Published in: Banks | Jan. 26, 2020

Kalamazoo, Michigan: No Brain Drain Here

By:  Dana George

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It's not hard to see why people want to live in Kalamazoo.

When The Ascent started its research into which cities in the U.S. have the enviable combination of highest incomes and lowest costs of living, it was difficult to predict who would come out on top. There are cities in the U.S. that are inexpensive to live in, but also offer low salaries. And there are cities where average salaries are high, but the cost of living is also high.

If we were telling the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Kalamazoo would be described as "just right." 

Two people hiking through sunny woods in autumn with their dog.

Image source: Getty Images

The average Kalamazoo salary of $47,060 is slightly less than the national average of $51,960. But what pushed Kalamazoo to the No. 1 spot on The Ascent's list is how far that salary can take you. 

It is 33% less expensive to live in Kzoo (a local nickname) than in the average American city. That's more money to put in your savings account and use for the future. 

That's not the only thing that sets this town of 77,000 residents apart: The town has plenty of affordable housing, several innovative programs and plenty of job opportunities.

The unemployment rate is around 3.1%, 0.4% lower than the national average. And companies like Stryker, Bronson Healthcare, and Western Michigan University are job anchors, attracting world-class talent. 

"It is not uncommon for someone to move away, start a family, and move back because of the quality of life," Jeff Chamberlain, Deputy City Manager of Kalamazoo told The Ascent.

Plenty to do in Kalamazoo

If you've never been to Kzoo, you're missing out. With Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo College, and Kalamazoo Valley Community College all within city limits, the town enjoys a constant infusion of enthusiasm.

"We embody Midwest Nice," said Chamberlain.

Chamberlain also points to some of the amenities Kzoo has to offer, including a vibrant cultural scene, nature trails, kayaking, biking, great food, and sports teams. Plus, a diverse population and highly skilled workforce make it an attractive choice for companies looking to expand or start a new enterprise. 

Housing options

There's a wide array of housing options for those that move to Kalamazoo, including lofts and condos in the newly revitalized downtown area. According to Chamberlain, there are three projects underway that will add several hundred more units to the city.

Whether the idea of a converted third-floor loft appeals, or you prefer a suburban setting, the prices are attractive. According to Zillow, you can buy a large five-bedroom, three-bath home for $210,000 -- and property taxes would be under $3,800 a year. While other cities were boosting their rates, Kalamazoo actually lowered theirs.  

"Like many other Midwest cities, Kalamazoo struggled with budget, especially after the recession," Chamberlain said. "Looking to fix the budget gaps, two businessmen here in town -- William Johnston and William Parfet -- put up an initial $70 million to lower property taxes."

And if your first thought is that taxes were lowered as some kind of temporary promotion to lure new residents and businesses, there's no need for concern. According to Chamberlain, the fund is expected to last in perpetuity. 

Imagine Kalamazoo 2025

Unique programs like Imagine Kalamazoo 2025 (IK2025) also help explain why so many people are happy to call Kalamazoo home. In order to include the community in the decision-making process, staff of IK2025 have partnered with community leaders to meet with residents. These meetings allow residents to share their vision for what Kalamazoo could be, and outline their ideal hometown.  

The Kalamazoo Promise

The ultimate lure for young families is The Kalamazoo Promise, a program that pledges to pay college tuition and fees for graduates of Kalamazoo public schools. Although students do not need a minimum grade point average in high school to qualify, they must be enrolled in the district from the beginning of 9th grade. Here are some of the features that make the scholarship so noteworthy:

  • Covers all tuition and mandatory fees.
  • Covers either a bachelor's degree or 130 credits, whichever comes first.
  • Available for any public university in the state of Michigan, any of the 14 private colleges in the Michigan Colleges Alliance, trade school, or a certificate program.
  • Students have 10 years from the time they graduate to use the scholarship and can start and stop as needed during that time.

Von Washington Jr., Executive Director of Community Relations for The Kalamazoo Promise, explained that he sees the program as an investment in human capital and part of a full community transformation. 

He clearly recalls the community's reaction to hearing that anonymous donors wanted to fund the educational pursuits of Kalamazoo public school students. "There are tears of joy and disbelief, a sense that it was too good to be true," Washington said. 

According to Washington, one woman in the crowd asked if The Kalamazoo Promise would be in place when the baby in her arms was old enough to attend college. The program's then-executive director Janice Brown assured her it would.

"It won't be long until everyone in Kalamazoo is touched in some way by the program, either by taking advantage of the educational opportunity themselves or knowing someone who has," Washington added.

In addition, he says that The Kalamazoo Promise can act as a magnet for companies hoping to attract talented employees, which will ultimately strengthen the city.

Washington readily admits that there is no perfect city. Still, it would be tough to find a town working harder than Kalamazoo, Michigan to become the best possible place to live.

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