A future for A-Town

Alpena seeks to build a community young people will embrace

News Photo by Julie Riddle Alpena resident Joe Rybarczyk pauses for reflection at The Bulldog Hot Dog Joint in downtown Alpena. The trendy restaurant, with its young vibes, opened last fall, one of several establishments aimed at the millennial generation gaining a toehold in the city.

ALPENA — Alpena, it is often said, is a retirement town.

Quiet, peaceful, and a place to enjoy a slower pace in the golden years.

That’s one side of the city.

Just as accurate a picture, however, is that of a city of young professionals and entrepreneurs, 20- and 30-somethings stepping eagerly into leadership roles and raising their families in a city they are proud to call home.

The generation known as millennials, those now between the ages of 23 and 38, according to the Pew Research Center, are the first generation to grow up connected by technology to the larger world. The widely studied generation is known for its entrepreneurial spirit, environmentalism, and activism.

News Photo by Julie Riddle TOP: Alpena High School students, as they near graduation, have to decide if their hometown is a place they want to stay and raise their families. Seniors Dani Losinski, Garrett Beaulieu, Ursula Duncan, Kali Spomer, and Mija Pilkaite, seen here at the school recently, will go separate ways after graduation, some of them heading for lives in bigger cities and some planning to return home after college, bringing training and new ideas with them.

And those are the people Alpena economic development and tourism officials say they want as the city shifts — slowly — from an economy reliant on manufacturing to a more diverse economy more dependent on tourism and the arts.

The city seems to be holding its own on that front.

While Alpena County’s population dipped significantly between 2007 and 2017, the most recent year U.S. Census estimates are available, the number of millennial residents stayed about the same, at 4,500 people.

Millennials are important to the community’s efforts because there are more of them than baby boomers, and they spend more money, said Mary Beth Stutzman, president and CEO of the Alpena Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. While baby boomers plan at least one significant vacation a year, millennials plan four to five per year. And they haven’t even hit their peak earning years, yet, as they’re still maturing in their careers.

Alpena has much to offer that age bracket: a combination of natural beauty and urban amenities.

News Photo by Darby Hinkley Alpena High School students in Ron Cadarette’s Welding Technology 1 and 2 class use gas metal arc welding to attach a plate to a yard stake for yard art to be sold at the Thunder Bay Arts Council Gallery. Welders pictured from left to right are Matthew Meyer and Ryan Meyer.

“We have two live theaters. We have over five art galleries. We have museums. We have trails and beaches and plenty of places to grocery shop,” Stutzman said.

The county has some of the lowest costs of living and lowest crime rates in northern Michigan, and a school system comparable to any other Up North, according to state and federal data.

But Alpena has its drawbacks, as well, including lower household incomes, a shrinking labor force, and a smaller stock of available rental property, often preferred by millennials over mortgages. Outside of the city proper, access to the internet, demanded by the lifestyle millennials live, is harder to find in Northeast Michigan than in communities around Traverse City or Marquette.

Still, perhaps the most challenging obstacle Alpena faces in its efforts to entice young people to visit or root down here is the myth that Alpena is for retirees alone. In fact, Census data shows Alpena’s median age, 48, is only three years older than our supposedly hipper neighbor on the east side of the mitten.

“I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t come here,” said Alpena Community College student Sydney Losinski. “It’s a nice town to get your start.”

GETTING THEM HERE

When Joe Rybarczyk returned to Alpena a few years ago after living downstate during his college years, the 32-year-old had trouble finding a place to live. Places he did find through social media had strict policies discouraging to young renters, such as pet bans.

Natives can find places through word-of-mouth, but “if you’re a transplant, it’s harder,” Rybarczyk said. “You have to know someone.”

Rental property is cheaper in Alpena — typically about $593 a month, versus $869 in Traverse City and $715 in Marquette, according to Census data — but also harder to come by.

“If we have rentals available, they don’t last long,” said Amy Waite, rental specialist with Up North Property Services.

That’s something the region’s leaders have worked to change.

Grants have “helped to remodel and open more apartments or lofts downtown, but there is still a demand for them,” said Anne Gentry, executive director of the Alena Downtown Development Authority. “People, especially younger people, want to live where the action is and where the businesses are, and that is something we are working to provide.”

