Fremont's Ag Renaissance Zone is thrust into the limelight

December 7, 2009
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Representatives from the state of Michigan and from Nestlé, the giant Swiss multinational, will be in Fremont Tuesday morning to celebrate the grand opening of a 35,000-square-foot call center at Gerber Life Insurance.

"The governor is supposed to be here," said Fremont Mayor Jim Rynberg. "It's a wonderful event for Fremont. It shows that the community is alive and well, and there is a future for Gerber Life as part of the Nestlé company. It kind of cements that in place, and provides jobs for many, for years to come."

Nestlé Nutrition/North America, which acquired the Gerber baby food and life insurance businesses two years ago, will be represented by its CEO, Kurt Schmidt.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm is slated to be there because one year ago, the state of Michigan designated the Gerber facilities an Agricultural Processing Renaissance Zone, in return for a Nestlé commitment to invest $75 million there, creating 200 jobs over the next 10 years and retaining the 1,100 existing Gerber jobs.

The APRZ designation applies to a company's specific commercial facilities, as opposed to a defined geographic area. Property with an APRZ designation is not subject to state and local taxes for up to 15 years. (In the last three years, the taxes are phased back in.) Those taxes include the Michigan Business Tax, state education tax, personal and real property taxes, and local income taxes where applicable. The city, village or township in which an APRZ is located must approve the tax abatement.

Michigan now has 23 designated APRZs; 30 are allowed. However, legislation passed the House this fall to increase the allowed number to 40; it awaits the Senate's vote.

In Kent County, the Kellogg Co. has an APRZ in Grand Rapids. In Ottawa County, Leprino Foods in Allendale Township and Zeeland Farm Services in Zeeland Township are APRZs.

The program was established in 2000 to attract and retain agricultural processing operations through tax abatements.

Big business ‘gets it all’

"My accountant says, 'As long as you're paying taxes, you should be happy.' So I'm smiling about it, I guess …"

But it didn't sound like Arnaldo Rodriguez was smiling.

Rodriguez is the founder and president of Technical Professional Services Inc., an employment services firm based in Wayland that provides professional workers under contract, mainly to military bases and government agencies and institutions.

The firm, a small business, is paying taxes because it is doing well, despite the recession. Rodriguez had a staff of five in January; now it is up to nine. He started his business in 1983 but it really took off in 2003, when he began landing government contracts.

Rodriguez claims that "a lot of people are just bailing out" because of the business taxes in Michigan. He does business in 18 states, "and every state, except one, has welcomed us with open arms, wanting to know how they can help us be more efficient in their state.

"I've never received a phone call in the 25 years I've been in business from anybody from the state of Michigan," he said.

He believes Michigan is focused on big business alone, noting all the incentives offered to lure large companies here. "But they do nothing to help the businesses that have been here 20 years. They're apt to raise the taxes on you.

"Small businesses like myself, we're paying for them," he said, referring to large companies that accept tax credits and other incentives to set up shop in Michigan.

In Rodriguez' opinion, the state should tax new businesses like any other — but once a company has proven after a few years that it plans to stay and succeed, then the state could offer some sort of help to make sure it stays that way.

A real show stopper

In another one of those “only in West Michigan” kind of stories, Susan Carillo, a housekeeper at the Sleep Inn & Suites Grand Rapids Airport, became a hero when she found $25,000 in cash left in a guest room and had the integrity to turn it over to General Manager Katherine Clawson. The women thought it best to call the Kentwood Police Department.

An event promoter had left the hotel in a hurry that morning en route to Detroit after a (evidently successful) gig at a Grand Rapids area venue. The Kentwood Police Department restored the money to the promoter upon his prompt return to Grand Rapids. The Kentwood police officer told the hotel this was the largest amount he had seen turned in during his 11 years on the force. The promoter, who returned to the hotel last week for another stay, rewarded Carillo and Clawson with $100 each for their honesty.

The only hitch in the process: The promoter later realized after “further consideration and for security reasons,” he shouldn’t have authorized his name to be used in a gushing press release issued by A&M Hospitality, investors in the hotel. Fortunately for him, media outlets had recognized the risk and didn’t use his name in their reports.

Some green cutting

The U.S. Green Building Council West Michigan Chapter recently cut its executive director position, ending the two-year tenure of Linda Frey.

According to the organization’s newsletter, during her stay, Frey “led an outreach effort that doubled the organization’s membership, including growth in southwest and mid-Michigan. She expanded educational offerings, generated funding for a new website and significantly increased outreach to build new partnerships with allied associations and the media. (Frey) also increased our capacity through four major grants, the establishment of an internship program and found office space at the Grand Rapids Community College M-TEC building.”

Moving to the west

When Angel’s Thai Café opened at 136 Monroe Center on Friday, it came with the recognition by the business’s owners, Lang and Julie Lee, that Grand Rapids has much to offer over their previous operations on the southeast side of the state. The Lees recently relinquished their partnership in the Thai Express restaurants in Southfield and Detroit’s Greek Town in order to move to Grand Rapids and open a new restaurant.

Julie Lee indicated she has been watching Grand Rapids for several years. “I feel that Grand Rapids is the next up-and-coming metropolitan city. People here are really, really friendly, helpful and resourceful,” she said. The business incentives for the building renovation and signage were also a plus. The owners are enthusiastic about downtown Grand Rapids events as well, saying they are well organized and will be of benefit. The couple indicated being located directly across from Rosa Parks Circle offers a competitive advantage.

Stepping up for charity

Starting this week, employees at Reagan Marketing + Design will log miles on a new Steelcase Walkstation to boost support for TOMS Shoes.

TOMS Shoes and its founder, Blake Mycoskie, have a promotion that states when a customer buys a pair of TOMS shoes, the company will give a pair to a disadvantaged child.

RM+D, a Grand Rapids-based marketing communications firm, is participating in the walk-a-thon as one of three winners of a Walkstation, the integrated treadmill and desk created by Details, a Steelcase company.

“Our employees are health-conscious and have a well-developed sense of humor,” said Mary Reagan Shapton, who heads the company.

RM+D staff will participate in the walk-a-thon Dec. 7-18. For every mile walked, Steelcase will donate five dollars to Friends of TOMS, a nonprofit that gives additional aid to the communities served by TOMS Shoes. RM+D employees will take turns using the Walkstation from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. every workday during the 10-day walk-a-thon. Clients and visitors are invited to participate, as well.

The staff will blog ( and tweet about their experience (

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