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Sunday, 02 February 2014 14:31

Right Place plans to market West Michigan’s design competencies

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As The Right Place Inc. markets the region’s capabilities to expanding companies over the next three years, it plans to talk more about one of greater Grand Rapids’ key competencies: design.

In announcing a new three-year strategy to generate 5,500 new jobs, attract $390 million in capital investment and increase the regional payroll by $183 million, President and CEO Birgit Klohs said The Right Place must do a better job of refining the identity of the West Michigan region.

“We will continue to do attraction and retention and expansion work. That is the bread and butter of our organization,” Klohs said. “But this plan has a different time frame, structure and approach. Instead of just focusing on growth industries, we want to focus on foundations.”

These foundations include business support systems, quality of life, work-ready talent and infrastructure.

“Every regional economy has foundational elements, which are critical if economic growth is to occur,” Klohs said. “Without investing in and enhancing these fundamentals, West Michigan’s overall economic future is at risk.”

Previously, The Right Place operated with a five-year strategic plan. From 2008 to 2013, the organization says it helped to create 11,000 new jobs and add $790 million in capital investment in West Michigan. The Right Place achieved those outcomes by focusing on the region’s core industry strengths in advanced manufacturing, life sciences and biotechnology, agribusiness and food processing, Klohs said.

While the organization will continue to market those strengths, it’s also adding design to its list of core competencies.

The focus on design came about after a group of site selectors a year ago told The Right Place that they were struck with the region’s competency in commercial design, coupled with the strength of organizations such as the 900-member Design West Michigan and Kendall College of Art and Design, Klohs said.

“(The site selectors) said you have to figure out what you can do with that,” Klohs said.

While the impact of design is not easily measured because it is not tied to one specific sector, it’s clear that design factors into West Michigan’s economic vibrancy, said John Berry, executive director of Design West Michigan.

“The recognition of design as a fundamental building block of the economy in West Michigan has indeed taken root,” Berry said. “We look forward to helping (The Right Place) create supportive collateral material to tell that story to a much broader audience.”

Berry said he was not aware of any other regions in the U.S. that have design as a tenet of their economic development strategy.

“I credit Birgit with having the recognition several years ago of the importance of design,” he said, referring to The Right Place’s role in the founding of Design West Michigan.

Embracing design as a regional asset also coincides with The Right Place honing in on some of the region’s challenges. Alongside consultants from PricewaterhouseCoopers Diamond Advisory Services, The Right Place found that among other issues, the region faces a significant diversity and inclusion problem.

“What you’re seeing is over the last 30 to 40 years, economic development was focused on transactional work — very tactical kinds of work,” said Chris O’Brien, principal with PwC Diamond Advisory Services who helped lead a study of the region for The Right Place. “Now, there is much more of a trend to look at the holistic perspective and what we call horizontal economic development or the foundations.”

It’s no longer simply about attracting particular companies, he said.

“Companies are smarter now and need to know what the region can offer them, not just from the financial incentives perspective, but from the ability to hire the right people to the quality of life and infrastructure,” O’Brien said. “There is a great deal of emphasis on the emerging strength and importance of horizontal factors like quality of life, and that served as the background for a lot of things we’re (studying) here.”

In comparison to other peer cities including Indianapolis, Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Portland, PwC researchers found diversity and educational attainment lagged in West Michigan.

“From our view, this is something that needs attention,” O’Brien said. “It’s one thing to have an identifiable culture, but it’s another thing when it feels difficult for others to penetrate, and that is critical to entrepreneurship and grassroots jobs creation.”

While the region has benefited from strong philanthropic contributions, West Michigan can’t count on it to continue forever, O’Brien noted.

On a positive note, O’Brien praised efforts like Start Garden and other entrepreneurial support organizations taking root in West Michigan. However, the entrepreneurial space needs more insulation with a fleshed-out ecosystem of resources and more opportunities and avenues for venture capital at all stages, he said.

“Venture capital and mentoring is important to focus on because as a region with a number of big companies, you don’t want to become top heavy,” O’Brien said. “What draws entrepreneurs and fledgling companies are the support systems.”

Still, before the region can fully support a thriving startup culture, efforts to repair and enhance existing infrastructure need to occur.

Klohs said if a region doesn’t have sound infrastructure, it just doesn’t play in the economic development game.

“It’s got to be there and it’s got to be world-class,” she said.

While foundational issues such as infrastructure and quality of life will take on a more prominent role in The Right Place’s new plan, it is also focused on investing in the maker ethic of manufacturing, driving opportunities in agribusiness and continuing to develop the region into a hub for health sciences, Klohs said.

“This is really where the rubber meets the road for us,” she said.

MiBiz Managing Editor Joe Boomgaard contributed to this report

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