Economic coalition launched

Regional economic development initiative announced on Friday

Gov. Rick Snyder, left, and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley address local leaders during the announcement of a regional economic and talent development initiative Friday at Staybridge Suites in Marquette. The coalition will be a private-sector effort focused on supporting the Upper Peninsula business environment. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — Political and business leaders have announced a new regionally focused private-sector economic development initiative to spur business growth as well as recruit and retain employees.

Gov. Rick Snyder and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley were on hand at Friday’s announcement at Staybridge Suites.

“This is a big positive step for the Upper Peninsula,” Snyder said. “The concept of having a regional organization, primarily led by the private sector, focusing on economic development is something that will pay huge dividends and benefits over decades to come.”

The key focus, he pointed out, is collaboration between communities.

“Your goal should be to say, ‘How do you create that critical mass by combining resources, by having access to more good people, talented people, great organizations, that you can go even faster?” Snyder said.

He acknowledged that won’t happen overnight, considering good economic development takes 10 to 15 years. However, he recommended staying the course.

“Stay focused,” Snyder said. “Do this for the long-term and you’ll see continuing great returns and great partnerships happening.”

Calley also agreed on the regional approach.

“A win in one region is a win in another part of the U.P. for so many different reasons,” Calley said.

The as-yet-unnamed coalition has a two-fold mission: to pursue and deliver new businesses and jobs to the U.P., and to recruit, train and retain employee talent for the region.

The start-up budget is $500,000, with the coalition continuing to seek financial support from U.P. companies and higher-education partners.

Initial investors include JM Longyear, mBank, Northern Michigan University, the Marquette Innovate SmartZone, the Veridea Group and Champion Inc.

The initiative also has the support from the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

Jennifer Nelson, executive vice president and chief business development officer of the MEDC, noted that people who select sites for company expansion projects have said one of the key distinguishing factors for their selections is a relationship with regional economic development organizations and working with local people.

“We want to continue to grow and expand that notion,” said Nelson, a graduate of Northern Michigan University.

Bob Mahaney, president at the Veridea Group and founding member of the new economic development organization, said the first question that came to his mind when the idea for the group came about was: Why another economic development organization in the Upper Peninsula?

At least 25 EDOs exist in the U.P., he said.

Mahaney said that in many ways, the U.P. economy is stronger than it’s ever been, with unemployment down and technology breaking down many traditional barriers to regional success.

However, challenges remain — challenges that Mahaney said have been around for decades.

He made note of major trends that are preventing the U.P. from reaching its full potential.

“Our population is decreasing,” Mahaney said. “At the same time, our labor force is decreasing at an even greater rate. When you couple that with the fact that the shift in our population — a greater and greater percentage of the Upper Peninsula population is non-labor force population due to retirement, of Baby Boomers aging, what have you — a number of our major employers have difficulty recruiting the appropriate talent base and the necessary numbers of employees that they need to fully realize their potential.”

Also, youths and college graduates continue to migrate away from the U.P., a trend the new coalition wants to reverse, he said.

Mahaney pointed out that although the regional EDOs have done good work, most are funded through the public sector and aren’t necessarily tasked to address those challenges.

“They have limited resources,” Mahaney said. “They lack funding and staffing to initiate and pursue new business attraction, especially on a regional basis.”

So, it was decided an EDO needed to be created for the entire U.P.

“We needed one with requisite resources, with proven expertise, knowledge and broad private sector support throughout the peninsula in order for us to be able to attract new business, new jobs and economic growth to the Upper Peninsula,” Mahaney said.

The new EDO will take a “holistic approach” to work in the best interests of the entire U.P. and would set aside parochial interests, he said. It also would closely with the MEDC and create mutually beneficial relationships with local EDOs.

Success of the new coalition, he stressed, would be measured by job, income and population growth.

“We will hold ourselves accountable,” Mahaney said. “We will deliver results.”

The goal is for the new EDO to be open for business “in a storefront” by this fall, although it is yet to be determined where it will be based, he said.

The coalition’s name will be revealed in June.

The new initiative’s stakeholders are formalizing its nonprofit status and will be managed by a small board of larger corporate investors. After starting a national or international search later this month, an executive director will be named this summer.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.