Were different This is West Michigan

December 22, 2008
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The economic shakedown is serving to illustrate once again the tale of two cities — both in the state of Michigan. Yes, Grand Rapids and Detroit are tied together by state government and automotive suppliers, but one fundamental difference is that of outlook.

When the Big Three began squeezing suppliers almost a dozen years ago, those in this region looked beyond the current year contract to the future. They began transforming: They created coalitions, shared contracts and looked elsewhere for new business. When the Big Three furniture makers “right sized” to economic conditions, many of those laid-off employees used their severance funds to open new businesses, head back to college or open smaller, niche businesses in their areas of expertise. They didn’t use it for a cruise line experience.

The process is exemplified by Cascade Engineering’s move away from auto parts and reconfiguring its plant to manufacture wind turbines and medical equipment. By Zeeland-based Medical Accessories & Research Corp., which a dozen years ago stopped making auto parts and retooled to make medical models for Medtronic, Johnson & Johnson, Zimmer and Stryker.

This is West Michigan. Things are different here. Ask Perrigo, Meijer, Gerber, Kellogg, Michigan State University or the dozens of new medical industry startup owners. The spectacular announcements bridging 2008 and 2009 are indeed the platform of recovery for a region that has been planning for it, rather than waiting to see what might happen. Or whether the international economic transformation to a knowledge age was “real.”

In the last two weeks, Michigan State University was awarded a bid from the Department of Energy for its Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, a plan with a $1 billion impact. Nestlé last week announced a $75 million investment for a research and development center at Gerber for infant and toddler food products — worldwide. Battle Creek Unlimited announced a five-stage plan with Kellogg Co. to build a LEED-certified office building in the city’s downtown for 600 employees and an additional startup of research center in the food science and food safety industries. Grand Rapids physician Randal Baker and his partners have invented a new medial device expected to become a low-risk, low-cost alternative to weight loss surgery. More than 205,000 U.S. residents had bariatric surgery last year and it is a market expected to grown to $6.4 billion.

Battle Creek Unlimited President and CEO Jim Hettinger noted last week that Western Michigan is a major driver behind the high performance of Michigan agricultural products, second only to California in its diversity. “You’ve got a real quadrant of activity in western Michigan that’s very different from what’s going on elsewhere in the state,” he said.

It is said over and over again that an entrepreneurial spirit marks the most successful regions of this country and the world. And that, too, is this region’s gift to Michigan, and its promise in the New Year.

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