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Tuesday, 23 December 2014 08:29

Chamber Outlook: Chambers expect increased capital investment, new projects leading 2015

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While talent development and some legislative reforms may prove to be challenges, West Michigan chambers of commerce executives feel confident looking ahead to 2015 as they project increased business investment in their individual communities.

For Muskegon, leaders are optimistic about “a lot of strategic growth” among member businesses “that’s a little different than in the past,” said Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce.

“People are being very thoughtful with investment,” she said.

Whereas companies have been slow to invest during the recovery, some businesses are now beginning to spend with more confidence by making strategic investments in facilities, technology and talent, Larsen said.

Despite the positivity, the challenge comes back to talent, a common theme among executives across West Michigan. With local businesses in a hiring mode, some firms are leaning on the chambers to help source quality talent and retain the workers they have.

“The biggest challenges are going to be in talent development,” Larsen said. “We’re bringing in young people with technology skills that the older workers don’t have. But the older workers have the experience that younger generation doesn’t. So there’s training required all the way around.”

For the Muskegon chamber, the solution lies with increased funding for training. While training grants have steadily increased, the funding has yet to reach pre-crash levels in Muskegon, Larsen said. With Gov. Rick Snyder’s new term purportedly focused on talent retention and development, Larsen believes the state should focus on finding ways to increase funding for training programs.

Beyond training dollars, the state should also look at policies that will encourage training and skill development throughout the K-12 and higher education programs and provide resources to connect new people to the community, said Rick Baker, president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

Talent attraction and development goes beyond regional and even national boundaries, Baker said. For West Michigan to remain competitive, communities and businesses need to focus on attracting highly skilled immigrant workers, and that requires a more robust visa program that will help them stay.

“Immigration is important,” Baker said. “We have highly intelligent people that we want to keep in our communities and help fill the positions we have.”

Sweeping improvements to infrastructure and a long-term transportation strategy would help retain and attract the talent that West Michigan companies desperately need, Baker said. While Grand Rapids has made inroads with the extended streets millage, there’s more to be done, he said.

“At the local level, I think Grand Rapids took some steps to put in a reliable funding source for streets, but we need to kick that up to a federal level,” Baker said. “And it goes beyond that to developing waterways, deepwater harbors and other infrastructure.”

But amid these challenges, the overall feeling of optimism has been reflected in chamber membership, which continues to grow across the board, sources said. The economy’s slow and steady rise encouraged a number of new and existing businesses across various industries to join local their local chamber — a trend that all leaders surveyed for this report expect to continue.

In particular, Grand Rapids has seen an influx of minority-owned businesses joining its ranks, Baker said.

“We’re seeing a growth in minority owned businesses in the community and being involved in the chamber, so we’re ramping up the programs getting them involved,” Baker said.

For the many of the chambers, new projects will also be among the key drivers for their communities going into 2015. Along the lakeshore, Jane Clark, president of Holland-based Michigan West Coast Chamber of Commerce, hopes to see the city’s new SmartZone take shape.

“We have to hope that in the lame duck session, Holland’s new SmartZone will be approved by the state Legislature,” Clark said. “That will allow for some terrific developments around the waterfront for technology-based companies.”

Further north, the Muskegon chamber plans to capitalize on the community’s water resources to drive growth into the next year and beyond, Larsen said. Dubbed the Blue Economy, community organizations are focusing on forming a long-term plan to develop the Port of Muskegon — the region’s only deep water port — and the area’s beachfront to attract new businesses, tourism, talent and new investment.

“The Blue Economy is still core to developing the economy in the future,” Larsen said. “It’s the overriding theme in Muskegon where it means increased tourism because of the lakeshore and more manufacturing activity because of the port and quality water systems.”

The regional focus on new projects, talent development and business growth has pushed West Michigan into the national spotlight, sources said. As these efforts continue, the chamber leaders are confident that more businesses and talent will be attracted to the area.

“Grand Rapids is on its way to being one of the top-of-mind communities in the nation,” Baker said. “The city is ratcheting up very quickly. I get emails from people every week wanting to move here and connect.”

Read 3001 times Last modified on Thursday, 01 January 2015 12:29

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