Touting Michigan's bright side

March 15, 2009
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During last week’s lakeshore economic forum, panelists tried to highlight things that are going right for the local economy despite the gut-gripping recession.

Grand Valley State University President Thomas Haas said that GVSU has a $500 million impact on the economy through such activities as payroll and construction jobs.

“In terms of the economic impact on the region, when you take into account all that we have available, 24,000 students, another almost 2,500 faculty and staff, our economic impact per year is over half a billon dollars,” Haas said.

The public university has doubled the number of graduates over the past 10 years, he said, to 4,500 annually, and enrollment has grown from 18,000 to 24,000.

“We do enroll more Michigan undergraduates than any other campus in the state of Michigan, other than MSU,” he added. “Of our graduates, 88 percent of those that are working are working here in the state of Michigan. In fact, 80 percent are working right here in West Michigan. These are high-skilled, high-pay jobs.”

GVSU sends more health care professionals into the West Michigan work force than any other local college, he said, adding that 20 percent of GVSU students are enrolled in one of the health care programs.

“Over the last 18 months, we have invested over $90 million in Ottawa County construction, which led to 2,300 jobs. It’s called the Grand Valley stimulus,” Haas said. GVSU is about to begin work on another $52.4 million in construction work at the Allendale campus, he added.

Huntingon Bank President Jim Dunlap didn’t sugar coat the recession. “Things are tough, and it is an economic war right now,” he said. He noted that on the same date in 1933, no banks were open at all during the Depression’s infamous bank “holiday,” and 43 percent never opened again.

“Compared to today, we have a long way to go before we would return to those kinds of challenges we dealt with,” he said.

“We have a trust and confidence crisis, deservedly so,” he said. “Everything we’ve become accustomed to and believed in has been shaken. The sheer asset value of things that we own as private individuals and as corporations has been shaken.”

The same qualities that brought the nation through that crisis are needed now, he said: leadership and “handling the fear factor.”

As chair of Grand Rapids economic development organization The Right Place Inc., Dunlap was privy to the story of how Priceline.com executives were persuaded to locate their new call center in the Grand Rapids area.

“There were 100 cities in the U.S. up for bid for that opportunity — good paying, full benefits, brand new jobs for our economy,” Dunlap said. “They only wanted to know a couple of things. How many educated work force and students do we have in the region? Between 50,000 and 70,000, depending on how you count. It separated us from all but seven of the cities. And then … they wanted to know the attitude: Was the community welcoming, and how do we feel about ourselves?”

To gain a true picture, unbeknownst to The Right Place, Priceline executives arrived in Grand Rapids a day prior to their meeting and went to dinner at Tre Cugini. There, they talked to a waitress who unwittingly became the best ambassador Grand Rapids has ever had.

“They asked the waitress, ‘Tell me about West Michigan. Tell me about Grand Rapids.’ She said ‘I love it here. I just moved back — went away to school and came back. This is my home.’

“That was a multi-million dollar conversation. … Priceline.com is here in no small part to what they found out before we ever got our hands on them.”

Mercy Health Partners President & CEO Roger Spoelman said, “If we cannot stabilize the economy, if we cannot find a way to make the economy healthier, then nothing is going to be healthy in this region, in this state.”

MHP has laid off about 90 people since it was formed a year ago with the merger of Hackley Hospital and Mercy General Health Partners. Spoelman attributed part of that loss to the recession, but said that, overall, the merger has saved the region $9 million in health care costs.

“What we have is a stable work force of over 3,500 employees and 400 physicians,” making MHP Muskegon County’s largest employer, he added.

Spoelman said the recession has people putting aside their health care needs.

“Even people with insurance have forgone health care treatment that they really need because they’re afraid to take time off of work,” Spoelman said. “We need to really look to the future and find out how we’re going to be able to stabilize this and get people the health care they need.”

Spoelman said the hospital is hopeful regarding provisions in the federal stimulus bill that subsidize 65 percent of the cost of COBRA insurance, available to people who have lost their jobs, and provide an infusion for Medicaid.

“We look at that as a possibility of reducing the bad debt and uncollectibles and charity care that we have,” he said.

“We have become and will continue to be a large, strong, stable employer for this community.”

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