Government retools, industry picks up in tumultuous year

December 23, 2010
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January

Kent County commissioners unanimously chose Sandi Frost Parrish as their new chairwoman to start off the new year.

Parrish, who represents the county’s 5th District and served as commission vice chairwoman in 2009, became the first woman elected to the county’s top post since Katherine Kuhn held that position from 1992-1995.

In accepting the position, Parrish acknowledged that the problems the county is faced in 2010 must be turned into new opportunities for the future.

Parrish replaced Roger Morgan as board chair. Morgan served four years in that post and became the first commissioner to accomplish that feat since Kuhn. Morgan continues to represent the county’s 3rd District on the commission.

Spectrum Health in announced an affiliation with another West Michigan health care system: Munson Healthcare in Traverse City.

The hospital systems released statements saying that they have signed a non-binding letter of intent to discuss ways to combine resources while maintaining a regional presence.

This was the third West Michigan health care system to seek a connection with Spectrum Health over the previous 18 months. The list includes: Gerber Memorial Health Services, Fremont; Mecosta County Medical Center, Big Rapids; and Northern Michigan Regional Health System, which is based in Petoskey but reaches as far as Mackinac Island.

Spectrum Health has community hospitals in Greenville, Kelsey and Reed City in addition to Blodgett and Butterworth hospitals and their related facilities in Grand Rapids. The health system has 16,000 employees and is the largest employer in Kent County.

ArtPrize officials announced that the Dick and Betsy DeVos family had purchased the ArtPrize 2009 winning piece, Ran Ortner’s “Open Water No. 24.” Ortner, of Brooklyn, N.Y., captured the top prize of $250,000 for the work. The piece initially remained on temporary loan to the Grand Rapids Art Museum but was later relocated to the upscale wine bar Reserve, located downtown in the Windquest Building.

“The purchase of Ortner’s winning piece is the first step toward building and maintaining a permanent ArtPrize collection in Grand Rapids,” Betsy DeVos said at the time. “In the coming years, a permanent collection of the ArtPrize top art will become an attraction of its own for the city. We see this as an important step to building the reputation of the event, and to enhancing the arts community and the cultural awareness of Grand Rapids well beyond our region.”

Grand Rapids began its second consecutive decade with a major highway reconstruction project. This time, though, instead of the work being in a north-south direction, it took an east-west route. Back in 2000, the mile-and-a-quarter north/south artery of the city — the U.S. 131 S-Curve — was reconstructed. In 2010, a mile-and-three-quarter section of the city’s other high-speed artery, I-196, which runs a mile-and-three-quarters, was rebuilt, widened and aesthetically improved in a project that became known as the “Fix on I-196.” The work began Monday, April 12, but businesses were in full preparation mode early in the year. The price tag was $40 million. About $12 million of that came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Dick DeVos announced a new private sector initiative to improve air service at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport, including an attempt to "attract a new category of carrier."

DeVos, president of The Windquest Group in Grand Rapids, is chair of the new Regional Air Alliance of West Michigan, a nonprofit group he organized that includes numerous corporate executives from the region.

DeVos said that he and other community and business leaders had agreed months ago that "we're not generating the sort of access to the community we need." He said Ford International is key to that access but that the frequency of service at GRFI is declining, due in part to the average domestic ticket price from Ford International being "the second highest in the country." He told the Business Journal that 25 to 30 percent of potential travelers from West Michigan drive to Chicago, Detroit or Flint for cheaper air service.

DeVos said the RAAWM was launching five initiatives, including recruitment of a "low-cost, networked carrier" that offers lower-cost and expanded service from GRFIA. Other initiatives include surveys of quality and performance at GRFIA, an economic impact study and "improved service and pricing from existing carriers." The group later claimed success in locating Air-Tran Airways flights out of Grand Rapids.

In a project that would later in the year lead to a major political and legal quagmire, leaders of Hanger42 Studios, said to be owned by a group of local investors, announced they had invested $45 million into purchasing and renovating 450,000 square feet of the former Lear Corp. auto parts manufacturing plant at 2150 Alpine Ave. The investors said they planned to turn the massive space into production-ready studios, office space and post-production suites. “This is a project that has been in the works for quite some time and represents a true public-private partnership,” said Joe Peters, principal with Hanger42 Studios, in a news release.


February

At the Grand Rapids’ State of the City breakfast, Mayor George Heartwell projected an optimistic future for the city and surrounding municipalities. That optimism revolved around improving race relations, creating jobs and furthering the sharing of municipal services that could even lead to a consolidation of governments throughout the county. Heartwell announced a new jobs-partnering initiative called the Mayor’s Fifty. In it, he called for 50 local companies to hire at least one young worker on a part-time basis.

