A True Business Advocate

July 14, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — After 30 years, plus another 700 hours, City Business Advocate Dan Oegema will be cleaning out his desk this week. Oegema has worked closely with thousands of local business owners, helping them qualify for low-interest loans and tax exemptions as a dedicated and affable member of the city’s Economic Development Office since 1985.

“Dan is more familiar with this organization’s history of economic development incentives and applications than anybody I know. He is a survivor from the early days and has watched our economic development program evolve over the years. He is extremely competent and capable at his work,” said City Manager Kurt Kimball.

“He is unflappable, a good listener, and he is evidence, through his vast experience, that he tries to get to ‘yes’ whenever he can in assisting and enabling economic development in the city. He enjoys great respect, and not just among larger businesses that have availed themselves of tax incentives that he has helped them with, but also with neighborhood businesses. He is going to be missed,” added Kimball.

That’s quite a going-away tribute for someone who always seemed to be there; even more so for someone who initially wanted to teach biology after he graduated from Michigan State University. But as luck would have it, and ultimately for the city’s benefit, Oegema couldn’t land a teaching job. So he sold residential real estate here until he joined the city in 1977 as a neighborhood service agent who inspected homes in the Heritage Hill district.

Briefly
Name:
Dan Oegema
Organization: City of Grand Rapids
Title: Business Advocate
Age: 59
Birthplace: Kalamazoo
Residence: Park Township
Family: Wife, Sherry, and children Jennifer Okhuysen and Mark Ryan
Business/community organizations: Board member of the Economic Development Foundation, Michigan Magnet Fund, the Economic Development Corp. of Grand Rapids, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Advisory Board, the International Economic Development Council, and past president of Grand Rapids Family Credit Union.
Biggest career break: Joining the city as a neighborhood service agent in 1977.

That was also the time when many of the neighborhood associations were forming, and city service agents, like Oegema, were assigned to those groups. He drew Heritage Hill, which was headed then by yet-to-be-three-term Mayor John Logie.

Oegema then moved into the housing rehabilitation office and later into the development office, starting as an assistant. He then climbed the department’s ladder as a coordinator 1, a coordinator 2, interim director and, finally, business advocate, a title that reflected his performance and the position he held when he retired from the city at the end of January.

Oegema now belongs to what he called the “700-Hour Club,” a policy that allows retired employees to ply their trades for up to 700 hours after they officially stop working. The city asked Oegema to stay on the job until his replacement was named — who, by the way, is Eric Soucey, a coordinator in the economic development office. Oegema is likely to finish his 700-hour tour of extra duty with the city this week.

“It’s got to be in the thousands, in terms of assistance,” he said of the number of businesses he has counseled over the past 23 years in the development office.

Oegema began working with the city’s smaller businesses more than 20 years ago through the Neighborhood Business Improvement Program. The program was run by the economic development office and lowered the interest rate on commercial loans for qualifying businesses. At that time, rates were in the double digits.

“With that program, we actually processed over 400 loans to small businesses. The total amount of interest the city wrote down was over $1 million. But what happened was the small businesses were able to invest over $26 million in the neighborhood business districts.

“It made a big impact, I believe, for the smaller businesses in the community, because those were loans in the $15,000 to $50,000 range for improvements to their properties and that’s when interest rates were in the 10 to 12 percent range,” he said. He added that the loan program helped to create the 20 neighborhood business districts that dot the city today.

“It was a very interesting way to get out and meet the people, see the businesses and make a difference.”

Oegema also made a difference with manufacturers by directing their applications for industrial tax exemptions through City Hall and Lansing. For decades he worked with auto suppliers, tool-and-die companies, furniture makers and producers of all kinds of goods that either expanded their plants or upgraded their equipment to retain and add jobs.

“According to the state’s numbers, Grand Rapids is certainly the leader in the state in terms of assistance to businesses under Public Act 198. I’ve been involved in those since 1985 and, on the average, we were running 30 to 40 a year through that program. It’s kind of slacked off a bit now,” he said.

One of those applications stands out as especially gratifying to Oegema. In 1990, he helped Miguel and Isabel Navarro build their El Matador Tortilla Chip Co. factory at 45 Franklin St. SW, a move that allowed the Navarros to expand the production and sales of their popular corn chips.

The Navarros started El Matador on the city’s northwest side in 1976 in a plant and retail outlet at Stocking and Bridge that wasn’t large enough to meet the orders that were pouring in. They sold the business last December after sales reached $2 million a year.

“Mike’s dream was to always have a modern, up-to-date manufacturing facility. At the time, the city owned the property at Ionia and Franklin. We said this will be a great location for manufacturing and he loved it, as did Isabel,” said Oegema.

“We assisted them with a tax abatement and basically froze their tax base at Stocking Avenue and brought it over to the new facility on Franklin. We also financed it with an SBA 504 loan program. All three of those things combined made it possible for Mike to basically fulfill his dream in terms of the type of manufacturing that he wanted to do.”

Other favorites in Oegema’s life are his wife, Sherry, and Jennifer and Mark, the couple’s children. Sherry is the director of behavioral health at Holland Hospital and his loyal bicycle-riding companion. They regularly bike from their home in Park Township, just a few miles from Holland’s Tunnel Park, to Saugatuck, a 20-mile roundtrip run, and to Grand Haven, a 40-mile trip. But they’ve also biked in Europe, having peddled along a lake that took them into Austria, Switzerland and Germany.

They’ve also taken a few “Zydeco” trips through the Cajun sections of Louisiana, a springtime run that totals about 200 miles.

“At every stop, there is local cuisine, zydeco music and artists, and things like that for the bikers to enjoy. That’s a fun one,” he said.

One thing certain in Oegema’s future is many more bike rides with Sherry. And after he cleans out his desk and steps out of his ninth floor office in City Hall this week, he plans to hit the pause button on his career. But don’t expect Oegema to sit on the sidelines for very long.

“There are a lot of things that are open, I think, at this point. I’m taking a little bit of time to review those and am talking to a few folks. But I really would like to take a look and see if there is some way that I can continue in helping folks realize their dreams, whether it be in sales or marketing or some other economic development field that I have the ability to add some value to,” he said.

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