Root Open For Business

August 28, 2006
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KENTWOOD — When asked to explain why Kentwood has seen the lion's share of recent industrial development, The Right Place Inc. President Birgit Klohs cited the city's large inventory of available facilities and the hard work of state and local development officials, then borrowed the tagline of Mayor Richard Root: "Kentwood is 'Open For Business.'"

"I will say this: The mayor of Kentwood is very open for business," agreed Stu Kingma, S.J. Wisinski & Co. vice president. "He has demonstrated a significant willingness to facilitate transactions that make sense."

As one of the state's few full-time mayors, Root serves as the senior elected official, CEO and chief administrative officer of this outer ring city of nearly 45,000. From where he stands, it is hard to ignore the role of business in the community. Nearly 60 percent of tax revenue comes from industry and commerce. It is home to the GeraldR.FordInternationalAirport, is bounded by the region's major highways, and has for decades anchored the metro area's manufacturing and retail sectors.

The latter was why Root first moved to the city in 1975.

For nearly a year, the Lansing native commuted 90 minutes each day to the Rockford headquarters of his then-employer, Wolverine World Wide. He had desperately tried to sell his wife, Karleen, on living in northern KentCounty, but she wanted amenities it didn't have. Rockford was a nice town, she said, but it wasn't for her; she liked the conveniences of living in a city.

"I finally asked her, 'What do you want?'" Root recalled. "She said, 'Shopping.'"

On that score, Kentwood's WoodlandShopping Center was then the "the only horse in town." When the couple started looking at Kentwood, they discovered it offered exactly what they were looking for.

"There were a lot of people our same age," he said. "It was a young community at the time. A perfect fit for us."

For a generation, Kentwood was also a perfect fit for business. But that wasn't the case when Root was appointed mayor in 2002.

"We were blessed with a wonderful place to be — we'd always been a tremendous draw for business and industry and it was a position we took for granted," Root said. "I think we forgot that customer service was more than smiling and saying no."

During his decade on the city commission, Root continued to work in the private sector. When 10-year mayor Bill Hardiman vacated his seat for the State Senate, Root left a role in supply chain management at Hastings-based Viking Corp., a position that allowed him to touch all aspects of the business.

"In private industry, you recognize the grunt and the struggle of day to day just getting your work done," he said. "It doesn't take startling moments of indoctrination to realize the tremendous efforts you have to go through just to create product, to create commerce."

As mayor, he found that the city of Kentwood wasn't helping these efforts. In fact, it seemed to be actively discouraging it. He listened to what was being said in the development community, and learned that many developers, potential businesses, contractors, subcontractors and vendors had adopted a common mantra: "I'll never do something in Kentwood again."

The city had become a policy-based operation with a complete disregard for service. It wasn't helping to fix problems or help companies comply with codes. If a company was having difficulty getting a permit, the response was always akin to, "It's your problem; go figure it out."

"That's wrong, that's just wrong," Root said. "I can't make it any more clear than that. It wasn't an occasional disgruntled vendor or contractor; it was repetitive — a constant roar."

In 2001, the city rewrote its tax abatement policy, halving the length of Public Act 198 abatements.

Initially, when businesses stopped coming to Kentwood in 2000 and 2001, it seemed to be the result of Michigan's lagging economy. As mayor, Root began to think otherwise, and in the first few months of his tenure, he realized a change was needed.

"We were living in a different world," he said. "Certainly, the business community was well aware of it."

In early 2003, Robert Bosch Corp. announced it was closing its Kentwood plant, cutting 1,200 jobs and creating roughly 1 million square feet of vacant industrial space.

"That was like a bullet to my heart," Root said. "We've got a million-square-foot problem in my city, and I'm not genius enough to go out in the international market and find that kind of opportunity. But when it comes, we need to let them know we've got good product and we have to present it with openness, clarity and transparency."

In his first year, Root led the effort to reverse the tax abatement policy he endorsed as a commissioner, expanding the term allowed on PA 198 abatements to 12 years. He empowered and encouraged his staff to work with businesses to comply with city code, rather than simply enforce it. To ensure this, every stop-work order issued in that calendar year was sent directly to his desk.

"If we were going to shut down a construction site, I wanted to know why."

An early example of this was a medical facility on

East Paris Avenue
. The project carried a tight deadline, and the firm wanted to start grading the site during the winter. Ordinarily, the city would have flatly refused the request. Moving earth over slick, frozen ground would cover city streets with loose mud and clay in an ugly and dangerous manner.

Instead, city engineers worked with the company to find a reasonable solution. By simply moving the dirt to a paved area adjacent to the site, all of the city's concerns were satisfied, and the project was able to move ahead.

"It was a simple solution that kept a very important contractor and a very expensive building on target," Root said. "I think governments miss something somewhere along the line. It's not about taxes necessarily or even location; the business community just wants respect.

"They shouldn't live in fear that someone at the counter is going to hold up a permit because they're having a bad day. The staff here clearly recognizes that now. We're more about solutions than barriers.

"Maybe it's just hype, 'Open for Business.' But if you say it enough, you start to believe it, and that creates fact."

In the past year, the Bosch building has been almost entirely filled by new tenants, and Kentwood has replaced all of the jobs it lost during the downturn.    

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