Grand Rapids city commissioners scheduled a special session to decide whether to add a request to the May 4 ballot to hike the city’s income tax rates.

The proposal they discussed — and which eventually was placed on the ballot and approved by voters — was to raise the tax for city residents from 1.3 percent to 1.5 percent, and from 0.65 percent to 0.75 percent for those who work in Grand Rapids but live outside the city. The increase would sunset five years after starting on July 1, and then the rates would return to the current levels.

City Manager Greg Sundstrom said a successful election would give the city another $7 million in tax revenue. But he was quick to add that a ratified tax increase would only dent the $27.4 million deficit the city’s general fund faces for 2011, and more work was needed to come close to balancing the budget.

Saint Mary's Health Care and four other Trinity Health hospitals in West Michigan joined in a regional system, another example of the statewide trend toward hospital consolidation.

Business development and marketing executives were in place to work on tying together Saint Mary's with Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon, Battle Creek Health Care System, Mercy Hospital in Cadillac and Mercy Hospital in Grayling, said Phil McCorkle, CEO of Saint Mary's and the new system's regional director. They continue to be owned by Trinity Health.

"Our primary goal is to move from five groups of hospital-based generalists to a single team of regionally focused specialists that support the hospitals in a standardized fashion," said Jeff Couzens, regional marketing and communications director for Trinity Health in West Michigan.

The independent M.E. Davenport Foundation provided $2.5 million for a new building on Davenport University's W.A. Lettinga Campus in Caledonia Township, the largest gift in the university's history.

The gift is for the $8.5 million Robert W. Sneden Center, a 41,000-square-foot academic building west of the Richard M. DeVos and Jay Van Andel Academic Center at 6191 Kraft Ave. SE.

"We are honored by the generosity of the Davenport and Sneden families and share their pride that this is the largest gift in Davenport's history," Davenport President Richard Pappas said.

The Sneden Center features seven high-tech classrooms, a 220-seat auditorium, a board room, meeting rooms, offices and student services.

The private foundation also contributed $1 million to the Margaret D. Sneden Library and Information Commons on the Lettinga Campus. The foundation also has supported the Wyndalda Teaching and Learning Institute and the Mable Engle School of Nursing at Davenport.

The chairwoman of the Michigan Senate Finance Committee said she would introduce legislation taking aim once again at the Michigan film industry incentives signed into law by Gov. Jennifer Granholm more than two years ago.

In an interview with the Business Journal, Sen. Nancy Cassis, R-Novi, said she would introduce “bills that will deal once again with all the refundable credits, all the money that is being refunded through the Michigan business tax, creating winners and losers — the largest of which is the film subsidies."

"It's expected that the cost of these film subsidies — giveaways — could be $98 million this year … and another $120 million in 2011," said Cassis.

Cassis said the cost to Michigan of all the state's refundable business tax credits is "up to $350 million."


March

The Convention and Arena Authority took its first step to expand the northwest corner of the Van Andel Arena concourse, allocating up to $100,000 for the project’s design. Rossetti & Associates, the architects that designed the arena, provided the architectural work for the expansion that added more than 3,100 square feet to that section of the concourse at a cost of $1 million. The additional space was needed to alleviate congestion in that portion of the arena and also created a food court for which Amway Corp. was later presented the naming rights.

Grand Rapids developer Jon Rooks added a restaurant to his menu of business ventures. Rooks’ development company, Parkland Properties, owns condo developments in several West Michigan locations and marinas in Grand Haven and Muskegon. He acquired the former Rafferty’s restaurant when he took title to the 10-story Shoreline Inn and 25 acres around it on Muskegon Lake in 2009. In addition to the restaurant that seats almost 270, the property includes the adjacent Terrace Point Marina. “We’re going to handle (the restaurant) in-house and we’ll have it open by summer,” Rooks told the Business Journal. Rooks hired Dave Biesiada, who previously owned and operated the Sardine Room in Muskegon, to manage the restaurant.

West Michigan Science and Technology Executive Director Linda Chamberlain was named to lead Grand Valley State University’s new Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. The new center is housed in the Seidman School of Business and is GVSU’s new effort to support entrepreneurs in West Michigan with resources and support services. “The center represents an exciting and important step for Grand Valley and our growing role across West Michigan,” GVSU President Thomas J. Haas said. “The Center for Entrepreneurship will be part think tank, part resource clearinghouse, with the goal of supporting and promoting entrepreneurship and innovation.”

