Before Flint made international news for its water crisis, the city and its surrounding area was experiencing somewhat of a comeback as unemployment fell and the region worked to diversify its economy. Now that the area is in the throes of one of the worst public health crises in American history, many Flint area businesses have been affected economically as well, according to Janice Karcher, vice president of economic development for the Flint and Genesee County Chamber of Commerce. Karcher spoke with MiBiz about her organization’s goals and how she hopes broader economic development strategies will result from the crisis.
How do you compare the economic conditions in the Flint area to the rest of Michigan?
Flint had to work harder at diversifying. That’s certainly been part of our goal to deliver support for our companies who may have historically been very focused on the auto industry. (We’re) supporting their goals to enter new markets and identify new customers. We’re also seeing a continued growth of destination health care and higher ed, with international student enrollment on the upswing. A number of specialties within our medical systems are attracting patients from outside the area.
How does the crisis presented by the lead-tainted water impact your organization’s economic development efforts?
Obviously, there’s a real impact in the effect that the water situation is having and it still remains to be fully defined in terms of the health implications of the water on the families of the city. We’ve seen from the survey work and the direct work we’ve done with businesses in the area that it’s really kind of had a two-pronged effect on them.
What do you mean by that?
It’s an unanticipated cost of the purchase of filters and bottled water, as well as just kind of a general economic slowdown based on people’s concerns about the water. Those two things have been the primary focus of our efforts with our businesses.
How is the perception impacting business attraction or retention efforts?
It certainly requires a lot more explaining with companies who do make contact with us. And on the other hand, we’re anticipating that there are projects that have been lost that we never knew about because they have not felt comfortable to reach out and get more information about the situation. But we are finding — and this is especially true for restaurants that really rely on the foot traffic and the confidence of the consumer — a lot of our restaurants and businesses are now receiving water tests with non-detectable levels and they are posting those on the front doors and really trying to get the word out that their water systems are back to normal.
As various levels of government continue to work on solutions to the crisis, does the Chamber envision a broader economic development plan for Flint being part of that?
The full commitment here is that (we need) to really ensure that the community comes out in a better situation than it was before this water crisis. There are a lot of needs in the community and there is an opportunity to tap into support for things that certainly help address economic and employment issues that have been affected by the water, but are bigger than the water situation.
How do you envision that working?
Our commitment to the community is that we work with partners throughout the (area) to try to tap into and utilize as many of those funding and programmatic resources as we can to make this a turning point for the community that continues to address issues of access, equity and community wealth-building. These kinds of things can really help the city change its trajectory.
In the short to mid term, what are some of the key resources you can tap into to address those issues?
(We’ve tried to reach) out proactively to all of the city of Flint businesses … to inform them not only of the bottled water distribution, but also of services that have been in existence and that we’re working to expand, like the Small Business Development Center, which received new funding from the SBA. There’s also the SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan program that now has people on the ground here consulting with and accepting individual company applications for loan funds. It’s part of an overall very proactive outreach to the businesses that have been most affected.
In your experience, what do those businesses need?
They have needs for practical things like cases of bottled water but also needs for business support that helps address marketing and communication needs and efficiencies they might be able to achieve in order to counter some of these unexpected costs.
Did the Democratic Party presidential debate earlier in March have any impact on Flint?
Absolutely. The hotel tax certainly saw a bump with the prep teams and the groups surrounding the candidates that were required to be here for multiple days to prepare for and wind down after. That was an economic impact we don’t yet have exact numbers for. We recognized here that it brought a lot of people to the community that had never been here before.
Interview conducted and condensed by Nick Manes. Courtesy photo.