam Railroading Institute, dedicated to the preservation, restoration and operation of historic railroad equipment.

Revitalizing this train line is a unique opportunity for Michigan for three reasons: The state owns most of the tracks, much of the line is in good shape, and there’s already broad public support for the idea. Furthermore, civic and business leaders believe this effort will help our state attract the next generation workforce that wants to live and thrive in Michigan without depending on a car.

A 2014 Rockefeller Foundation study showed that 86 percent of young people nationwide are looking for public transportation, including rail, when considering where to live.

In his “State of the State” address on Jan. 23, Gov. Rick Snyder talked about bolstering Michigan’s talent pipeline and learning from Amazon’s rejection of Detroit as a site for its second headquarters. City-to-city passenger rail could be an important tool in the state’s renewed effort to attract talent, businesses and entrepreneurs (back) to Michigan.

That includes self-starters like Caverson, who launched Happy Girl Granola out of her home kitchen to provide an alternative to the hard, sticky consistency of the granola she found in stores. An avid home baker and former pastry chef who made everything from scratch, she now operates out of a small commercial kitchen. Happy Girl Granola products are currently available at 12 locations statewide, from Detroit to Flint, Mackinac Island to Traverse City.

Caverson, who works a day job in nearby Corunna as a court recorder and judicial assistant, wants to expand her business and attract more retail customers. But there’s a catch. She hates to drive, particularly after dark. That’s a major hurdle in a large state with a widely dispersed population that’s been historically addicted to automobiles and freeways.

When she lived in Chicago, Caverson relied on the “El” elevated train for transportation, and the Amtrak train to get home to Owosso. Driving in the congested, gridlocked Windy City would have been as counterproductive and unappealing to her as that hard, sticky granola one typically finds on stores shelves. She’d prefer to use passenger rail to get around in Michigan, as well.

“Transportation, while necessary, is boring and feels like such a waste of time,” she said. “When you drive, you can’t be productive. On a train you can work, read a book, take a nap, eat a snack, or meet new people. The possibilities are endless.”

The current lack of a passenger rail connection prevents downstate businesses from expanding into Traverse City, says Rich Sheridan, who owns Menlo Innovations, a software company in downtown Ann Arbor. Traveling by car or plane requires too much unproductive time. To Sheridan, the distance between the cities is too short to hassle with flying and too long to sit in a car.

In fact, Sheridan recently penned a letter to the Michigan Venture Capital Association urging business and state leaders to reinforce their efforts to make city-to-city passenger rail a top priority in Michigan, and described how rail provides a productive and efficient way for business travelers to move around the state.

Passenger rail to northwest Michigan would make Menlo and other Ann Arbor companies more attractive for attracting talent, Sheridan told Groundwork.

“If someone’s on the fence as to whether they’d stay here, I’d tell them, ‘by the way, I’ll give you and your significant other tickets on the train up to Traverse City. Take a weekend up there and see what it’s like to work in the beautiful state of Michigan.’ This is the calling card for businesses these days—our ability to attract talent.”

Groundwork and its partners, including the Bay Area Transportation Authority and the Michigan Department of Transportation have launched a feasibility study that will begin to answer questions about the existing railroad corridor, track conditions, potential costs, economic impact, ridership, and more. Groundwork will keep you in up-to-date on how you can get involved in the study.