BATTLE CREEK — The adage that “change is the only constant” has proved true for one economic development organization in Southwest Michigan.
While President and CEO Marie Briganti’s abrupt departure after 14 months at Battle Creek Creek Unlimited left a hole in the leadership of the economic development firm, it also comes on the heels of what’s been a tumultuous two years for the organization.
Executive churn, a well-publicized spat over a lease deal with Arcadia Brewing Co. in downtown Battle Creek and the surprise announcement of WKW Roof Rail Systems LLC’s plant closure at the Fort Custer Industrial Park has created uncertainty among supporters of BCU, said Jim Hettinger, who led the organization for 30 years.
Moreover, Hettinger said events over the last two years have tarnished BCU’s reputation within the business community and could slow future investment in Battle Creek.
“This poses some issues, not just for BCU but the perception of the city,” Hettinger told MiBiz. “A lot of the private sector wonders what’s going on with BCU, and that impacts their willingness to invest in Battle Creek. BCU, for 30 years, was a stable entity that outside and insider investors could rely on. That luster is not there anymore.”
Hettinger retired from BCU in 2009 and was replaced by long-time executive Karl Dehn, who led the organization until September 2014 when he resigned and took a job with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Hettinger then returned as interim director at BCU until the organization recruited Briganti in May 2015.
At the time of Briganti’s hire, BCU stakeholders were optimistic for the future of the organization because of her strong international ties to Japan and Italy (where she held dual citizenship), according to reports at the time.
However, Hettinger said Briganti was quickly burdened with a to-do list of administrative tasks ranging from reducing the size of BCU’s board from 40 members to 15 members, to transferring downtown development efforts to the city’s control.
“Towards the end of my interim stint, I developed a list of what needed to be done prior to the new person coming in, but the board deferred action to the new person,” Hettinger said. “That might have been a mistake because she was overwhelmed with problems when she came in (and) probably spent too much time trying to find answers.”
For its part, BCU remains highly optimistic about the future of the organization.
“In the short term, we have a great staff and some highly talented and long-tenured employees,” said Joe Sobieralski, vice president of BCU. “We’re going to focus on talent attraction and retention efforts in place and make sure that all tenants at the (Fort Custer Industrial) Park are happy and push forward as if there isn’t anything missing.”
Sobieralski is currently leading the day-to-day operations of BCU until the board appoints an interim president.
When asked if he would like to take over the organization, Sobieralski declined to comment.
Alhough Hettinger stepped in during the last leadership change, “under no circumstances” would he consider taking over as interim director this time around, he said.
A new appointment to lead BCU is expected to come shortly, according to a July 1 report in the Battle Creek Enquirer.
Meanwhile, as the search for a new director continues, bids hang in the balance for large business attraction projects such as luring a $3 billion missile defense system to the Fort Custer Training Center — which will require strong economic development representation to win, Hettinger said. The facility was one of three finalists for the system, according to reports.
“You need a constant drumbeat and that’s not happening right now,” Hettinger said. “Battle Creek is going to have trouble attracting the anti-missile system. The people in New York are really active in this. It’s a dogfight and we better keep a dog in that fight.”