To Doug Lang, Google’s search for places to install and test ultra high-speed broadband Internet service was like one of those blockbuster novels you can’t put down.

“Right now we are consumed with being in the thick of the plot, and we don’t know what the ending is,” said Lang.

It wasn’t fiction, however. In February, Google announced its Fiber for Communities project. The Internet giant’s plan was to launch an experiment “that we hope will make Internet access better and faster for everyone,” according to its website. Google said it would test ultra-high speed broadband networks in one or more trial locations across the country, delivering Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today — over 1 gigabit per second via fiber optic connections directly to houses.

“We'll offer service at a competitive price to at least 50,000 and potentially up to 500,000 people,” according to the Google Web site.

The company set a deadline of March 26 for interested municipalities to provide persuasive information about their communities through a Request for Information that it would use to determine where to build the network. Individuals and community groups also could nominate a community.

The municipalities of both Grand Rapids and Holland were among the communities to submit their applications, and grassroots groups in both cities mobilized for action.

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President Barack Obama is greeted by LG Chem Ltd. officials, including Peter Bahn-Suk Kim, vice chairman and CEO, during a ground-breaking ceremony held at the Holland plant location in July.

LG Chem Ltd. has announced it would build a new $303 million lithium-ion battery manufacturing plant in Holland, employing more than 400 people there by 2013.

The company’s selection of Holland for its anticipated new battery plant “was a balanced decision based on the city's excellent infrastructure and proven, quality work force," said Jae Ham, senior vice president, LG Chem.

Work started in the summer on a 650,000-square-foot facility, financed in part from a $151.4 million grant the company received from the U.S. Department of Energy through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act program to encourage development of batteries for electric drive vehicles. LG Chem also planned to make a $151.5 million investment in the facility.

LG Chem said it expected the plant to be fully operational in 2012, producing battery cells for the General Motors Chevrolet Volt.

LG Chem’s North American subsidiary, Compact Power Inc. of Troy, was named to operate the plant, located on a 120-acre site in Holland northeast of the intersection of South Waverly Road and East 48th Street. An incentive package from the state of Michigan included a $100 million advanced battery cell tax credit, a 15-year job-creation tax credit worth $25.2 million, a Renaissance Zone designation and job-training assistance. Gov. Jennifer Granholm said other states and countries were competing to be the site for the new battery plant.

Businesses were preparing to deal with the impact of Michigan’s new no smoking law, which would take effect May 1 but had business operators scrambling much earlier to offset the impact. House Bill 4377 amended Michigan’s Public Health Code to prohibit smoking in public places, in places of employment, and in food establishments such as restaurants, cafeterias, food courts in shopping malls and bars. Exceptions were made for cigar bars and tobacco specialty retail stores, for gambling areas of casinos and for home offices. When the law took effect, Michigan became the 38th state to limit smoking in public places.

The opening of a new public charter high school with an aviation theme was announced for September, with backing from West Michigan businessman Dick DeVos.

Former East Grand Rapids High School Principal Patrick J. Cwayna is serving as CEO of the West Michigan Aviation Academy, located on the grounds of the Gerald R. Ford International Airport. Cwayna planned to hire three or four teachers, write an aviation-themed curriculum and renovate the former HHS Health Options building at the airport in time to open with 60 ninth-graders Sept. 7. Additional grades are to be added each year until the school houses a ninth- through 12-grade program with about 240 students.

“The future needs very well-prepared leaders. This public charter high school will prepare, train and equip students to be those leaders,” DeVos said in a written statement.

The school is chartered through the Upper Peninsula’s Bay Mills Community College.

West Michigan Aviation Academy will stay open through the month of June to provide students with 20 days of instruction beyond the 1,098 hours required by the state of Michigan, Cwayna said.

Grand Action Committee co-chairmen David Frey and John Canepa revealed there is enough community support to build a year-round, indoor-outdoor downtown market that would not only sell fresh and locally grown food products but also offer consumers a variety of other goods ranging from wine to books.

Their enthusiasm for the market emerged from a feasibility study Grand Action commissioned. That study, which took the better part of a year and was done by Market Ventures Inc. of Portland, Maine, said a successful market would deliver $775 million to the local economy over 10 years and would create nearly 1,300 new jobs, including the construction employment.

“We see this as an exciting and attainable project,” said Ted Spitzer of Market Ventures, who added that roughly $20 million in food sales could take place at the market annually.

