Planning Locally For Worldwide Business

June 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Because the region is broken up by counties, cities, towns and villages, West Michigan may not be able to compete effectively in the global economy and sustain the quality of life the area has so thoroughly enjoyed and so proudly promoted.

That is the unsettling bottom-line message from the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, a planning group of business people and public officials from Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties. The Alliance, formed late last year after 18 months of meetings, wants to alter that disturbing forecast by creating a 25-year plan that will help the region become better equipped to handle the future and preserve its quality of life.

"There have been significant economic changes in the last 2000 years, and we're in the middle of one of them," said Jay Peters, Alliance project administrator.

Peters told the Business Journal that the current economic shift has been caused by two major changes in the world: the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the rapid technological changes that have occurred in the communications field over the past decade.

"Those two things are rapidly changing the global trading blocks of the world," he said.

Long known as a strong area for manufacturing, the Alliance is interested in learning how these global changes will affect the West Michigan economy. It also wants to know what the region's position in a new marketplace might be, and the group aims to find that out based on the area's past history and current status.

"We need to understand the forces that are going on around us and be proactive rather than reactive," said Peters.

To that end, the Alliance has a $1.3 million budget to advance that understanding. The money was raised from public and private sources, and spending it on this project is seen as a good investment in the region's future, considering what is at stake.

"We believe that getting a handle on the whole infrastructure, how the region is working, and how the region fits into the larger global trading blocks around the country, will better impact on our ability to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in a smarter way," said Peters.

Jim Brooks chairs the Alliance. Brooks, the former owner of Holland's Brooks Beverages and current member of the Macatawa Area Coordinating Council Executive Committee, said regions are the fundamental denominators of the way we live today — both as individuals and communities — and the time has come for the area to recognize that and to define the region.

"What we're searching for is the natural region, not necessarily any region that has been defined by any predetermined governmental boundaries. We're looking at people's behavior patterns and economic behavior patterns," said Brooks.

"Ultimately, we're trying to find ways that we can work together," he added. "This is the first time that I'm aware of, certainly in West Michigan, that government, institutional and business sectors have come together over this large a geography to try to determine what the big, important parameters are for long-range planning together."

The Alliance first wants to list West Michigan's strengths and weaknesses, and then position the area to compete better in the global economy while preserving the region's quality of life. The organization plans to do this by helping individual communities better understand their role in the broader context of the region, and how each one relates to and interacts with other units in the region.

The Alliance feels that once this is accomplished governments, businesses and institutions will have a stronger comprehension of the long-term implications that local decisions carry across the region, which, in turn, will lead to better decisions for the region.

Four specific goals are driving the Alliance:

  • To foster dialogue that builds a consensus for a shared regional vision, one that will strengthen West Michigan's position in the global marketplace.
  • To show that residents, governments, businesses and organizations need each other to attain mutually beneficial goals.
  • To create a regional framework of objective information that area leaders can access to make more informed decisions about the future.
  • To identify the region's most important priorities that will lead to collaborative action.

In December, the Alliance hired Michael Gallis & Associates Inc., a nationally known consultant on regional issues, to assist with reaching these objectives. The Charlotte, N.C.-based firm is conducting an 18-month study that will create the Common Framework, which will be a comprehensive database of information for the region.

The study will analyze just about every aspect of the region, including transportation, infrastructure, economic development and education. The area's healthcare, governmental and social systems will also be examined closely.

"Political boundaries are less relevant than ever before," said Gallis. "Large economic regions — not the cities or towns within them — are the competitive units in the new global marketplace. History shows that in times of great change, governments and other organizations flourish when they see change coming and prepare to capitalize on the opportunities it brings.

"The Alliance gives West Michigan such an opportunity," he added.

At the same time the framework is being developed, the Alliance's 10 Essential Activities committees will meet and Robert Smith, president of San Diego-based Strategies & Teams, will help the group integrate Gallis' work as it is being produced. The result of Smith's effort will lead to the creation of a number of community task forces that will be based throughout the region.

The Essential Activities committees are scheduled to meet with Gallis in June.

The Alliance expects that the framework process will take at least two years to complete and the organization's 40-member Leadership Forum will oversee the project. It will be the Forum's responsibility to help the region's private and public sectors understand how they fit into the region, how the region fits into the global economy and how it all affects the quality of life in West Michigan.

"We realize that West Michigan's past success doesn't guarantee its future," said Brooks. "If we do things the way we've always done them — fragmented by city, county and local jurisdiction — we will never grow stronger as a region and we will not be able to compete on a global level for opportunities that will enhance our quality of life."

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