MARION — If you try to return to a place from the past, it likely won't be the same as you remember it.
That is the premise of famed author Thomas Wolfe's book, "You Can't Go Home Again." In the classic piece of American literature author George Webber has written a successful novel about his family and hometown. When he returns to that town, however, he is greeted with outrage and hatred from the town and its people.
While Webber eventually leaves his hometown and goes on a search for his own identity, that saying of "You can't go home again" has stuck in the popular lexicon.
Aaron and Dan Michell are bucking that trend and have returned to their home town of Marion. They have seen the place they grew up change over the years and slowly start to fade. It was that love of home that ultimately led to them coming back to the little Osceola County village to set roots, open up a business and try to do what they can to revitalize Marion.
They are not alone as other young Marion natives have opted to open businesses in the village in hopes of being the needed spark for growth.
DREAMS OF LEAVING
With a population of just over 850, Marion is small, rural and likely not the No. 1 spot a teenager would dream about going to.
Like many teenagers, Aaron Michell, 34, and Dan Michell, 29, were not focused on their hometown. The opposite was true. Both of the Michells couldn't wait to get out. Growing up, Aaron said neither his parents, the school system or the community for that matter pushed the idea of community.
"It wasn't a huge part of the conversation growing up. It was more like what are you going to do, where are you going to go and how much money are you going to make," Aaron said. "So the idea of the community never crossed my mind until probably the last five years when we decided to come back."
Dan echoed his older brother's thoughts as he said most conversations growing up revolved around leaving Marion and pursuing a job title and the salary associated with that job title. He said growing up he also didn't see the sense of community, the bigger picture or purpose of the whole thing.
"It was more about getting out and making your name somewhere else," Dan said.
So when high school graduation came for Aaron in 2004 and Dan in 2009, the Michell brothers left Marion. At the time, they both figured it was for good.
WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR LIFE
Aaron left Marion and enrolled at Saginaw Valley State University and graduated from there in 2008. He then furthered his education by attending law school at Marquette University in Wisconsin and graduated from there in 2011.
While at SVSU, Aaron joined the Army reserves in 2006. Originally, Aaron said he wanted to look into sports law as Marquette University has one of the top programs for that in the country but after his experience in the reserves he also thought he might try to enter the Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps. The JAG Corps is the specialty of a military concerned with military justice and military law.
It was, however, during his time at law school that something else started to catch his interest.
"I realized sports law was not as glamorous as I had thought. I never wanted to do criminal law," he said. "I got a C on a (criminal law) exam and I had a great professor who emailed me and asked me if I wanted some help."
Aaron said he appreciated the gesture, but told him he didn't think he would be focusing on criminal law. Instead, real estate finance and development law had piqued his interest. With that, Aaron had found his direction and earned his law degree.
For Dan, his post-high school educational life had many stops. After graduation, he went to Northwood University for a year and then transferred to Central Michigan University for a year. After finishing his year at CMU, Dan moved out to Montana with Aaron.
The two worked with a real estate broker but that was in the heart of the Great Recession and the bottom had fallen out of the housing market. Dan worked odd jobs but eventually returned to Michigan in the summer of 2013.
Once home he joined the Army Reserves and was gone for seven months to get training. Once he returned to Michigan, he enrolled again at CMU and finished his degree in business administration with a focus on real estate and finance.
While at school, Dan lived in Mount Pleasant and worked for Coca-Cola. He moved up the ladder to become an account manager, but he knew it wasn't what he wanted to do forever.
Aaron said he went to Montana in 2011 intending to make the real estate endeavor work but when it didn't he moved back to Michigan and took a job with Quicken Loans in Detroit. He got tired of city life and in 2014 he moved again but this time to North Dakota.
"I ended up taking a job with an environmental company in the oil fields of North Dakota. It was just a job. I did learn and got experience on heavy equipment and cleaning up and remediating contaminated sites," he said. "I did do a little project management, but almost all of the work I did was feet on the ground cleaning up and remediating sites."
It was during that year in North Dakota, Aaron met his fiance who happened to be from the Traverse City area. After that year, the two moved back to Michigan and the Grand Rapids area. He worked for real estate brokerage but much like his time in Detroit, he didn't like it.
That is when the two brothers connected with a business plan.
In 2016, both Dan and Aaron were back in Michigan. It was at that time they both started thinking about starting their real estate brokerage. Oddly enough, when the brothers were thinking about where they would like to set roots, they both thought of their hometown. They thought of Marion.
"We just thought there was so much opportunity up here. We knew Marion like the back of our hands. We grew up here, we knew the people here and over the years we helped people with real estate so we knew the realtors up there too," Aaron said.
While places like Cadillac or Big Rapids had brokerages, smaller towns like Marion, Tustin, and McBain didn't. Both Aaron and Dan started to think it was the perfect opportunity to open us a brokerage in their hometown. There was no competition.
After what they experienced in Montana and watching the market tank, they realized that it was no longer the case. Finally, the comments of their parents started to make sense. Aaron said going back to when they both moved out to Montana, their parents asked them, "why don't you do that in Marion?"
The brothers moved back to Marion in Fall 2016 and by Spring 2017 they applied for their brokerage. On May 1, 2017, they opened the doors of Backwoods Realty Company, LLC. Right away, the brothers said the Marion community was supportive, encouraging and excited. That is when something clicked for both Dan and Aaron.
"Part of the purpose (of opening the brokerage) was to be part of the community. We never thought of that growing up or all the things going on in town and the area," Aaron said. "Finally to be part of the community gave me purpose."
With the third anniversary of the Backwoods being open happening in 2020, both Aaron and Dan have been active in the community not only through their business but through other endeavors.
Since coming back, Dan has helped to restore the 3-on-3 basketball tournament at Marion Old Fashioned Days, which helps to raise money for the Marion Athletic Boosters every summer. He is the Junior Varsity boys basketball coach at the high school and is an active member of the Marion Chamber of Commerce.
Dan and his wife Tayler also bought the old workout facility in August 2019 and reopened it as M-Town Gym and Tan. He said they bought the gym because it was a community need. While they are not making money on, they are breaking even.
As for Aaron, he started writing for the local weekly newspaper, the Marion Press and helped to create the Friends of the Marion Library Group. Since the group started, it has helped to raise $5,00-$6,000 to support the purchase of new books and programming at the library.
Although both Aaron and Dan are optimistic about Marion's future, they also are realistic. There still is lots of work to do and needs to be addressed such as the lack of high-speed internet and other infrastructure needs as well as the widespread poverty that is common throughout northern Michigan.
"I think (Marion) will continue to grow and it will become more trendy to live up north," Dan said. "As the infrastructure continues to grow and develop these rural communities will continue to grow and develop."
Aaron agreed with his brother that once people realize the potential and opportunity there is in small towns like Marion, they will start to invest in those communities. That investment will not only be opening a business or living there, but also a personal investment.
"There is so much potential," Aaron said.