Right Place reviews past, sees opportunities ahead
Birgit Klohs said she will not pretend that everything is hunky-dory in West Michigan. But she reminded hundreds of people last week that West Michigan "has a phenomenal business climate," with new business opportunities that are here "but may not be obvious."
Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place regional economic development organization, went over results of its last five-year strategic plan, which ends with 2008. In the past five years, the organization, in collaboration with state and local partners, has assisted more than 2,000 firms that brought more than $467 million in new investment, over $228 million in new payroll, and generated more than 8,300 jobs in the process.
Despite the rocky economy this year, The Right Place helped bring $70 million in new capital investment; the goal was $68 million, said Klohs. That new capital resulted in new payroll totals of $76 million, for 1,664 new jobs; the goal for the year was 1,250 jobs. Almost 600 companies were assisted by The Right Place, mainly existing businesses that want to stay here and grow — if they can.
But Klohs was also able to point to totally new companies that decided to set up shop in West Michigan this year, starting with Priceline.com, the global online travel service that has opened a call center here that will eventually mean about 424 new jobs. A Priceline spokesperson recently told the Business Journal that the facility opened in September and should have about 80 employees by early 2009.
Another newcomer is Sequenom, which is investing more than $20 million in a life sciences lab that will eventually employ about 523 with a new payroll of $45 million.
That was "our first big landing of a life sciences company," noted Klohs.
Aerospace, food processing and other types of manufacturing are also part of the increasingly diversified mix that makes up the West Michigan economy.
About 80 percent of the organization’s time has been spent working to keep existing companies here, said Klohs, "and they are not going away."
Although there obviously has been a push among U.S. companies to set up manufacturing plants overseas, Klohs said that "we cannot not make things in this country," because national security and the economy depend on our manufacturing capabilities.
She said emerging opportunities for growth in West Michigan are in life sciences, sustainability, energy innovation and aerospace/defense.
While some may think sustainable manufacturing is “a passing fad, we don't believe it is," said Klohs. The basic issue in sustainability is what can we make that's greener than products being made elsewhere, she said.
And the increased interest in alternative energy in the U.S. this year, propelled by the dramatic costs increases in petroleum from abroad, has created "huge" possibilities for manufacturing here, Klohs said. Manufacturing here "isn't dead. It's alive and well."
In response to a question from the audience, Klohs said there is a perception that the state of Michigan has a governmental problem that does not bode well for business.
"What the state needs, in my opinion, is a strategic plan," she said, with four or five priorities targeted for accomplishment over the next five to 10 years.
The term limits law passed in Michigan was "absolutely the worst thing we've ever done to ourselves," she said, because newly elected state officials generally require two years to learn the ropes. In the meantime, "there is no institutional memory anymore in Lansing," which could enable lawmakers to quickly and effectively work through complicated issues.