Developers Stop spreading the news

March 6, 2009
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Two dominant themes emerged from a panel discussion with the leaders of four regional economic development firms as part of the West Michigan Alliance Program held last week in DeVos Place.

One: Disregard the daily dose of dismal news in the nation’s newspapers and on cable television networks that details the ongoing collapse of the economy and financial industry. 

Two: Things are going pretty well in West Michigan.

“Do turn off CNN — remain positive,” said Don Stypula, executive director of the Grand Valley Metro Council, who moderated the discussion.

“Quit reading the national headlines,” said Birgit Klohs, president of The Right Place Inc. “Even in the dark times there are opportunities in niche markets, and we’re taking advantage of those niche markets.”

Klohs was joined on the panel by Battle Creek Limited CEO Karl Dehn, Southwest Michigan First Vice President John Plotnik and Lakeshore Advantage President Randy Thelen. The half-day conference was presented by The International Council of Shopping Centers, an industry organization that promotes commercial real estate and retail.

The four economic developers felt West Michigan is, well, the right place for business largely because the region has a flexible and diverse work force that is highly educated and fluent in many languages and has few unionized workers in the private sector.

Plus, the West Michigan area offers perks that most places can’t.

“You can live where most people vacation,” said Thelen. “That’s another draw that we have to focus on and market.”

Each panelist provided the attentive audience with good recent business outcomes and plenty of hope for the area’s economic future.

Dehn was particularly excited about an upcoming $85 million remake of downtown Battle Creek, which should bring more businesses and workers to the district. He was also excited about a new food safety research center that would use the latest testing technology.

Dehn noted that Kellogg, based in Battle Creek, was forced to spend $70 million to recall items that contained peanut butter that came from the Peanut Corp. of America. PCA released contaminated products that have been cited as being responsible for a salmonella outbreak. He hopes the first training program for the center will get under way this summer.

Plotnik cited an $80 million investment recently made by Kaiser Aluminum that will stimulate the economy in Kalamazoo. He noted that the city will always be able to draw businesses because the Kalamazoo Promise, which guarantees a college education to the city’s high school graduates, will provide it with a strong labor force.

“We’re doing a good job and the word is getting out,” said Plotnik. “Businesses are coming here.”

Businesses are also coming to metro Grand Rapids. Klohs pointed to the Priceline.com call center established in Kentwood, which should eventually lead to 500 new jobs. She said her organization handled location inquiries last year from seven industries and eight countries.

Klohs also said it was too early to perform last rites on a regional business staple.

“Manufacturing is not dead; its demise is greatly exaggerated,” she said. “We’ve identified over 700 companies in West Michigan that can make wind turbine parts.”

Thelen said the lakeshore was a desirable business location because it has a strong core of engineers, a lot of college graduates and a population that grew when most areas experienced a decline. “We still have very strong fundamentals,” he said.

But the responses weren’t as positive when the topic moved to attracting retailers to the region, and a change the U.S. Census Bureau made to the Metropolitan Statistical Abstract was largely cited as the reason. Klohs said the bureau sliced the region’s former MSA into three pieces and none show a population of at least one million — an industry prerequisite for drawing retail chains. She called for the bureau to change the MSA.

“We don’t show up, which is really, really bad,” she said, while adding that Allegan County has been left out of the new metro statistics.

All four panel members said they compete for businesses on a global scale. When they were asked what changes to national policies would help them in their battle, a business tax that was similar to some of the levies in European nations, such as Ireland, topped their lists. Dehn also said he wanted $40 million to train workers at the new food safety research center, while Plotnik favored a bigger incentive package for business relocation.

“We’re always the happiest when we’re giving incentives to companies,” he said.

Klohs said the nation needs to invest more money into infrastructure and change what she called an atrocious immigration law that has severely cut the number of student visas from 200,000 to 60,000 a year.

“We’re not getting the foreign students like we did before 9/11,” she said and noted that many are going to Australia and Canada for their college educations. “We sometimes shoot ourselves in the foot with our public policy.”

Closer to home, they said the state’s negative perception affects their recruitment efforts. Dehn and Plotnik said they focus on the region’s identity in their presentations to overcome the state’s economy. “I speak about the positive aspects of West Michigan and Southwest Michigan,” said Plotnik.

Klohs said the best thing that could happen is for Michigan’s negative image to vanish because the state’s perception definitely plays a role in what she is trying to accomplish. And having an economic revival of Detroit, she said, would means good things for the region.

“We do have a productivity advantage here and across the state,” said Thelen. “We have the infrastructure to build on and companies are giving us a shot.”

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