BENTON HARBOR — Berrien County economic development officials received more than 200 applications in the first week of a new program offering up to $15,000 and other incentives for people to move to the Southwest Michigan region.
The Move to Michigan program, which the county’s economic development organization Cornerstone Alliance launched in the last week of October, set an initial goal of attracting 25 new households to the county. The program is pitched as a way to lure pandemic-weary Chicago residents with more space and affordable property amid a mass work-from-home shift.
As of Nov. 2, Cornerstone received 205 applications from residents in 18 states. About half of the applicants are from Chicago.
“We talk a lot about incentives for companies (to move to the area) and then we talked about this approach that would instead recruit people,” said Cornerstone Alliance President Rob Cleveland. “At its core, economic development is about people. That’s ultimately how you build a community.”
The reception of the program has been “overwhelmingly positive” from community leaders and investors in Cornerstone Alliance, Cleveland said.
The region has struggled for years with Berrien County’s aging population, said Dick Stauffer, supervisor of Lincoln Charter Township. Berrien County’s population declined 2.2 percent to 156,808 people from 2010 to 2019, according to U.S. Census data.
“It’s certainly a unique approach from an economic development standpoint and will be beneficial to the township,” Stauffer said. “Whenever you can draw new residents to your area, it’s a good thing. It is equivalent to recruiting a new company to the area.”
How it works
The Move to Michigan program seeks to attract full-time residents to Berrien County, where communities typically rely on summer tourism as an economic driver.
The program offers a $15,000 grant that is forgiven in $5,000 increments over three years. Applicants are required to purchase a home for at least $200,000 within four ZIP codes — 49022, 49085, 49103 and 49127. Applicants must be considered a full-time resident and prove they have full-time employment and are working remotely for a company outside of Southwest Michigan.
In addition to the cash, participants can also pick from annual rail ticket passes, various memberships and free access to co-working spaces and county parks.
“This is a creative approach and I think the area has a lot to offer because of the parks and that it’s close to Lake Michigan,” Stauffer said. “And the smaller community has real character.”
The program is funded by a prior Cornerstone real estate investment, Cleveland said. Based on the high demand that exceeds the amount of funding for the program, Cornerstone will set up a scoring system for applications. Cleveland said details of that process are still being worked out.
Following a trend
The program launched as Southwest Michigan’s real estate market booms, attracting homebuyers looking to retreat from the Chicago area. Realtors who work in the lakeshore community told MiBiz in September that 2020 was the busiest summer they have ever seen, and believed remote working was partly the reason for many people moving to the area. Crain’s Chicago Business has reported that home sales were up about 85 percent in the region for July and August compared to the year prior.
Integro Builders LLC moved its headquarters from Chicago to Southwest Michigan in Grand Junction in early October. Integro Builders CEO Allyson Case Anderson previously told MiBiz that people have been moving from Chicago to Michigan in increasing numbers this year because they want more space and flexibility. There is an “exodus coming from Illinois, particularly from the pandemic,” she said.
The pandemic also has driven lakeshore communities like Saugatuck to focus more on attracting year-round residents as opposed to mostly relying on the summer tourism season.
“Our state is getting older and its population is decreasing,” Cleveland said. “We are trying to reverse those trends. We are competing in Michigan for everything. This program was intended to give us a competitive advantage over other areas where people are trying to move.”