Larsen Welcomes Changes
"These are very hectic times, but successful times," she said. "We're just running as fast as we can to keep up with the changes."
Larsen, who grew up in Whitehall, attended Central Michigan University and studied broadcasting and cinematic arts. Larsen said her communications background has helped her to deliver information in a concise way, which especially comes in handy when dealing with members of the business community who are on tight schedules.
Following graduation, Larsen worked at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago for furniture-makers Haworth Inc. and Kimball International, making presentations to CEOs and other business leaders about their furniture decisions. Larsen said this experience helped her become more comfortable working with business leaders, as she would continue to do in her first stint with the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce when she returned to West Michigan, and later working for the Michigan Economic Development Corp. in business attraction and retention, and then with the chamber again, which she returned to in 1999 as president.
Larsen has been through a wide spectrum of economic conditions in Michigan, from the growth in the 1990s to the slow times after 2001, to the renewed interest in Muskegon that is currently taking place.
"At MEDC, we really were on the lookout for companies that were able to expand or relocate in Michigan," she said. "It was an exciting job and it was at a time when Michigan was growing."
On the other side of the economic spectrum, Larsen remembers times in Muskegon with much less growth.
"I remember days in Muskegon when we had one project to work on the entire year," she said. "To me, the success we're experiencing today is really a culmination of many years of work. Our efforts to grow Muskegon have really paid off."
The growth now taking place includes developments at Edison Landing, at the former mall site, and at the Terrace Lots.
"A lot of it has to do with the fact that we have these beautiful natural resources that people are rediscovering," she said.
Larsen attributes the growth in private investment and in the education sector to the city's welcoming attitude. Grand Valley State University continues to expand its presence in the city — with new partnerships in health care, the Annis Water Resources Institute and the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center.
"The growth in Muskegon is absolutely amazing, and of course it's well deserved, because this is a great community," she said.
The chamber is relying on the community to help with a capital campaign for its new location at Western Avenue and Third Street in the former mall site. As one of the investors in the downtown, the chamber has raised about $125,000 of its $300,000 goal for the new chamber location.
While Muskegon has been changing, Larsen said she has been changing, too.
"I've become more patient with the bureaucratic systems," she said. "I've learned how to work through and around obstacles to do whatever it takes to get the job done. I've also become more aggressive in my messages about Muskegon as I begin to understand there's really nothing wrong with this community except a lack of information."
Larsen has been active in partnering with many different organizations throughout the community and region, including the West Michigan Chamber Coalition and the Downtown Muskegon Development Corp. The chamber also works closely with Muskegon Main Street and Muskegon Area First.
"In a global marketplace, you have to find ways to work on a larger scale in order to achieve your goals," she said.
The Grand Rapids, Holland and Grand Haven area chambers are led by women presidents, and Larsen said she believes that creates a unique opportunity.
"Having more women in leadership positions gives us an advantage over more traditional communities; we're used to finding creative solutions," she said. "We're used to fighting a little to get things done or get something accomplished."
Pat Shafer, the chamber's director of programs, said Larsen's ability to "connect the dots" and collaborate make her a good leader. With a strong knowledge of the community and of economic development, Larsen has the vision and the enthusiasm to follow through, she said.
"I feel, as a leader, she is just passionate about making a difference," she said. "She's just unstoppable."
Larsen said her position is a good fit because she has always enjoyed building, whether it is an organization or a relationship.
"Now I'm having fun building a community," she said.
Larsen said that she eventually wants to be able to look back at her time with the chamber and see that development and growth have taken place — and she wants to be remembered as a part of change.
"I would like them to say, 'She was one of the people who helped bring Muskegon back to life, and the chamber was a very strong organization under her leadership.'"