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Sunday, 05 August 2012 22:20

Q&A: Ron Kitchens, CEO, Southwest Michigan First

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Q&A: Ron Kitchens, CEO, Southwest Michigan First PHOTO: Ryan Pavlovich

As one of the most public evangelists for Southwest Michigan, Ron Kitchens serves as the face of economic development in a region that continues to have its share of successes. Western Michigan University is planning a new medical school in the heart of Kalamazoo, the region's life sciences community continues its development, food-processing companies remain key employers and it's hard to think of Kalamazoo without acknowledging its core group of breweries. In conjunction with a special focus section on Kalamazoo, MiBiz met with Kitchens to get his read on the region and its prospects.


What's the state of the economy in Kalamazoo and greater Southwest Michigan?

We're seeing great growth. I know it's not particularly politically correct in campaign season and with all that's going on in Europe to be so optimistic. But we're seeing unemployment drop. If you're educated, if you have the ability to pass a drug test, your opportunities to get a job are pretty strong right now.

Southwest Michigan has produced some significant news lately with the creation of the Western Michigan University Medical School, Kellogg Co. acquiring Pringles, and others. What does it mean for the region?

Sometimes we forget the human component of (expansions or acquisitions). There will be hundreds of new people in our community, from Battle Creek to Portage to Mattawan. There will be new executives and their families, and that's a really important thing for us as we continue to grow our existing companies.

Wall Street has been speculating that Pfizer Animal Health will be spun out in an IPO. How will that potential development impact Southwest Michigan?

I think it means good growth for this region. I think we'll see new investment in animal health. It will result in an increase in people and, I think, facilities. They will not grow in an exponential way. Companies can do things so much faster with smaller space. We'll see less construction and more head count. On the animal health side, this is a legacy for us, so we never feel confident or cocky, but ... we're cautiously optimistic that this is going to mean significant growth.

What if the company has plans outside of Southwest Michigan?

It's not the future that scares me, it's the status quo.

In your discussions with local companies, what are they telling you keeps them up at night?

There are two issues we're hearing out of companies: the shortage of talent – which always happens when the economy starts going back up after a recession – and utility rates. We have the highest rates of anyone around us in the Midwest, and we hear that much more than labor costs or perceived union issues.

When companies are looking to expand or relocate to Southwest Michigan, are they finding the right options for commercial or industrial real estate?

For the first time in five or six years, companies are not even starting out looking at existing buildings. They're saying, 'We need to see raw land.' And we're seeing it all over West Michigan. I think we'll see really good commercial construction.

What is it about the region that it seems to be a hub for the craft beer industry?

We've got five or six national beer players looking not just in Kalamazoo, but really in West Michigan and east Illinois. It's probably grandiose to say it's the new wine country, but there seems to be something in this new beer tourism. It's exciting and fun. Consumer products are always more fun than proteins and hips and knees.

The new regional economic development strategy from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. has led Southwest Michigan First to take on new partners and switch to economic gardening. What does the business community need to know about this new focus?

We're much less interested in developing new industry sectors than we are in taking our core, historical business sectors and making sure that we're bringing innovation in there to advance them.

Your organization has also shifted to a focus on education and urban strategies. Where are you going?

Never before have we focused on education, urban strategies or governmental costs. We had just kept focused on the end result. Now, it's very clear to us that if we want to provide the workers for the future, that talent is here in this community today ... but we're not keeping them. We've got to integrate with the business community and education. If we don't integrate that and figure out a way to do it cost effectively, we're going to continue to produce a product that is consumed elsewhere.

Read 3755 times Last modified on Tuesday, 21 August 2012 09:31

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