Target Alpena, the region’s economic development firm, owns the former Alpena Power Co. property on the Thunder Bay River, a now-vacant lot at the corner of Water Street and 2nd Avenue downtown. Officials have solicited developers for the space, envisioning a multi-level building with commercial property on the first floor and an additional two or three floors of residential units above it.

Though there has been significant interest in such a project, nothing is imminent, said Jim Klarich, Target Alpena’s executive director.

But a place to live is nothing without a job to pay the rent, and Alpena sometimes struggles on that front, too: While the area’s unemployment rate is low, Alpena County is still more than 1,000 jobs short of levels seen before the Great Recession hit in 2007. Jobs are starting to come back, but the biggest gains have been in lower-paying sectors such as retail, often forcing young people to look elsewhere.

Take, for example, Alpena Community College student Mikayla Williams, who enrolled at the school with the intent of becoming a pediatric oncologist. Despite her love for her hometown, she thinks she’ll need to leave to pursue her career.

“The job isn’t here,” she said. “That’s probably the only reason I would gravitate someplace else.”

The city offers help on that front, too.

For the entrepreneurially minded — as is the typical millennial — the local branch of the Small Business Administration last year helped 104 clients with everything from feasibility studies to business plans to networking, said Senior Business Consultant Carl Bourdelais.

That resulted in 11 new business starts that created 40-plus jobs.

And Bourdelais has seen signs of hope for the area: Recent graduates of ACC or Northwood University often “want to do something on their own, but don’t want to leave the area because it’s such a nice place to live,” he said.

Meanwhile, Alpena Public Schools, in partnership with several other districts in the region, recently received a nearly $2 million grant from the state to invest in new skilled trades training. The district has also invested heavily in science and technology programs, such as robotics and underwater remotely operated vehicles, that expose students to jobs likely to be available in the future of Great Lakes towns.

“I think that all those opportunities are there … we have a path after high school for them to be successful,” APS Superintendent John VanWagoner said.

KEEPING THEM HERE

Including younger generations in planning the city’s future will be key to making sure today’s young people are a part of that future, Stutzman, of the Convention and Visitors Bureau, said.

“When we embrace young, energetic participation, that’s going to keep us evolving and growing,” she said.

Rybarczyk, the 32-year-old returnee, said he’s been given a voice. He served on the board for the Thunder Bay Arts Council, for example, and helped start the Summer Movies by the Bay program. He’s not sure he would have been able to do all that in a larger city.

Rybarcczyk isn’t alone.

“I feel empowered … because (young people) can set a tone and see what can happen,” said Justin Christensen-Cooper, the 36-year-old executive director of Art in the Loft in downtown Alpena.

But it appears community leaders still have a lot of work to do to get that message to young ears.

Williams and Losinski, the ACC students, have seen evidence on school bulletin boards and on social media of the city’s interest in creating activities to engage residents, but they feel there’s an age gap.

“The events downtown seem to be for adults, or for families with little kids,” not geared toward young adults, Losinsiki said.

At her job downtown, the young employees’ talk often turns to ways the city could provide more entertainment appealing to its younger residents. Downtown concerts are a great atmosphere, she said, but often feature tribute bands playing the music of a different generation.

“It’s hard to appeal to retirees and teenagers at the same time,” Williams said. “When people retire, they want the water, not the teenagers running around.”

Garrett Beaulieu, an Alpena High School senior, said he senses a resistance to change in his community, and that might keep him from coming home after college.

“If I were to come back and look for a job and it’s the same town that I grew up in, with no change, then I wouldn’t want to bring my family here,” Beaulieu said. “It’s not making the next generation better and giving them the opportunities to be better than my generation.”

As Rybarczyk faces financial concerns and weighs what it is that he most values, he said he has to decide if it’s a better choice for him to stay and build or leave for a place where a younger lifestyle is already established.

“It’s exciting to think, what if I stayed here to be a part of a town that is growing into those things? But at the same time, I wonder, is it worth it?” Rybarczyk said. “This town, it has a lot of potential to be really great. I’ve always thought that. But it doesn’t ever live up to it.

“I don’t know why that is,” he added. “Maybe it’s because people like me decide to leave.”