The seeds of a good path

November 24, 2008
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Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was correct last week in his assessment of the Detroit Big Three’s request for a federal bailout while facing certain bankruptcy. Without a change in direction, no amount of funds will save the U.S. auto industry from the vast costs willingly negotiated for payment by auto executives. It’s a policy and pattern long eschewed by the business brethren in the western part of the state it continues to bleed, and it has set the tone for decades of disagreement east and west.

At press time those negotiations were taking a more palatable turn, one that might include federal dollars but with stipulated change.

Some people sit on their thumbs; some (last week) were left sucking their thumbs on national television. The “climate” is different in the western region of Michigan where executives and economic development experts have been banking on the future with just-in-time changes to the economic landscape. And that will help this community pull through a storm of grave consequence. Business leaders, those who have become business leaders, have not been waiting for something to happen or for a handout for business as usual. This community has been in the process of reinventing itself, and the pages of the Business Journal likely magnify the extent of that success.

Little more than a week ago, executives of the national upscale department store Von Maur announced they would locate a store in the Village of Orchard Hills lifestyle center on the East Beltline. The company CFO noted the expectation that any current economic downturn would be past by the time the store opens. Why did they pick Grand Rapids? The diversified economy and the growth of life sciences. The medical profession remains stable in a downturn.

Several years ago, Cascade Engineering, a highly regarded plastics automotive parts manufacturer, began converting its teams to manufacture medical devices, and more recently rotor blades for Swift Wind Turbine, a company headquartered in Scotland. Cascade Engineering already has exclusive rights for production and distribution of the turbines in the U.S. and Canada. The first regional turbine was installed atop the Frauenthal Center in downtown Muskegon at the end of August.

Other area manufacturers, like Topcraft Metal Products, are reconfiguring their auto parts lines to serve the aerospace industry. Zeeland’s Medical Accessories & Research Corp. was formed by auto model makers now designing and building surgical training models for such firms as Medtronic and Johnson & Johnson.

Even the Grand Rapids Convention and Arena Authority took risks. Instead of lamenting the absence of bookings and an empty convention center, the group earlier this year planned their own event. Over the past weekend, wineries from across the country represented more than 700 labels in the first (annual) Wine and Food Symposium. The vineyards represented also included those of sister city Perugia, Italy.

An economic downturn hurts, but the point in West Michigan is that no progress is made while sitting and stewing or waiting for help.

And that’s a thumbs up.

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