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Ryan Works For Newaygo
FREMONT — When Tricia Ryan tells people what she does for a living, they often do a double take.
Executive director of the Newaygo County Economic Development Office is kind of a hefty title for someone still in her twenties.
“Normally people work in this field for years before they actually get an opportunity to run an organization and be the one calling the shots,” Ryan observed. “I certainly recognize that I was in the right place at the right time when this position opened up.”
She credits her mom for where she’s at today.
Ryan was fresh out of Eastern Michigan University with a degree in chemistry and biology and had just begun looking into prospective jobs when her mom gave her a book titled “A Guide To Environmental Careers.”
One of the careers listed was something called “environmental planning” and she quickly discovered that planning was a wide-open field.
“I didn’t know anything about it. But I’m a very organized kind of person and I thought planning might be something I might be interested in,” Ryan recalled.
After talking with a Michigan State University counselor about the school’s graduate program in Urban Planning, she “fell in love with the whole field,” enrolled in the program, and earned a masters in Urban Planning with an emphasis on economic development.
She began her career in 1996 as an economic development planner for the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission, providing economic analysis for a five- county area and overseeing the financing, construction and marketing of several industrial parks.
The position was policy oriented, Ryan recalled. She would help communities develop their plans, but once their plan was in place or their industrial park built, her work there was over.
“I thought I’d really like to take it to the next step and be the one who was actually out there meeting with the companies, trying to bring in new businesses and helping them find workers.”
In 1998 she signed on as a planner for Ottawa County where she assisted a dozen local governments in establishing economic policy. She also was responsible for providing recommendations to the county board concerning the U.S. 31 bypass project, including drafting the board’s position paper regarding its stance on the project.
In March 1999 she was hired as the first executive director of the then-fledgling Newaygo County Economic Development Office (NCEDO), a private, non-profit corporation providing economic development services to Newaygo County. What helped her land the job were the many contacts she had made across the county while with Shoreline Regional.
“The people who interviewed me recognized that I had not done something like this at this level before, that there was going to be a learning curve and that they were going to need to do some training with me,” she acknowledged. “They really took a chance and gave me a shot and I think everybody’s happy with the way things turned out.”
The first year she was busy with all the organizational start-up activities, from creating a logo to securing tax-exempt status, in addition to working with area businesses. The organization began offering programs in 2000.
“It’s been a learning experience for the whole community because they never had an economic development organization before. None of us really knew where to go right off the bat,” she recalled.
“We did a lot of strategic planning and talked with a lot of other economic development organizations. We took information from surrounding areas and tweaked it, fine-tuned it and found something unique that worked for us.”
Ryan has since worked on a variety of development projects with a total investment of just under $15 million, which created 346 new jobs and retained 192 positions that were in jeopardy.
She spends the majority of her time in business retention activities, such as assisting area companies with projects, worker recruitment and tax abatement applications. The focus is primarily on existing businesses and “growing what we’ve already got,” Ryan said.
Her daily workload also includes small business counseling and helping residents get their businesses up and running.
“Unfortunately, many small businesses are considered high risks, so we really have to get creative in terms of places we look for funding. I really try to make sure their business plans are as solid as can be so when they go to talk to that banker they’ll have the best shot they can have at getting their project funded.
“We’re an economic organization that really works for the residents of the county. Although I’m interfacing with business on a regular basis, we’re really doing it so the residents of this area have good opportunities.”
When she started at NCEDO, she was startled to learn that 42 percent of the people in Newaygo County have jobs outside the county.
“To me that’s completely unacceptable. We’re trying to attract the companies that have the good benefits and salaries so that people feel they can live, work and raise a family here.”
Now, with a new marketing brochure and newspaper ad campaign, NCEDO is just beginning to branch into the business of business attraction.
The county’s biggest business retention and attraction challenge today is the fact that there’s no major highway running through it. U.S. 131 and U.S. 31 border Newaygo County, but some perceive the current road infrastructure as a deterrent to trucking and other business activities, Ryan said. She’s working to dispel that perception.
The county has industrial parks in the cities of Fremont and Newaygo, and Ryan just helped the city of White Cloud secure a $602,000 grant from the Economic Development Administration and a $260,000 loan from the Michigan Economic Development Commission for a 42-acre, high-tech park across from the airport, which is tentatively planned to open next July.
“I’ve worked in six counties in Michigan and I’ve found that the people in Newaygo County are some of the most forward-thinking individuals I’ve ever met. There are a lot of surprises here that people don’t normally find in rural communities. It’s one of those best-of-both-worlds kind of places,” Ryan remarked.
There are, for example, computers in every classroom and video satellite downlink capabilities in every school in the county. A performing arts center is going up right next door to her office in Fremont, she noted.
The county grew by about 25 percent since the 1990 census, and to Ryan that means people are starting to discover Newaygo County.
“We recognize this county is growing tremendously and it’s not going to stop. We know it’s coming and what we’re trying to do is make sure it’s planned and it’s orderly and it’s the type of growth that we want.”