Luring the spenders to West Michigan

July 19, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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Rick Hert plays a major role in economic development in West Michigan today. He figures it probably all began back when he was driving a hops truck in Yakima, Wash., and he decided to visit an employment agency for ideas on how to put his brand-new college degree to work.

It was a fortuitous visit.

Hops, a key ingredient in beer, is a major agricultural crop in the Yakima area, where Hert was born and raised. Agricultural jobs — including a stint in a slaughterhouse — enabled him to work his way through Central Washington University, where he earned a degree in 1980 in communications with an emphasis in public relations and marketing.

Hert wasn’t sure the employment agency could help; he was already working hard at looking for a career job while working his day job. But the woman who ran the employment service had a kind heart and spoke to him for a while about his education and what he wanted to do.

“After 15 minutes, she said, ‘I know the perfect job for you,’” recalled Hert. “We walked right across the street to the Chamber of Commerce, and within a few weeks, I was working there.”

That was the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce, where Hert worked for three years as an assistant manager. Hert said he picked up insights there about what a manager should and should not do. After three years, he landed a job where he was the boss: executive director of the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce in Newport, Ore.

He inherited an office that was a “shambles,” a part-time secretary and a broken-down typewriter.

“I remember 80-hour weeks and loving it,” he said. When he left seven years later, the Greater Newport Chamber had new quarters, a staff of seven and a six-month operating fund in the bank.

Something else happened during those years in Newport — something that opened Hert’s eyes to an entirely different type of economic development that is now a major part of what he does as executive director of the West Michigan Tourist Association and film commissioner for the West Michigan Film Office.

“Knots Landing” was a primetime television series from 1979 to 1993. In 1983, when the Olympics were in Los Angeles and adding to the challenges of filming in the Hollywood area, Hert got a call from the Knots people. They were looking for an uncrowded, scenic place where they could film. They ended up shooting eight episodes in the Newport area.

“I quickly decided at the time that this was serious economic development,” said Hert, due to the “amount of money they left behind” — at hotels, restaurants and the myriad types of businesses that serve film productions.

The filming of a popular TV show or a movie with famous stars naturally attracts the public — and the news media, which results in images and articles that are seen and read far and wide. The national publicity that Newport received as a result was significant for the small city, Hert said.

Many tourists who visit Mackinac Island are aware that “Somewhere in Time,” starring Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour and Christopher Plummer, was shot there. Although that was 30 years ago, many people who see a photo of the Grand Hotel today immediately connect it with the movie.

“Knots Landing” was just the beginning of Hert’s behind-the-scenes role related to the film industry. He moved up the ladder to executive director of the Bend, Ore., Chamber of Commerce, with a 16-person staff and a million dollar visitor center.

The area also had beautiful locations and was chosen for filming “From Oregon With Love,” a popular Japanese television series in the 1980s through the mid-90s. The series, produced by Fuji TV with a Japanese cast, was about a young Japanese boy sent to live with relatives in Oregon after his parents died. It was immensely popular in Japan, and today, many Japanese over the age of 30 still think of Oregon as a wonderful place, according to the website of a firm that markets Oregon wines in Japan.

Hert said he and his staff used “From Oregon With Love” to lure other film productions to the region, and also as “a very large platform for tourist promotion.” He even travelled to Japan to promote Oregon as a tourist destination.

After Oregon, Hert spent 10 years on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula as executive director of the Port Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, and later, managing a start-up marketing and consulting firm.

Hert served on the film commissions in Washington as he had in Oregon. He said he was instrumental in recruiting hundreds of productions to his area, including TV shows, feature films, documentaries, commercials and still photography shoots for catalogs and advertising. Among his many honors from his Pacific Northwest days was being named Oregon’s “Governor’s Tourism Promoter of the Year in 1990. In 1995, he was a delegate to the White House Conference on Tourism.

In 2004, Hert took the job of executive director of the West Michigan Tourist Association, which is based in Grand Rapids and represents 41 counties comprising the western half of the Lower Peninsula. Founded in 1917, it claims to be the oldest continually operating regional tourist association in the United States.

During 2005 and 2006, Hert also had a second job as head of Circle Michigan, an organization that promotes group tours to the region. Now he is strictly WMTA.

Although Michigan has had a state film office since 1979 with the purpose of assisting and attracting incoming production companies, there wasn’t much happening in West Michigan — which, like the Pacific Northwest, doesn’t lack for scenic locales. So Hert created the West Michigan Film Office, with himself as film commissioner.

It should be noted, however, that neither the West Michigan Tourist Association nor the West Michigan Film Office is part of the government.

“Neither receive a dime of government funding,” noted Hert, even though the work is economic development in both cases.

In addition to promoting the region’s classic tourist attractions, there is great tourism potential in the region’s agriculture, Hert said. Some of that is self-evident, such as the wineries around the state that have become popular tourist destinations. But there are other agricultural attractions in West Michigan.

“Some of the agriculture we have here is an attraction in its own right. If we can get people to buy from farmers directly, going to farmers markets, that’s a great win-win,” he said.

That’s why there are eye-catching billboards on the expressways approaching West Michigan, promoting luscious fruits and vegetables as “Fresh! Local! Ready!” Those billboards are paid for by the WMTA.

On the film industry side, Hert says the job is “a lot of contacts, reaching out to producers, saying we wish you would come spend your money with us. It’s about jobs. It’s about economic development,” he said.

Hert has a slew of certifications and an MBA from Baker College. One of his latest achievements was becoming a certified film commissioner, which required participation in a one-and-a-half-year educational program offered by the Association of Film Commissioners, an international organization based in Wyoming.

Although Hert has been around movie stars such as Kevin Costner and been an extra in a film, he really hangs around “more with the directors and producers and those folks who spend the money,” he said. “It’s the line producers and the location scouts. We try to help them,” he said.

It is also important, he said, “to make connections with our local business community, so that the production industry knows what we have to offer,” said Hert. “We want the money to be spent locally, if at all possible.”

Hert is very proud of the movie production taking place currently in the Grand Rapids area, a comedy called “30 Minutes or Less.”

“That’s certainly one of the (largest) budgets we’ve seen come here,” he said.

He is also proud of his work with producers who have now shot four movies in the area and plan more.

Of course, these producers are probably here because of the incentives offered by the state of Michigan since early 2008 in the form of refundable and transferrable tax credits. Michigan’s incentives are said to be the highest among the two dozen or so states that offer them to movie producers and others willing to invest in film infrastructure.

Critics are pressing for repeal of the incentives or at least major reductions in them. Hert said he believes the incentives still need a couple more years to prove themselves, and the studio infrastructure still has to be built to keep the movie industry coming back.

“It’s a serious economic development opportunity,” he said, “an opportunity at a new industry for Michigan.

“If, in fact, that can be proved over the next few years, I think it will be long lasting. There are certainly case studies in New Mexico, Louisiana, Georgia and other states that have made this part of the fabric of their economic development long-term. We see a substantial number of jobs created. Well, Michigan needs to add its name to that list, as well.”

A few years ago, Michigan saw a couple million dollars spent here on film productions. Last year it was $224 million, according to Hert.

“My expectation this year is that we’ll do $400 million in filming in the state of Michigan. Next year could be as good if not better. It will continue to grow, but we need that infrastructure to help support the whole business.”

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