Aggressive Attitude Attracts Center

February 3, 2003
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MUSKEGON — An appreciative environment for business and a strong labor pool helped lure a New Jersey telemarketing firm to Muskegon, creating up to 200 new service-sector jobs and enabling the recently renovated Hartshorn Centre along Muskegon Lake to reach nearly full occupancy.

Civic Development Group Inc. began operations in the center late last month, handling incoming and outgoing calls for a variety of clients. The company has a 15-year lease to operate a call center in the Hartshorn Centre — an initial five years, plus two five-year renewal options.

“We are here for the long term,” said Walt Lapinsky, president of call center operations for the Woodbridge, N.J.-based Civic Development Group.

After looking at five Midwestern states in which to locate, and then at eight communities within Michigan, Civic Development Group chose Muskegon because of what executives saw as a welcoming atmosphere for new business investment.

“We ultimately locate where we feel appreciated,” said Lapinsky, citing Muskegon’s “aggressive attitude toward economic development.”

Civic Development Group, which is investing $1.4 million in the Muskegon facility, presently operates 36 call centers in 10 states, employing more than 7,000 people. The company’s client list includes long-distance telephone, cellular and credit card companies, banks, home shopping networks, and nonprofit organizations.

Lapinsky sees the new Muskegon call center employing 200 people “if not more,” if the local labor market can sustain a higher level. The company pays $6 to $9 per hour to start, with health benefits, and offers opportunity for career advancement into management, Lapinsky said.

All of the company’s managers started off working a telephone in a call center, he said.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for a lot of people here. This is a company that offers careers,” Lapinsky said.

Civic Development Group’s move into Muskegon, which had an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent as of November, helps to diversify an economic base that is tilted toward manufacturing. About 30 percent of the county’s workforce, or nearly twice the national average, is employed in the manufacturing sector.

Relying heavily on manufacturing could make the area more susceptible to problems during economic downturns, generating a need for a more diversified employment base.

“When we have opportunities to bring in any types of jobs to the area, we take advantage of that,” said Todd Battle, executive director of Muskegon Area First. “We’re looking for pockets of growth where we can find them.”

To the owners of the Hartshorn Centre, Civic Development Group represents a new tenant that has helped to push the occupancy in the former warehouse to 95 percent. The 100-year-old building, located on Western Avenue near downtown and overlooking Muskegon Lake in an older industrial neighborhood, has undergone a major $2 million renovation since Great Lakes Dock & Materials purchased it 16 months ago to create new professional office and retail space.

Landing Civic Development Group was “pure luck,” said John Bultema, a principal in Great Lakes Dock & Materials. The company was beginning to recruit tenants for the Hartshorn Centre at the same time Civic Development Group was looking for space in Muskegon, Bultema said.

Others tenants in the center include Fricano’s restaurant; JAAR Inc., which owns and operates area McDonald’s; Hospice of Muskegon-Oceana; Child Resource Network, a child psychology practice; an accounting firm; a marine radio and electronics store; and a copy and fax machine company.

The Hartshorn Centre is the latest renovation of an aging building to occur in and around downtown Muskegon. Great Lakes Dock & Materials was looking for space along the lake when Bultema and his partner, George Bailey, decided to check out the building.

“I walked in, I went up to the fourth floor and saw the view and said ‘buy it,’” Bultema said. “We just saw a lot of potential there.”

Bultema and Bailey hope to further develop acreage surrounding the Hartshorn Centre with a marina, boat launch and a campground through the swapping of land they own elsewhere along the lake for adjoining city-owned land.                       

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