Ottawa seeking GR MSA to get on business 'radar'

August 31, 2009
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Monday night the Ottawa County Planning Commission will vote on whether Ottawa County should be part of a redefined West Michigan metropolitan statistical area anchored by Grand Rapids, "to more accurately reflect the size of the area's labor market, strength of its supplier base, depth of its service sector and purchasing power of its residents and thereby improve economic development attraction efforts."

Expect it to pass. In fact, the county's elected representatives in Congress have already asked the federal government to do so.

Right now, in the eyes of the federal government, Ottawa County is a separate MSA, designated Holland-Grand Haven MSA, with a population of 260,364 as of July 2008.

The feds' rule for determining an MSA is: If at least 25 percent of a county's work force commutes to an adjoining county to work every day, then it is part of the other county's MSA.

Ottawa County was part of the Grand Rapids MSA until the 2000 census, when the feds said the percentage of Ottawa County workers commuting to Kent County each day was 24.7 percent. So Ottawa County was cut off from the herd.

Meanwhile, the Grand Rapids-Wyoming MSA is actually four complete counties: Kent, Newaygo, Ionia and Barry, with an estimated July 2008 total population of 776,833. More than 25 percent of the working stiffs in Newaygo, Ionia and Barry commute to Kent County every day — a grand total of about 19,400 people.

Here's the rub:

"Every morning, roughly 30,000 people wake up in Ottawa County and go to work in Kent County," said George Erickcek, senior regional analyst at the Upjohn Institute.

"The way they define MSAs gives a wrong impression of the independence that Ottawa County has of Kent County," he added.

"Our economies and our networks are so interconnected between Ottawa and Kent counties that we really feel that — just from a common sense perspective —  it makes sense for us to be included in that MSA," said Mark Knudsen, director of Planning in Ottawa County.

There is also a real disadvantage to being in a small MSA. Knudsen said they did a survey recently of consulting firms that help companies find new locations to set up shop.

"In order to even be on the radar screen," said Knudsen, the site selection consultants generally only consider MSAs "that are one million in size or greater."

A redefined Grand Rapids MSA, to include Ottawa County, would put that new MSA over one million. Without Ottawa County, said Erickcek, "it lowers the Grand Rapids metropolitan area's population to the point that many fear it doesn't make that first cut."

Knudsen noted there will be another U.S. census in 2010, which might well rectify the situation — but compiling the data and acting on it takes years, with the possibility of no change for at least another four years or so.

"In this economy, we feel it's important we become part of that MSA quicker," said Knudsen.

A lonely battle

Word came earlier this month that no more Consumers Energy customers can switch to another company for electricity — the 10 percent cap on customer choice has been reached. Now any customer wishing to switch to a lower-cost alternative will be put on a waiting list until another customer drops service from an alternative energy supplier.

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce quickly issued a press release stating the "cap must be raised."

"By eliminating competition, manufacturers cannot seek the best price for one of their most important manufacturing inputs," said Jeanne Englehart, president and CEO of GRACC.

When the Electric Choice and Reliability Act was passed last year, GRACC was pretty much the Lone Ranger among the Michigan chambers opposing it.

Jared Rodriguez, the chamber’s senior vice president of government affairs, told the Business Journal that to his knowledge "we're still the only chamber that does not support the cap." But he, too, insisted they're going to fight.

The Customer Choice Coalition opposed the cap, and also weighed in with a demand to raise it. Its press release included comments by Sen. Wayne Kuipers, R-Holland, who said, "My colleagues and I must move quickly to raise the cap … to ensure more businesses can survive in Michigan."

Kuipers repeated that intent in conversation with the Business Journal, adding: "But I think that's going to be difficult."

Finance guru stepping down

Kent County will be saying goodbye to its Fiscal Services Director Robert White at the end of the year. After seven years of juggling the numbers for the county and 31 years of doing the same for the city of Grand Rapids, White is retiring.

“It’s a good time for the county. It’s a good time for me. The county needs someone with a long-term perspective,” he said.

White gave a lot of credit to his staff and to his “good wife,” Deborah, for his lengthy public-sector tenures. Computers didn’t exist when White joined the city in the early 1970s, and he said what got him through that Dark Age was his trusty Monroe 550 calculator. He called the Monroe a “very advanced” model because it included functions to multiply and divide.

State’s top clerk

Another county department head made the news last week. The Michigan Association of County Clerks named Mary Hollinrake clerk of the year. It’s an honor recognizing someone who is truly dedicated to her job and willingly shares her time with others.

Show me the way

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a group of approximately 35 business and community leaders from Springfield, Mo., last week, brought here by the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce to see how this area tackles issues and opportunities similar to what they face.

Jim Anderson, president of the Springfield chamber, said this is their 16th Community Leadership Visit.

"We try to look at communities that are similar in nature … communities that we think have best practices that we can emulate," said Anderson.

"Grand Rapids has been on my short list" for cities to visit — "going all the way back to Milt," he said, referring to former GRACC president Milt Rohwer. He met current GRACC president and CEO Jeanne Englehart at a chamber function in San Antonio a couple of years ago, which further added to the group’s decision to see how folks are surviving in the Furniture City.

Anderson said, "The transition your region is making to a knowledge-based economy was a real draw for me," adding that the push to create a distinct brand for the Grand Rapids region was also something he understands completely.

"We have a St. Louis and a Kansas City, just like you have a Detroit. Sometimes people forget there's a Springfield when you have a St. Louis and a Kansas City."

As for other similarities, "Those two very important (economic) drivers — health care and higher education — are similar in both Grand Rapids and Springfield."

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