'Call to action' punctuates WMSA's 10th birthday event

May 3, 2010
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After a decade of existence, West Michigan Strategic Alliance leaders believe the organization is having an impact in keeping the area competitive — at least when compared to 26 demographically and economically similar regions across the country. Overall, West Michigan ranks ninth when benchmarked against areas such as Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas, and Raleigh, N.C.

The nonprofit planning organization marked its anniversary with its annual State of the Region event last week that drew approximately 400 attendees to the Pinnacle Center in Hudsonville.

WMSA was formed in 2000 by a group of community leaders from across West Michigan who viewed collaboration among businesses and institutions and across municipal and county lines to be a key to the quality of life in the region.

“Over the past decade, we’ve formed thousands of trusting relationships across the region and across government, business and institutional sectors,” said Jim Brooks, the Holland businessman who was a founding member and has shepherded WMSA’s growth and involvement ever since. “Our capacity to work together to respond to common challenges and opportunities has improved immensely.”

Brooks was saluted for his “visionary” contributions to the organization and pointed to the transitioning leadership that includes Huntington Bank West Michigan executive Jim Dunlap as vice-chair and Ottawa County administrator Al Vanderberg, who is the board’s chair.

Samuel Leiken, vice president of the Washington-based Council on Competitiveness, gave the keynote presentation in which he indicated that WMSA’s success in regional leadership was noted in a council report, “National Prosperity/Regional Leadership,” released earlier this year. It features WMSA as one of five case studies of regional collaboration in the U.S. WMSA was praised for its 2002 “Common Framework” report that “started creating a regional mindset in West Michigan.”

The 2010 “Vital Signs” report shows that West Michigan, when compared to the 26 similar regions, ranks 17th in economic indicators, 10th in social indicators and sixth in key environmental indicators.

George Erickcek of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, who helped with the Vital Signs report, said West Michigan’s drop to 27th in the comparison’s list for employment change (-8.3 percent) was “clearly a call to action for more pursuit of business dynamics, growth and innovation.” The local employment performance was slightly worse than the state as a whole, according to the study.

The full 2009-2010 Action Report is available at www.wm-alliance.org under the publications section.

Design the future

Steelcase’s Town Hall opened up to last week to the latest Design West Michigan event.

The event welcomed keynote speaker Tim Brown, author of “Change by Design” and CEO of IDEO, a global design and innovation firm. Brown was introduced by Steelcase CEO Jim Hackett, who has pushed for design methodology to become more than a way to make things pretty, but as a launching pad for innovation. Hackett said he believes design thinking is important for the vitality of the state of Michigan.

Brown spoke on the history of design as well as his own career. The theme was that design used to be about creating experiences and thinking of problems holistically. Since, the practice has become “small” by focusing simply on the functionality or look of a product instead of stepping back and looking at the bigger issues. He said the field has become dominated by a “priesthood in designer glasses and black turtlenecks” — a group in which he included himself.

The tide, however, is changing, said Brown. He is seeing design become big again and tackling issues like health care, sustainability, poverty and other mountain-high-valley-low problems.

As the world turns, trades

World Trade Week West Michigan kicks off at noon today with the World Trader of the Year award being presented to Bandit Industries at the Econ Club luncheon in the Amway Grand Plaza. That’s followed by the club’s guest speaker, Marc Bitzer, president of North American operations of Whirlpool Corp.

Whirlpool stock shot up lately — more than 12 percent in one seven-day stretch. Maybe Bitzer will shed some light on that.

The World Trade Week Conference starts at 2 p.m. with the focus this year on “social media” and the Internet. Shane Gibson of Knowledge Brokers International Systems Ltd. launches the conference with a presentation on “Sociable! How Social Media is Turning Sales and Marketing Upside Down.” (How are you tweeting your customers?)

From 3-4 p.m. is the panel discussion: Marketing Your Brand Online to International Customers. The moderator is Jean Schtokal, an attorney with Foster, Swift, Collins & Smith. Panelists are Dino Baskovic of Amway corporate communications, Jeffrey Guenther of Hastings Manufacturing, Stephen Koets of Pridgeon & Clay, and Anton Bollen of TechSmith Corp., who is identified as TechSmith’s “European social media evangelist.”

Then they bring out an Internet big gun: John Kelley, online sales and operations manager for Google Inc., will expound on “Identifying and Keeping International Visitors on Your Website.” Hopefully, that’s not including that Nigerian guy who found all that long-lost money that rightfully belongs to you — he said.

The VIP reception starts at 5, where glasses will be raised to the 50th anniversary of the West Michigan World Trade Association.

Tom Palumbo, current president of the organization, said the WMWTA held an evening reception last week to celebrate the anniversary, attended by past presidents going back 35 years.

“We don’t get a lot of attention,” said Palumbo. He explained that the association has been quietly working for 50 years to serve the needs and interests of West Michigan companies that are striving to grow their business overseas.

Incidentally, Palumbo is vice president of sales and marketing at SoundOff Signal in Hudsonville, which produces electronic signaling equipment for emergency vehicles. Palumbo said he just got back from a major trip to China, Japan and Korea. The company is now active in Korea — “making inroads in China” — and they also are hoping to export soon to Japan, he said.

SoundOff Signal has been active in Europe, too, and has business contacts in Greece. That makes one local company for sure that is closely watching the events unfolding in Europe as the Greek government’s financial crisis reaches a head.

Go with the flow in Newaygo

An unusual new $2.7 million community business center called The Stream is set to open officially today in downtown Newaygo.

The two-story building, on the site where once stood the historic Courtright Hotel, has retail space on the ground floor and high-tech space upstairs for a variety of endeavors: places to incubate new businesses, a “membership-based remote work site,” classrooms that will constitute the Muskegon Community College Newaygo Satellite Campus, an office shared by the Newaygo Area Chamber of Commerce and Newaygo County Economic Development …

Terrie Ortwein, executive director of the Newaygo Chamber, said that technically, it’s just the second floor that will be called The Stream, a name perhaps inspired by the nearby Muskegon River that flows through this famous lumber-era town.

The Chamber, which will still have its headquarters elsewhere downtown, hasn’t moved anyone into The Stream yet but plans to do so by summer, she said.

Andy Lofgren, executive director of the Newaygo County Economic Development Office, told the Business Journal last year when construction began that the building will be "condominium-ized," with the second floor to be owned by the city of Newaygo and operated jointly by the city and the county EDO.

The concept of offering memberships for office use "operates like a traditional business center, an incubator, where you share overhead costs, but then you're also opening it up to a little bit larger number of potential end-users," added Lofgren. Sort of like an athletic club.

The idea came out of a West Michigan WIRED initiative. WIRED brought up the concept of remote work centers in fringe areas near metropolitan centers. He said the idea was for individuals needing temporary office space to have access to remote work centers "as opposed to having to commute to core urban areas every day." The Newaygo area has a large summer population of cottage owners who work in Grand Rapids and Muskegon.

The Newaygo community "just ran with it and kind of tweaked it to fit our own needs up here," said Lofgren.

Expect the office dress code for these summertime telecommuters to be cut-offs and sandals.

Haworth installed the furniture and is helping promote the building as an experiment in progress. The building is also touted as an earth-friendly facility; the owners may seek LEED certification. It was designed by Paradigm Design in Walker and built by the Visser Brothers.

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