Epolito Take Pride In State

June 23, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Leadership and collaboration are helping West Michigan rise above a slow economy, according to James Epolito, president and CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

Grand Rapids is a strength of the state, as far as an economic engine,” he told the Business Journal. “Can it potentially pull the rest of the state? I think that’s beginning to happen.”

Epolito said areas of the state such as West Michigan, Traverse City and Ann Arbor are coming together regionally and collaborating to make the state better for business.

In West Michigan, Epolito said the dedication of community leaders and the steps to diversify the area economy with industries such as life sciences and technology are helping the area. Epolito said he was impressed with the leadership of Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell and his encouragement of tax abatements for those two industries.

“I think he is a leader in this area, and that it makes a lot of sense,” he said.

Diversifying the economy and focusing on the strengths are key, Epolito said.

“I think you have to identify the strengths of the existing economy and you have to leverage those strengths of economy,” he said.

After attending a board meeting of The Right Place Inc., Epolito praised the collaborative spirit of the board members.

“I didn’t hear them say ‘I,’” he said. “I heard all of the talk about what is right for West Michigan.”

Along with the collaboration between community leaders and organizations, the spirit of togetherness needs to spread across the state as well, Epolito said. He and Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place Inc., agreed that neither of their organizations could do its job alone.

“We are all very interdependent,” Klohs said of the municipalities, economic development organizations and communities. “We’re all in a boat called Michigan.”

After a recent visit to China, Epolito said Michigan’s reputation as the “automotive capital of the world” is strong in China and means a lot to the relevance of the Chinese automotive industry.

“They are very eager to locate operations here,” Epolito said.

While unions can be a deterrent to some companies, Epolito said, most are concerned about cost structure, and that can be overcome by a number of other factors.

“There are lower-cost places to do business,” he said. “But I think the businesses find Michigan and the quality of life in Michigan to be far superior to other states.”

Considering the world’s perception of the state, Epolito said, the people of Michigan should start taking more pride in what they have.

“You don’t want a state full of people who feel like they’re on a losing team,” he said.

Instead, pride in the state and its skilled work force should be the focus.

“That’s what needs to overcome and take control,” he said. “There are pockets of the state where you can see that pride returning.”

Epolito said the MEDC is hoping to boost that pride through several funding tools, including the 21st Century Job Fund.

There have been 505 proposals totaling $1 billion in requests, Epolito said. Though only $100 million is available, Epolito said that shows an interest in the economic development of the state and should not discourage companies from trying again in the next round.

“This is really a good problem to have,” he said of the large number of proposals.

The proposals are now in the review phase; the next step will be to interview the applicants about their projects.    

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