Edmonson Finds Good Fit

July 19, 2004
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MUSKEGON – His “retirement” from the profession was short-lived.

When Jim Edmonson returned to Muskegon nearly two ago, he left behind his years working in the economic development field and bought a small company that makes custom wood cabinets and tables.

But by earlier this year the fledgling company, WoodWorks of America, hadn’t quite grown to the point where it supported Edmonson and his wife of 15 years, Allison. So he started looking for something on the side, perhaps consulting work.

That’s when Todd Battle called.

Battle, who was preparing to leave his position as chief executive officer of Muskegon Area First for a job in Wisconsin at the end of March, wanted to know if Edmonson was interested in applying to succeed him as head of the Muskegon area’s private, non-profit economic development agency.

While his intent was to find something part time, the 50-year-old Edmonson decided that returning full time to the field where he spent a good part of his career was the right move at the right time for all involved. Accepting the position filled both his needs and that of Muskegon Area First, which in addition to losing Battle as CEO faced the pending departure of its two remaining staff members.

“It worked out to be a good fit,” said Edmonson, who started as CEO of Muskegon Area First on April 21.

The position, he said, fits him well both professionally and personally.

“I’ve always been very civic-minded and entrepreneurial,” he said.

Those traits come from his upbringing in a family where his grandfather was a university professor who wrote textbooks about civics and his mother founded an organization, known as Youth for Understanding, that worked with foreign exchange students. His father was a small business owner who did consulting work for banks, and Edmonson and each of his siblings have all run their own businesses.

Entrepreneurship and “a natural sense to do things for the community” are values he and his siblings carry with them today, Edmonson said.

“It’s just what we grew up with,” he said. “We like to make communities better places to live and to show how that can be done.”

In his first three months on the job at Muskegon Area First, Edmonson has largely busied himself with getting to know the business community he serves, filling two staff positions and finding someone to fill in for him at WoodWorks of America.

Now settled into the position, Edmonson is beginning to help chart the future for Muskegon Area First, which was formed five years ago.

First up is updating and broadening the agency’s marketing plan to better target potential business investments and updating its strategic plan to reflect the changes in the business world and Muskegon’s economic base over the last five years. Updating those plans, he said, is all “part of the cyclical process of economic development” and Muskegon Area First’s evolving role as an organization.

“The community has changed substantially in the last five years,” Edmonson said, citing the Edison Landing SmartZone business park on Muskegon Lake, local Renaissance zones and ongoing revitalization efforts in downtown that include redeveloping the Muskegon Mall site.

One major area of renewed emphasis that Edmonson expects to push hard is business retention. The Muskegon area has a strong inventory of industrial land, two business incubator facilities and other tools available to lure new business to town, Edmonson said.

What’s needed is a renewed commitment to supporting the existing base of employers, he said. Edmonson would like to see the area make better use of revolving loan funds for businesses, grants, development finance authorities and tax increment financing to support businesses.

Providing support for business and helping them grow in their hometown is essential to any economic development organization and helps to build a more diverse economic base that better withstands the down times, he said.

“That’s how economic development works through history and that’s really what builds communities; communities with character, communities with depth and prosperous communities,” Edmonson said. “I’d rather have 10 companies with 100 employees each than one company with 1,000 employees.”

A native of St. Clair, along the St. Mary’s River north of Detroit, Edmonson returned to Muskegon with 27 years of experience in business and economic development. He and Allison came back to the area from New York in late 2002 because they missed living near the water and the beach.

That passion is reflected in another line of work: Shoreline and beach preservation. He has written numerous articles and research papers on the topic, as well as on civics and regionalism. He managed 1 million acres of coastal wetlands in Louisiana.

Like civics, Edmonson attributes his interest in shoreline and beach preservation to his days growing up along the St. Mary’s River.

“We had a great appreciation for the natural environment,” said Edmonson, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in geography and geology.

Prior to returning to Muskegon, Edmonson ran a countywide economic development agency in Watertown, New York, for four years. Before that he served from 1993-97 as director of the City of Muskegon’s Community and Economic Development Department.

From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Edmonson lived in Louisiana, where he ran a regional economic development agency in Thibodaux and owned and operated two businesses – a retail clothing store and a courier service that returned lost luggage to airline passengers.

That background, Edmonson believes, will serve him well as CEO of Muskegon Area First because he understands economic development and what it takes to start and run a business. As an entrepreneur, Edmonson can relate to the business owners Muskegon Area First was formed to assist and understands the issues they face, whether permitting and regulatory or securing capital, operational issues and training employees.

“I’ve sat in the same chair as them,” he said. “We can talk the same language.”

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