April 3, 2009 at 1:00 am

North Carolina reaps talent with high-tech jobs

Brian and Ali Groesser made North Carolina their new home five years ago and added their daughter Ava, now 2 years old. "Right now, there's nothing that would draw me back to Michigan," Brian Groesser says. (Jason Arthurs / Special to The Detroit News)

Raleigh, N.C. -- Michigan native Brian Groesser and his wife live 750 miles away in a new North Carolina home that looks straight off the set of "Gone with the Wind." His brother moved south two years ago; a cousin left Michigan to join them last year.

Between them, they have six college degrees, four high-paying white-collar jobs, and fewer and fewer connections to Michigan.

"Right now," said Groesser, whose North Carolina license plate reads WOLVRINE, "there's nothing that would draw me back to Michigan."

The Groesser family exemplifies the kind of people Michigan needs the most -- and the kind it's losing the fastest.

The state had a net loss of 18,000 college-educated residents in 2007, according to a Detroit News analysis of Census Bureau data. The loss, the equivalent of half the faculty and staff of the University of Michigan leaving for warmer climates in one year, was second-worst in the nation, behind only New York.

The two fastest-growing landing spots for Michigan expats today are both in North Carolina, with the number moving to Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte almost doubling between 2000 and 2007. Those cities, with comparatively booming economies and reasonable housing prices, are illustrative of the cities now claiming some of Michigan's most upwardly mobile residents.

Research Triangle beckons

Few places draw more of Michigan's best and brightest -- or offer as many lessons for their native state -- as the Research Triangle. Here, laid-off GM engineers, Pfizer refugees and Michigan-trained teachers shop for homes in burgeoning suburbs like Cary, nicknamed by locals as the "Containment Area for Relocated Yankees."

Research Triangle Park was established in 1959 when North Carolina's textile mills were still churning. By the time that industry packed up its machinery and moved to Mexico, the park had grown into one of the largest concentrations of high-tech and medical research companies in the nation. Today there are 170 companies in the park, including IBM, GlaxoSmithKline and Nortel.

"Instead of focusing on bailing out the auto industry, Michigan needs to learn from what North Carolina did when (the textile industry) moved out," Groesser said. "They shifted into new technology."

Diversification has helped North Carolina's economy grow while Michigan's contracted.

"Here (in Raleigh-Durham), there's environmental, biotech, pharmaceuticals, high-tech," said expat Andrea Frederick. "Michigan is still hanging its hat on one industry. The thinking always seemed to be, 'This will get us through.' "

The 31-year-old used to create television commercials for Lincolns and Mercuries at a Dearborn ad agency. Now, she works for Bronto Software. Twenty casually dressed workers (only three are from North Carolina) are grouped in pods in an open, brick loft in a former Lucky Strike cigarette warehouse. A decade ago, it was a vacant industrial building like the kind that dot Detroit. Now, it is filled with high-tech start-ups, galleries and upscale restaurants.

Egged on by tax breaks and partnerships between Duke University and the city of Durham, the American Tobacco Campus is the kind of urban redevelopment that attracts innovative people such as Frederick. "There's a real positivity here," Frederick said.

The movement of the young and highly educated to vibrant urban centers make those communities even more vibrant, which attracts the next wave of urban migrants. It's a cycle that, once started, is hard to break, both for the communities gaining the upwardly mobile, and for the communities losing them.

State needs to act fast

If Michigan is going to lure back its best and brightest, it needs to do it quickly. After the last great Michigan exodus, during the auto recession of the early 1980s, many people moved back to the state. But that recession was shorter than the current one, and people returned before they settled in other communities.

Lisa Learst had always rented in Michigan. Last fall, the 33-year-old teacher, who grew up in the U.P. and used to teach at a Detroit charter school, bought a home in North Carolina, making it less likely she'll return home.

Former automotive engineer Kirk Rudolph moved to Seattle to work for Boeing after being laid off in 2006 from Troy-based auto supplier Magna International. "I had this dream: I'd work out here for three or four years, make some money, and them come back to Michigan when the auto industry stabilized."

But two years later, despite family roots and a son attending Central Michigan University, he's not coming back.

"The home prices are insane, but it's beautiful," said Rudolph, who keeps a toy Red Wings' Zamboni on his desk. "Even if there is an automotive industry to return to, once an automotive engineer reaches three to five years experience in the aerospace industry, that engineer has successfully changed industries -- the technical brain drain from Michigan is permanent."

That brain drain -- a busload of college-educated Michiganians leave each day -- makes it more difficult for the state to reverse its downward spiral.

"They're going to have to start from zero and give these companies huge tax breaks," Frederick said. "You need to give people a reason to stay in Michigan."

And, for people like Groesser, a reason to come back. "Michigan can do it," Groesser said. "They've got the resources, they've got the schools."

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