Fremont’s Gerber Memorial Health Services would join Spectrum Health as of May 1, the two nonprofit health care organizations announced. Boards of directors of both hospitals approved resolutions to make Gerber Memorial one of Spectrum’s community hospitals, along with Kelsey Hospital, Reed City Hospital and United Memorial in Greenville, in addition to Blodgett Hospital in East Grand Rapids and Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids.


April

The official Committee of Advisors to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, representing both Americans and Canadians who rely on the commercial and sport fishing industries, demanded that the U.S. government “immediately” separate the Chicago Area Waterway from Lake Michigan to prevent further exotic species invasions of the Great Lakes. The announcement was a result of what advisors call the “imminent threat of the voracious Asian carp.”

ConAgra Foods Inc. announced it acquired Elan Nutrition, a privately held formulator and manufacturer of snack and nutrition bars based in Grand Rapids. The Elan Nutrition business was to be managed as part of ConAgra Foods’ Snacks platform and integrated specifically into its Store Brands business, which primarily makes cereal and snack bars under retailer labels. Elan Nutrition’s manufacturing facility in Grand Rapids was included in the deal.


May

Amway Corp. announced it would move several production lines to Europe and Asia over the next three years, eliminating 100 West Michigan jobs. However, other “strategic adjustments” in California would bring 50 other Amway jobs to West Michigan.

“More than 80 percent of our customers buy our products outside the United States, and Amway needs to update its supply chain to reflect that,” said Amway chairman Steve Van Andel. The privately held direct sales company reported sales of $8.4 billion in 2009.

Johnson Technology, a subsidiary of General Electric with manufacturing facilities in Muskegon and Norton Shores, planned to hire 90 employees in West Michigan to expand aerospace production. Plans included a potential $50 million investment in a high-tech facility for application of new coatings to jet engine turbine components. Another 130 jobs were to be added at the GE Aviation Advanced Manufacturing and Software Technology Center in Southeast Michigan, with a total of about 1,300 new jobs in Michigan over the next five years.

Chemical Financial Co., a holding company for Chemical Bank, closed its acquisition of O.A.K. Financial Corp., the holding company for Byron Bank, in an all-stock transaction April 30. The acquisition added 14 West Michigan branches to Chemical Bank and approximately $438 million in the bank’s core deposit base. The addition moved Chemical Bank from the 16th largest institution in the Grand Rapids area to sixth.

PNC Financial Services Group completed its conversion of 420 former National City Bank branches with 1.5 million customers in northern Ohio and Michigan. Thirteen of those offices are in Kent County. PNC Regional President Sean Welsh said the local conversion went smoothly and was completed on time, “largely because it was properly planned.”


June

Gordon Food Service planned to invest $24.2 million in a new 100,000-square-foot facility in Wyoming that would entail the creation of 173 new jobs here over the next five years. The plan called for consolidation of several of the company’s business operations in Canada at the Gordon Food Service world headquarters campus on 50th Street west of Clay Avenue. The new office building, which does not replace any existing GFS facilities in Wyoming, will have the capacity to house up to 700 employees.

The West Michigan Sports Commission hosted the Meijer State Games of Michigan. More than 3,500 athletes competed in the 15 sports that ranged from mountain biking to ice hockey. The three-day event was expected to generate more than $700,000 for the local economy and 1,000 room nights at area hotels.

After 10 months of seemingly endless charts, graphs and financial forecasts and an untold amount of angst, Grand Rapids city commissioners adopted a 2011 general operating budget that was projected to post a surplus of $33,000 at the end of the year — a far cry from the $27.4 million worth of red ink the budget was drowning in last fall.

July

Whirlpool Corp., a major player in this year’s opening of the Harbor Shores resort in St. Joseph-Benton Harbor, announced it would build a new office campus in downtown Benton Harbor as part of a consolidation of its 15 owned and leased facilities. The project, expected to take approximately five years to complete, was “contingent on approval of all state and local incentives.” Those incentives were later approved by the various governing bodies. The project will leave the $17 billion global home appliance manufacturer with three office campuses in its hometown area.

Spectrum Health announced the long-anticipated establishment of a heart institute and the hiring of an internationally known surgeon to oversee its new heart transplant program. England’s Dr. Asghar Khaghani, regarded as an international expert, became lead surgeon for Spectrum’s new heart transplant program, which received state approval earlier in the year.

The Gun Lake Tribe of Pottawatomi Indians finalized a $165 million loan to complete the scaled-back Gun Lake Casino under construction near the Bradley exit on U.S. 131 in Allegan County. The casino is slated for a February 2011 opening.

Citing differences in approaches to care that would be too wide to overcome, Northern Michigan Regional Health System in Petoskey decided against joining Spectrum Health. The two hospital systems had been in talks for more than a year.

