The communities of Battle Creek and Kalamazoo have had their share of differences over the years, but according to the two top economic developers in the region, the pair are finding ways to collaborate like never before. The reason, they say, is that what’s good for the region is most often good for their individual communities in the end. MiBiz sat down separately with Southwest Michigan First CEO Ron Kitchens and Karl Dehn of Battle Creek Unlimited to explore how the two areas both collaborate and compete. For more stories from our special Kalamazoo/Battle Creek section CLICK HERE.
Describe the differences between the workforces in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek.
RON KITCHENS: I think the one big thing that Kalamazoo has is an abundance of college students. Because of the presence of Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo Valley Community College and Kalamazoo College, we have more than 50,000 college students, and that’s a big differentiator right there — and that also differentiates us from most places in the world. We also have more national and regional corporate headquarters here, which gives us a more diverse workforce. I think the boundaries between the two communities are much more geopolitical rather than a function of the difference in people. We have a lot of people who work in Battle Creek and live in Kalamazoo and a lot of people who live in Kalamazoo and work in Battle Creek. I think the differences in the two communities are mostly historical. Thirty miles used to be a long way and people never used to drive that far. From a business community and cultural standpoint, we really are one regional employment base.
KARL DEHN: Kalamazoo has a somewhat different employer base and the presence of Western Michigan University. Anytime you have a four-year institution of that size, it has a pretty big imprint in terms of population and size. Kalamazoo certainly has a major presence in life science and pharmaceuticals, and Battle Creek has a group of food-related businesses, most notably the Kellogg Co. And we have a large presence in food science and food processing. We also have a large group of Japanese manufacturers related to automotive plastics and automotive fabricating. It’s just the way the community has developed over the years.
How are the two communities working together on economic development?
KITCHENS: We’re collaborating on everything we can find. We’re jointly marketing the communities together. However, that doesn’t mean we’re not competing for deals. We’re working closely on areas like urban strategies. We have five or six people representing Battle Creek now on our board of directors. It’s not just Karl and I. Whether it’s our procurement center or our urban strategy folks, we all work together and take the “no credit, no blame” approach. Some things we take the lead on and some things we support. (We) want to actively support the military mission in Battle Creek and WMU’s presence there. That growth helps us all.
DEHN: We are the two largest economic development organizations in this region, and the one thing that’s been ongoing is working as a region with all of the economic developers and the communities. Representatives from all of those entities meet on a monthly basis with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. or Michigan Works! to communicate the needs of the region. Economic developers hear about best practices and also talk about projects that may be going on around the region. As a region, our group has studied the demographics and shared information that may be of benefit. In the future, there will be opportunities to do studies and other things that will generate information and knowledge. We have been discussing workforce development and education much more, and in the future, there will be more workforce development regionally. We all have individuals who are commuting to other communities to work.
How do you balance the need to cooperate with the need to compete?
KITCHENS: Our board of directors has been very clear that a win in Battle Creek is a win in Oshtemo, Portage or anywhere else in the region. We work with private developers to create jobs in the region. We share all of our proposals and we are very good at generating opportunities. Everyone is represented fairly, squarely and evenly.
When we get cases where the attraction side is easy, the company will come in and (describe) their ideal location. It’s usually based around geography, transportation or a building. We focus on assets that will create a win.
DEHN: I think when people look at a regional approach to anything, they need to recognize that they’re still accountable to doing what’s best for their community. For Battle Creek Unlimited, Battle Creek is the focus. It’s important to choose things regionally, but if there’s something in conflict, we would choose not to participate. Doing everything regionally might not be in everybody’s best interest, but there aren’t a lot of instances of that. It’s OK for us to compete, particularly if there’s a business that may be considering multiple locations. In the end, if one community is no longer under consideration, it’s still good for the region to have those projects occur. If it’s not going to be in Battle Creek, it’s still great to have it in the region.
What’s the one business in Battle Creek that you’d like to have in Kalamazoo?
KITCHENS: Everybody in the world would say the Kellogg Co. and Kellogg really is a regional company. We have several advertising agencies and paper companies that work a lot with Kellogg, which means we all win. What’s the one business in Kalamazoo that you’d like to have in Battle Creek?
DEHN: You could probably go to hundreds of Michigan communities and say you would like to have a specific company that they have. We have a very good group of employers in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, and they provide an economic impact to both communities.
How close are perceptions to reality for each community?
KITCHENS: There’s people who went to high school in each place and their perception is based on what happened at a community football game on a Friday night 30 years ago. Business people don’t talk about that. Battle Creek and Kalamazoo are all one place to me and West Michigan is all one place. Are there Friday nights when we compete? Absolutely. But, it’s really all about acquisition and accordance.
DEHN: I don’t know what the perception is to the general public. There have been years of on-again, off-again cooperation and competition. I don’t let that stop me from looking for opportunities to collaborate. We look at the right opportunities for collaboration and partnership.
Interviews conducted and condensed by Jane C. Simons.