Northrup Inspires Action

January 3, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Juggling cell phone and land line calls from his new office at the Grand Valley State University Pew Campus, Greg Northrup doesn’t look like someone who’s retired — in fact, he looks like someone who’s got a pretty full schedule.

That’s because he does.

As the acting president of the West Michigan Strategic Alliance, Northrup is heading the effort to bring the regional development organization into action mode after years of planning and research.

Northrup recently sat in a mostly bare office — he had just picked up the keys — and explained how, in an effort to adhere to its regional nature, West Michigan Strategic Alliance is now located in three offices leased from the university: in Grand Rapids, at the Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon and at the Meijer Campus in Holland.

Northrup, who has been an Alliance board member since 2003, is also a potential candidate for the permanent president position, which is planned to be filled by the end of 2006. After 30 years with Consumers Energy, Northrup retired as director of economic development in 2004, a position that gave him a wealth of experience in economic and community planning.

“I have a real passion for how we take our quality of place and actually improve the quality of place, particularly in the situation that Michigan is going to face: declining revenue sources, changes in our market segments, changes in our ability to compete, changes in the revenues that are available for us to maintain our lifestyles, and to reprioritize on how we’re going to spend resources,” he said. “I think that’s going to be very difficult for us unless we start to focus on regional kinds of thinking.”

While the initial five years of the Alliance dealt with research, evaluation, observation and planning, the next phase will be about taking action and implementing the plans that have been developed.

“I think it’s clear that Greg has always brought a ‘take action’ type of approach to the work of the Alliance,” said Jay Peters, who served as executive director until Nov. 1. “The second phase of the Alliance is going to deal more with implementation.”

Said Norhrup: “What we need to do is take ourselves from a planning perspective and put it in terms of action.”

To determine the changes and improvements needed for the area, decision-makers are going to have to use indicators to determine a baseline, and then determine goals and priorities, he said.

“I think we’re starting to acknowledge that we do have a serious issue ahead of us,” Northrup said of the quality-of-place question.

Part of the issue is attracting intellectual capital to the area, which means offering a high quality of life and place. The intellectual capital and the natural resources that contribute to that quality are just as important as the “gray” infrastructure, Northrup said, referring to electricity, sewer and other man-made infrastructure.

“Those truly are going to be the issues for our long-term success and our long-term financial success as a region,” he said.

Maintaining and protecting quality of place is the next focus for the Alliance, the first of six priorities. It’s termed the “sustainable environment” priority.

“That’s the one that’s in the best position to be launched,” he said, expressing the hope it will be in the works during the first quarter of this year.

Northrup said he is dedicated to protecting green and natural infrastructure to help preserve quality of place, and just as dedicated to reusing existing sites in the form of brownfield redevelopment.

“If you’re committed to green, which we should be, then we ought to have a full-fledged commitment to redevelopment of brown, as well,” he said. “The roads are there, the water and sewer lines are there, the power lines are there. We’re gobbling up land at a rate that’s eight times the growth of our population base.

“There are tools there, but what we need to do a better job of is defining what we want the environment to look like. I say to people, ‘If you’re interested in green, then tell me what percent of your geographic area will remain green.’ If you have not set a target, you will not end up protecting what you think is important to you.”

Northrup gained experience with economic planning during his tenure at Consumers Energy. While in Jackson, Northrup helped make a positive statement to the community. Instead of expanding facilities near I-94, the company built an addition to the old post office downtown for its new corporate headquarters.

“In doing that, we had an opportunity with the community to say that the company is going to make a 20-, 30-year investment in you: We need this community to be successful so we can continue to retain and attract the kind of professional employees that company is going to need to be successful,” he said.

“And this is the same issue that all regions are facing.”

Northrup also helped form the West Michigan Economic Development Partnership, which brought together economic professionals from Allegan, Barry, Ionia, Kent, Muskegon, Ottawa and Newaygo counties to advance Michigan’s economic prospects. The group’s Web site, www.bestmichigan.com, has information about the region to help business leaders determine if the state is a good fit for their company.

Northrup attended AlbionCollege, where he earned a degree in economics. He then did a stint in the army reserves and was hired at Consumers Energy, where he worked in accounting, then credit and collections, before becoming the director of economic development.

While working in credit and collections, he was named the district manager in Battle Creek, where he became involved in the community, including

United Way
and the Arts Council. He also became chairman of Battle Creek Unlimited Inc., an economic development organization for the Battle Creek and FortCuster area.

“That was kind of my first taste of economic development,” he said.

Since retirement, he has started his own consulting business, J.G. Northrup and Associates LLC, working with cities and townships to implement their master plans, as well as helping clients negotiate with local or state government about building or expansion plans.

To make a master plan that works, Northrup said, communities need to have measurable objectives and defined standards of performance.

Northrup said he believes he was chosen by the West Michigan Strategic Alliance because of this experience and skills. “I think I have a pretty good understanding of how to move the decision-making process forward,” he said.

Northrup said he enjoys travel and would like to spend time visiting other countries when he eventually retires completely. To get a full experience, he would like to live for a few months in different countries. “You just get the briefest glimpse of what life is like in those locations (when you visit),” he said.

Some of his favorite places to visit have been Argentina and New Zealand, where he recently spent time. Northrup said Rome would be one of the places where he would be interested in living for a short while.

“Part of life is finding out about other people and cultures,” he said.

Northrup said Americans sometimes don’t know what they have in this country.

“We don’t have as good of an appreciation as we should about the quality of life because people don’t always travel outside of the country,” he said.

While the lengthy travel will have to wait six or seven years, Northrup said he is happy to stay active.

“I’m too young to actually retire. People will stay young if they stay active. Obviously, this (job) causes that to happen,” he said of his position with the Alliance.

“At my age, I’m trying to take advantage of all the things that I have learned and put my experiences to work in a way that will help. It gives me a good feeling when it gets done — and if I get paid periodically, that’s good, too,” he said, laughing. “This is a great opportunity to do the things that I have a passion for.”    

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