The Kent County Recycling Center was in operation weeks before its official dedication ceremony. Kent County Director of Public Works Doug Wood said construction of the new $12 million recycling and education center was done and the facility had been operating on a part-time basis for several weeks. The new recycling process is helping lower the cost of collecting trash in the area.

August

Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine planned public tours and a gala to be held in September to celebrate the opening of the Secchia Center on downtown’s Medical Mile. The 180,000-square-foot, $90 million building — seven stories, plus underground parking and a planned rooftop garden was aided by a $10 million donation from Peter Secchia, an MSU alumnus and Grand Rapids businessman.

Perrigo Co. reported record revenue, earnings and cash flow for fiscal 2010. “For the fourth straight year, we delivered year-over-year record sales, earnings and cash flow from operations,” said Chairman and CEO Joseph C. Papa.

Spectrum Health neared completion of its $98 million investment in building a new section and renovating the old in its Blodgett Hospital in East Grand Rapids. Construction began in 2008.

Grand Rapids Community College revealed its renaming of the former Davenport University campus on East Fulton Street to GRCC DeVos Campus. The new name reflects the gifts from the DeVos and VanderWeide families for support of a total investment of $34 million including renovations at Warren hall for faculty offices. GRCC purchased the seven-acre site in 2009.

Grand Valley State University announced details of its plan to mark its 50th anniversary. The school was formed after a committee of local business and community leaders met to establish a university in West Michigan. They were led by accountant L. William Seidman.

Traverse City-based Munson Healthcare’s board of directors decided to pursue other ways to affiliate with Spectrum Health, rather than a merger.

September

NOVO 1, which provides customer service reps to represent companies in dealings with their customers, formally launched a new call center in Holland that is expected to create 350 new jobs over the next three years. The company has a new 37,000-square-foot customer center at 1351 Waverly Road in Holland.

ArtPrize, in its second year, was again a major event for downtown businesses, including restaurants and other retailers. In 2009, the inaugural ArtPrize generated roughly 200,000 visitors to Grand Rapids with an estimated economic impact of as much as $7.6 million. Economic figures for the 2010 activity, which by most accounts exceeded the initial event, were still being compiled at year’s end.

The West Michigan Policy Forum opened with vigorous pleas to continue the unification of the state’s economic strategies. Conference committee co-chairs Peter Secchia and Doug DeVos urged more than 600 attendees to keep pressure on Lansing to wisely prioritize economic reform initiatives. Forum presentations included those given by Michigan gubernatorial candidates Virg Bernero and Rick Snyder, along with William Clay Ford Jr., executive chairman of the Ford Motor Co.


October

Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jeanne Englehart announced she would step down from her leadership role sometime in early 2011. Englehart said she would continue in the role until a transition is complete.

Grand Valley State University issued its fourth annual Accountability Report, showing that the school was a $643.9 million engine for Kent, Muskegon and Ottawa counties, even as the economy imploded in 2008-2009.

The state approved a 15-year Renewable Energy Renaissance Zone in the city of Holland as the site for a new manufacturing plant being planned by Energetx Composites, which makes commercial wind turbine blades using advanced composite materials. The new manufacturing facility is expected to create up to 700 jobs and attract $18.4 million in private investment, according to the state announcement.


November

Local market watchers who monitor and analyze the health of the office furniture industry said they see some distinct improvements in the industry. Analyst Michael Dunlap’s survey completed in October indicates the industry’s executives were feeling much more confident than in April 2009.

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Gentex Corp. Senior Vice President Enoch Jen reflects on the company’s success in one of its automatic-dimming rearview mirrors.

Gentex Corp. announced its plan to purchase the 108,000-square-foot former Invensys Controls plant at 11768 James St. in Holland, for increased production capacity. At the time of the announcement, Gentex was seeking to fill about 140 manufacturing positions and nearly 100 engineering and software personnel. The company was also buoyed by the possible federal effort to mandate rear-view mirror sensor technology on all vehicles.


December

Metro Health’s application for open heart surgery and elective cardiac catheterization was denied by the Michigan Department of Community Health, but the hospital’s President and CEO Mike Faas said he won’t give up the quest for a heart program to be run in conjunction with Saint Mary’s Health Care.

Autocam Corp. plans to invest $32 million in its Kentwood manufacturing facilities over five years, which is expected to create 200 new jobs, according to an announcement by The Right Place Inc. and the MEGA.

Now that the numbers show the first Restaurant Week held in November turned out to be an economic feast, Experience Grand Rapids President Doug Small said he would turn to making plans for a second event in 2011.

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