Economic Development, Government, and Lakeshore

Diversity is a challenge in Ottawa

April 17, 2015
| By Pete Daly |
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The State of Ottawa County 2015 address made by the county administrator makes it clear: It has a lot going for it but more effort is needed to encourage and promote diversity.

For the sake of continued economic growth, Ottawa needs to promote an environment where all types of people are welcome and will want to stay there. That was the conclusion of Administrator Al Vanderberg’s annual address to the County Board of Commissioners last week.

“It is clear. Ottawa County has a lot going for it,” said Vanderberg, and he highlighted those pluses in the first few pages of his address. At the end, however, he issued a challenge for improvement.

“We are faced with an ugly challenge. I have listened to the CEOs of some of West Michigan’s top (corporations) state that an inability to attract and retain global talent and create diverse teams in the future could lead to the relocation of corporate headquarters or company divisions to areas such as Chicago,” said Vanderberg.

He went on to say that talent can be homegrown, “but the competition to lure global talent is happening, and it will only intensify. The future prosperity of West Michigan hinges upon eliminating racism and discrimination. We must pursue and welcome diversity — including the full range of human differences, such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, religion, ability and more.

“Our vision is that Ottawa County is the location of choice to live, work and play. We will fail unless we also create an Ottawa County where all people want to stay.”

Indeed, Ottawa County does have a lot to recommend it. From 2010 to 2014, it was the fastest-growing county in Michigan with population growth of 4.7 percent — more than half of that from migration into the county.

It ranks as Michigan’s healthiest county in 2015, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Since the rankings began in 2010, Ottawa has taken that top honor three out of the six years.

Since 2006, crime has dropped 30 percent.

The Ottawa County general property tax levy, at 3.6 mills, is the fifth lowest in the state — but second lowest when factoring in additional county millages.

It holds two triple A credit ratings.

Property tax value (excluding values under appeal) is predicted to increase 4 percent in 2015. If that proves true, the county’s taxable value will exceed the 2009 pre-recession peak, and Vanderberg noted many Michigan counties are not predicted to return to pre-recession property values until 2020 or later.

Last year, the Holland-Grand Haven area was ranked 29th in the nation for Best Performing Large Cities by the Milken Institute. It ranked second in the nation for short-term job growth, comparing August 2013 to August 2014.

The Holland and Grand Haven state parks are among Michigan’s top attractions. Holland State Park ranks second with about 1.9 million visitors annually while Grand Haven State Park is fifth with 1.5 million.

Among four improvement initiatives begun by the county three years ago is the Cultural Intelligence Initiative, which promotes an environment where all employees, residents and visitors are valued and welcome, according to Vanderberg.

“We believe our employees can make an enormous difference,” said Vanderberg. “Last year we embarked upon a training partnership with the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance. To date, 507 Ottawa County employees have participated in the racial equity training. These will continue until all staff have been reached. The training builds understanding, shows how we can work to eliminate the impacts of unintentional bias and focuses on solutions for diversity challenges. During this year, we will further enlist the support of the alliance to explore where bias exists within our organization and how it can be eliminated.”

He noted that Theodore Roosevelt “dealt with similar issues as new waves of immigrants from Western Europe experienced discrimination from the well-established population. During this time he said, ‘This country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in.’ Likewise, Ottawa County will not be a good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a good place for all of us to live in.”

Vanderberg, who has been the county administrator for more than 11 years, has been a member of LEDA’s CEO Advisory Council, which holds a major conference each year.

“These are the real conversations that are happening,” he said, referring to his remark that he has heard local CEOs express concern about the ability to attract and retain global professional talent.

Herman Miller, of Zeeland, is the second-largest employer in Ottawa County, with almost 4,000 employees.

Abe Carrillo, director of inclusiveness and diversity at the company, said, “Inclusiveness and diversity has been a longstanding strategic focus at Herman Miller. We have a tremendous opportunity in valuing diversity and working together to create a welcoming community that enables us to attract and retain the best global talent.

“As our CEO, Brian Walker, has stated, ‘Inclusiveness and diversity — words we’ve had at Herman Miller for years and ideas we’ve honored here for decades — have become the best way we know how to build a lasting and resilient community. Inclusiveness and diversity aren’t guaranteed. We will advocate for them and use them to take advantage of the human potential in each one of us.’”

Bruce Los, who has a business consulting firm called softArchitecture and for years was the head of human resources at another of the largest manufacturing companies in Ottawa County, said, “Many organizations and companies throughout West Michigan have chosen to use diversity training as a way of sensitizing their people about bias.

“While this may be a polarizing issue for some, Al has done a great service to our region with this training initiative for the 1,200 employees within Ottawa County government.”

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