Two millennials who ditched the city for Northern Michigan
Frederik Stig-Nielsen and Betsy Mas were done with Portland.
The Pacific Northwest city — defined by its bourgeois, new-age hipsterdom and parodied, as such, in the hit online show Portlandia — was just too perfect and too homogenous for the young couple, who wanted to live in a place with a grittier, more genuine lifestyle.
“I didn’t need to have 10 vegan options down the street,” laughs Stig-Nielsen.
“Life was so easy there,” explains Mas. “It didn’t feel real. It was too easy to be healthy, to eat organic foods, and to recycle. Life came on a silver spoon… We wanted a place that had more of an edge.”
So after finishing law school at Lewis & Clark College in May 2013, the young, dynamic, and strikingly attractive couple (she’s 29 and of Chilean heritage; he’s a 28-year-old Dane) applied to join the Peace Corps and moved to Elberta to wait out the lengthy application and placement process. Mas is originally from Grand Rapids, and her mother, Dana Burch, lives in Frankfort, as does her uncle, Mike Farmer. The couple instantly fell in love with this place: its beauty, its friendly locals, its laid-back culture, and its creativity.
The couple didn’t just survive last winter; they embraced it by climbing and snowboarding the steep hills behind Elberta, cross-country skiing across Betsie Bay to Glen’s Market for groceries, and taking part in Wednesday trivia nights at Stormcloud.
“Here, the local food movement was a counter-culture movement, and we appreciated it more than we would have in Portland,” says Stig-Nielsen, who interned at the May Farm just outside Frankfort on Adams Road in order to learn agriculture skills that he would later be putting to use in the Peace Corps. His timing proved fortuitous, as Paul May was battling cancer at the time — he’s on the mend now — and Stig-Nielsen helped run the farm. Meanwhile, Mas worked at Cru Cellars in Frankfort and tended bar at The Cabbage Shed in Elberta.
The Danish transplant also started an “anarchist blues grass” band called Alfredo with Al Pityo and Chris Kuykendall. The local trio play frequently at The Cabbage Shed and Stormcloud Brewing Company, as well as the Western Avenue Grill in Glen Arbor. Stig-Nielsen’s persona is unique: he speaks Danish — with this journalist, who’s also of Viking heritage — with the sophisticated demeanor of the well-healed region north of Copenhagen, but he moved to Kentucky at age 12, so his English reveals a southern twang. Likewise, Stig-Nielsen’s long, wavy hair and tattoos complement his hill country roots.
In the Frankfort-Elberta area, Stig-Nielsen and Mas found what, in their minds, Portland had lacked: genuine economic and social diversity (though Northern Michigan remains racially homogenous).
“The circle of community here is a broad, multi-dimensional variety of people,” Stig-Nielsen says. “People will amaze you constantly with their knowledge and their hobbies. Here, your job doesn’t reflect how intelligent or creative you are. You might meet a house painter, and — once you engage with them — you realize they have an immense grasp on the world and are doing amazing things. Here, your job does not define you.”
In March they departed for rural Jamaica to begin a 27-month stint with the Peace Corps. But things didn’t work out. The free-spirited, politically passionate advocates say that they clashed with the hierarchal, corporate structure of the Peace Corps. The couple felt that their hands were tied working for the U.S. government and that there wasn’t enough room for growth. So this spring, they returned to Elberta to once again embrace this community’s free spirit.
In so doing, Frederik Stig-Nielsen and Betsy Mas represent the bold exception to the rule — they are fish swimming upstream.
Most millennials who have come of age during the rise of the “creative class” have chosen to live and play in thriving cities — Chicago, Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Portland, too — with stable jobs, urban diversity, public transit, bicycle lanes, and nonstop stimulation. That outward migration has decimated Michigan in the past decade, subjecting the mitten state to an epic “brain drain.”
The futurists got it wrong, Michigan Future president Lou Glazer told a summit of young professionals last May in Lansing. The Netscape Navigator browser launched 20 years ago, marking what many consider the dawn of the Internet age. Because digital work could foreseeably be done from any place, the futurists had predicted that the creative class would return to rural America and work from their cabins, their mountaintops, their riversides. But the opposite has happened. Now ,75 percent of millennials are concentrated in big cities; their generation is more urbanized than any other generation in history.
Michigan powerbrokers — in government, in the private sector, and in communities — are slowly but surely coalescing around the need to retain and attract young talent. Governor Rick Snyder and Jennifer Granholm before him have both prioritized appealing to young professionals. In Detroit, Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert is bringing young employees into Motown. Grand Rapids, Marquette, and Traverse City, too, appear younger and edgier than they did a decade ago.
For now, Stig-Nielsen and Mas are thrilled to call Elberta home. They’ve shelved their law degrees in favor of community, beaches, bartending, and playing music.
This state will boost its chances of making a full economic rebound if it can attract more millennials like them.