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Promises, Promises

They called it the Kalamazoo Promise.

“Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo” the bumper stickers declared defiantly. Halfway between Chicago and Detroit, the Dutch enclave was crowned the “All-American City” by Life Magazine in the 1960’s. After all it was home to post-war corporate giants like Fisher Body, Checker Motors, the Upjohn Company and that symbol of the generation in motion, Gibson Guitars. Frank Lloyd Wright created some of his greatest architectural marvels here and nestled them in-between the painted ladies that housed the guarded gentry. It had even closed its main thoroughfare to create a little European flair downtown and the first outdoor pedestrian shopping mall in the country. Kalamazoo was entwined by an unusual combination forward thinking and self-reliance.

But slowly things unraveled. Manufacturing left the Snow Belt for warmer lands as did the creative and enterprising youth of the black stocking generation. Roads cracked, factories failed and all semblance of ambition faded in the grey skies of grandfather winter. For three decades the city was called out as yet another example of Northern Blight, or worse, it wandered unnoticed.

And then it happened. Quite unexpectedly, a group of anonymous donors got together without prompt or plea and raised an enormous trust to fund the college education of every child that graduated from a Kalamazoo Public School. They called it the Kalamazoo Promise. Families that owned homes in the school district began sending their children to State of Michigan universities and community colleges for free. People began to move to Kalamazoo as an annuity to their children. Neighborhoods were rehabilitated as beauty shops and coffee joints popped up alongside internet developers and art studios. Businesses began to give the old town another look as biotech and material science firms starting springing up. Medical device firms expanded in the area and big pharmaceutical companies came with them as did the good jobs. Even one of their own, Derek Jeter, became the captain of the lauded New York Yankees baseball team.

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Momentum had shifted from good to bad and back towards good again. Like the single hit that starts a rally which turns into a winning streak that ends with a pennant, Kalamazoo got the Big Mo. Newton described it as the First Law, “A body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted on by an outside force.” Maybe he should have added that there is always an outside force trying to thwart our progress. Kalamazoo got things started with an energizing act that set things in motion. But as ever there are always counter forces that hold sway unless these seemingly singular events can be combined in succession and multiplied with sufficient momentum to move the world…even if it’s just a promise.

Jeff DeGraff

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Jeff DeGraff, Ph.D., is a professor at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

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