An entrepreneurial hotbed up there

December 11, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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Forty-five Michigan communities have been recognized by the University of Michigan-Dearborn iLabs eCities research as the best in fostering entrepreneurial growth and economic development. Most are cities, including Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Grand Haven, Grandville and Holland, but a few of them are townships such as Meridian (near Lansing), Cascade and — Alpine?

Along with Grand Rapids, Grandville and Holland, Alpine Township is listed as one of the 23 Four-Star communities. The remaining 21 are Five-Star.

According to U-M-Dearborn, the eCities staff surveyed more than 100 communities in Michigan, “home to 36 percent of Michigan residents and 44 percent of its college graduates. These communities also had more than $1 billion in commercial construction last year and more than half of them share services with other communities.”

“The focus of this project is assisting local communities by identifying best practices and methods that they can implement, which will aid with job growth strategies, economic diversification and development of entrepreneurs,” said Tim Davis, director of iLabs.

The annual eCities research, which began in 2007, uses data supplied by the participants as well as other public records to assemble a six-factor, 32-item index of entrepreneurial activity, looking at such factors as clustering, incentives, growth, policies, community and education. The study focuses on entrepreneurship because of its importance to expansion and diversification of Michigan’s regional economies and the impact small businesses have on job creation. To date, 138 communities across Michigan have participated in the study.

Alex Arends, supervisor of Alpine Township, filled out the survey this year, which he said included questions about economic activity, assessments and tax data, and demographics.

“We were Four Star last year, too,” said Arends. “I don’t know how we fit into this,” he said, because Alpine Township, with a population of about 13,300, is “about 75 percent agricultural.”

Arends said he likes to think of Alpine as a township that supports entrepreneurship, but, he added, “I think we’re primarily an agricultural community. Some people might think that conflicts with promotion of industrial and commercial, but it really doesn’t.”

Alpine Township recently compiled a list of its largest employers, which Arends provided to the Business Journal. The largest is the Walmart store on Alpine Avenue with 380 employees.

“We are very fortunate to have Alpine Avenue,” said Arends, referring to the extensive retail district on the major north-south highway through the township. He said there seems to be “not much trouble finding people” to move their businesses into vacancies on Alpine Avenue, citing the closing of the Best Buy store there last year. It is now occupied by the Salvation Army and, starting in 2012, will also be home to Jo-Ann Fabrics.

Two of the other top 10 employers are also on Alpine Avenue: Menards (185) and Sam’s Club (145).

Three of the 10 largest employers are listed as manufacturers, one of which is Perrin, a silk-screener of T-shirts and other clothing sold by universities, sports teams, resorts and souvenir shops around the nation. Perrin, on Rusche Drive north of Six Mile Road, has 280 employees, according to township records. The other two companies are Sellner-Behr Corp., which makes interior trim for luxury autos, and Commercial Tool & Die.

Ranked ninth and tenth in employment are agricultural companies farther out in the township: River Ridge, an apple packing company, and Jack Brown Produce, each listed as having 50 employees.

The three largest taxpayers in Alpine Township, according to the township’s latest records, are York Creek Apartments, Walmart Real Estate and Menards Inc., in that order. All are on or just off of Alpine Avenue.

Recently, Alpine Township had a railroad crossing built that now connects Rusche Drive and Comstock Park Drive, adding to its viability as an industrial area between Six Mile and Seven Mile roads.

“We’re going to have a microbrewer” in that area, said Arends. Perrin Brewery Co. will be on a 6.8-acre site at 5910 Comstock Park Drive and is planned to open as early as May. “They’ve started on that. That’s going to be interesting,” he said. A partnership of Randy Perrin and Jarred Sper, it will include a public tasting room. The brewery plans received unanimous approval of the township planning board in October.

Arends said Alpine Township has “the best of all worlds.” One advantage is that it is largely rural, yet its south boundary is about four miles from downtown Grand Rapids. It has close access to U.S. 131 on the east and I-96 on the south.

“I think being agricultural, and remaining agricultural, is a big plus,” he said. “We’re not trying to be Ann Arbor or whatever. We’re Alpine Township.”

The township lost population from 2000 to 2010, yet Arends said he believes the tax base went up and the number of businesses increased during the same period.

“I think it’s agriculture that probably saved us from some of the woes other communities have,” he said.

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