Plenty to build upon heading into new year

January 5, 2011
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The new year starts with more momentum in the local economy than may be evident in the haze of ongoing government fiscal crisis, burgeoning unemployment and market turmoil.

A new era of government leadership is poised to be ushered in, particularly in the halls of the state legislature and the governor’s office. The fresh batch of leaders will be armed with specific marching orders from an impatient business community that has coalesced around recommendations and targets that focus on sensible tax policy and less bureaucratic interference.

But commerce is already moving ahead in West Michigan. That’s no more evident than in the vibrant health care industry that has been dominated by expansions and consolidations, many of which involved Spectrum Health. The hospital system introduced its new heart and lung program, a Blodgett Hospital renovation and a host of merger and acquisition endeavors. It begins 2011 with the opening of the new Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital profiled in the Business Journal’s Focus section. The health system has 16,000 employees and is the largest employer in Kent County.

Manufacturing continues to put on a new face with such endeavors as LG Chem Ltd., which is building a new $303 million lithium-ion battery manufacturing plant in Holland, employing more than 400 people there by 2013.

Gentex Corp. purchased the 108,000-square-foot former Invensys Controls plant in Holland, for increased production capacity. Gentex is seeking to fill about 140 manufacturing positions and nearly 100 engineering and software jobs. The company is buoyed by the possible federal effort to mandate rear-view mirror sensor technology on all vehicles.

Whirlpool Corp., a major player in this year’s opening of the Harbor Shores resort in St. Joseph-Benton Harbor, cemented its West Michigan presence even further when it announced plans to build a new office campus in downtown Benton Harbor as part of a consolidation of its 15 owned and leased facilities. The project will leave the $17 billion global home appliance manufacturer with three office campuses in its hometown area.

ConAgra Foods Inc. acquired Elan Nutrition, a privately held formulator and manufacturer of snack and nutrition bars based in Grand Rapids. Financial terms of the transaction were not disclosed. The acquisition of Elan Nutrition, owned by an affiliate of Sun Capital Partners Inc. since 2003, will allow ConAgra to grow its private label bar business through new product development capabilities and manufacturing capacity. Elan Nutrition’s manufacturing facility in Grand Rapids was included in the deal and will operate as a ConAgra Foods plant.

As the financial sector continues its climb back from a tumultuous decade, there were positive glimmers in the local market. 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. The acquisition added 14 West Michigan branches to Chemical Bank and approximately $438 million in the bank’s core deposit base, moving Chemical Bank from the 16th largest institution in the Grand Rapids area to the sixth.

Public-private partnerships, as they have for generations, continue to drive economic growth in this area. The Downtown Development Authority and the Grand Action Committee have joined efforts for a proposed urban market on the downtown district’s fringe, a project that carries a cost estimate of $27 million. The economic multiplier for the project, which has garnered private sector support and state and local government financing considerations, is anticipated to be significant.

Christman Capital Investment Group is renovating the former Federal building at 148 Ionia Ave. NW. Christman Capital plans to invest $28 million into the project and renovate the structure for use by Ferris State University and Kendall College of Art & Design. Most of the cost will be financed by $25 million worth of Recovery Zone Facility Bonds made available by Congress through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Kent County and the city each allocated $12.5 million of their RZF bond allotments to the project.

The $12 million Kent County Recycling and Education Center opened, further enhancing the area’s glittering sustainability record. The new center at 977 Wealthy St. SW has the capability of recycling up to 144 tons of trash a day. Since the county’s old facility at 322 Bartlett St. SW recycled only 15 tons a day, the new facility can reprocess more trash in one hour than the old plant could in an eight-hour workday.

And to again establish that area businesses can make money while showing residents and visitors a good time, ArtPrize, in its second year, was a repeat major event for downtown, including restaurants and other retailers who profited from it. 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. It’s anticipated that figures for the 2010 activity will exceed those levels.

Momentum is the byword heading into 2011.

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