Year In Review Part 1

December 27, 2011
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Nope, we’re still not out of the recession woods. But like any good parent hoping to placate antsy children on a seemingly endless trip, we would remind you that the journey is just as important as the destination.

So sit back and enjoy the scenery of 2011 as we speed into 2012, and remember that getting there is half the fun.

January

The year began with a milestone marker that will forever enhance West Michigan. The $286 million Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital opened, boasting more than 150 physicians with specialized training in providing medical and surgical care to children in more than 40 pediatric specialties. A special touch is the artwork inspired by youth that decorates the hospital’s 14 floors.

The industrial real estate market kept treading water, however, as the vacancy rate for leased industrial space in Kent County rose to 18.4 percent. Add in the second-highest rate of residential foreclosure sales in the county since 2004, plus a foreclosure sale on Bridgewater Place office tower and the sale and possible demolition of the former GM stamping plant in Wyoming, and a recipe for real estate disaster was brewing.

Another West Michigan stalwart, Steelcase Inc., added to the region’s manufacturing woes when it announced the closure of its Kentwood East plant and the elimination of 400 jobs. But analysts called the move “right-sizing” and predicted the office furniture manufacturer would right the ship in the near future.

Not all news in manufacturing was bleak. Knape & Vogt Manufacturing Co., one of West Michigan’s oldest manufacturing firms, announced it had acquired John Sterling Corp. of Richmond, Ill., a maker of functional and decorative home storage and organization products. The acquisition was K&V’s third since being acquired in 2006 by a Chicago private equity firm.

The state’s business sector also got a boost with new Gov. Rick Snyder assuming power in Lansing. The former business leader’s State of the State address tapped into the Business Leaders for Michigan playbook to help set the stage for his administration’s early strategy, which would eventually lead to the elimination of the Michigan Business Tax, incentivized service sharing among municipalities, and citizen-friendly balance sheets and benchmarking scorecards.

Closer to home, the Downtown Development Authority began its restructuring effort by tackling its Framing the Future plan, which called for the entity to become a “holding company,” or umbrella organization, for other downtown agencies.

February

Researchers at Van Andel Institute announced they had identified methods to expand the detection of genes in blood samples collected from newborns within two days of birth, opening an important avenue for clinical and translational research, especially in children’s health.

Perrigo Co. reported record revenue and earnings for the second quarter of fiscal 2011, with income reaching nearly $90 million. The OTC drug maker would embark on expansion of its Allegan headquarters later in the year.

Even farther south, Gun Lake Casino ended its 15-year odyssey with several grand openings that drew throngs of gamblers and the just plain curious. So many ribbon cuttings were held for so many groups participating in the construction, the casino literally ran out of ribbon.

The state’s Advanced Energy Storage technology, one of Snyder’s pet projects, got a boost when Holland’s Trans-Matic Manufacturing Co. entered into a global joint venture with Germany’s H&T Battery Components to manufacture metal containers for battery cells used in the new breed of electric and hybrid-electric vehicles.

The movie industry in West Michigan closed a “tremendously successful” 2010 with questions about funding as 2011 began, despite more than $300 million being spent on production in the state due to the 40 to 42 percent “refund” producers were getting in incentive credits. As 2011 closed, government officials and film industry advocates were still haggling over the incentive ceiling.

The month ended with a blockbuster of its own: One Kent Coalition unveiled plans that would produce “The Metropolitan Government of the City of Grand Rapids and Kent County.” One Kent, a private sector group comprised of business leaders and former government officials, touted cost savings from shared services by consolidating the city and county as the impetus behind this revolution that would play across West Michigan’s consciousness well into the fall season.

March

The health care industry took a major step forward, at least in the eyes of consumers, when Spectrum Health began offering custom hospital bill estimates, much the same way auto repair shops have done for years. Metro Health and Saint Mary’s were both considering software-based solutions that would provide similar information, and Metro also announced that ER patients could check on waiting times via text message.

Creative types rejoiced when the state’s first multi-company “design hub,” GRid70, ramped up for business. The Rockford Construction project leased much of the space to area heavyweights: Amway, Wolverine World Wide, Meijer and Steelcase.

Also hopping on the downtown development bandwagon was Locus Development, which picked up some of the state’s last historic tax credits for the $4.5 million renovation of the Flat Iron Building. Smith, Haughey, Rice & Roegge moved into the historic structure in November.

Muskegon County earned a $538,000 transportation grant to reconstruct the roads leading to the Bayer CropScience property on Whitehall Road, where Fortu PowerCell planned to break ground on a $623 million advanced battery plant, further strengthening the region’s AES capacity.

The earthquake and resulting tsunami that swept through Japan was felt on the shores of Lake Michigan, as well. “Japan is Michigan’s largest foreign investor, and a lot of that is the automotive industry,” said Tracy Miller, executive director of the Japan-America Society of West Michigan.

The West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce extended its reach by announcing it was targeting non-Hispanic firms for membership. Prospects within the Hispanic community multiplied, too, when the U.S. Census Bureau released a report indicating minority populations are growing throughout Kent County and that Hispanics comprised 16 percent of the total population, up from 13 percent in 2000.

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