Arn Boezaart is retiring from the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center on June 30, where he’s served as director for the last five years. Grand Valley State University’s MAREC struggled at its inception, but has since gained footing through its research partnerships and economic development activities as a business incubator. Boezaart sat down with MiBiz to discuss the center’s next chapter.
There were high hopes for MAREC when the project launched, but even early on, it faced criticism from the Muskegon community. Do those challenges still exist?
When I walked in, in April of 2009, the place was not in good shape. It had essentially gone dormant and the community was really dissatisfied. I was working with the community foundation before coming to MAREC, which was sort of a second-tier stakeholder in the project, so I was familiar with its circumstances. Over the last several years, I’ve really made it my business to be very community-engaged, and I think that has paid dividends.
I think the development of the business incubator in a serious fashion was one. There was some activity before I arrived, but it wasn’t publicly operated and was something that fit the needs of those before me. I think now we’ve created a really serious incubator that helps accelerate and grow businesses. We also brought the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) inside MAREC. It sort of used to hover in the community, but I said, ‘That belongs inside this building.’ That has been helpful and really gave MAREC a business resource.
And the Muskegon Inventors Network is there now as well.
I invited those guys to come in and now they meet every month at MAREC. It’s a great collaborative kind of engagement and adds to the atmosphere of innovation and technology.
Does MAREC operate differently today from when it started?
There is a change. When I arrived, the emphasis was very much on alternative and renewable energy in a sort of narrow focus. So it was all about renewables and we moved ahead in that direction. We did a number of things and the big project I’m still working on is the offshore wind project. Now, what’s happened since is the Snyder administration has circled back to take a serious look at how to use those 14 (Smart Zone) locations to advance his agenda, which is jobs, technology development, business development and making a more advanced economy.
So how have MAREC’s goals changed?
While MAREC will continue to be about renewable energy, I really saw the light that what MAREC needs to be fundamentally is an economic development initiative. It is not fundamentally a research center on renewable energy. It’s not fundamentally an academic unit of Grand Valley. By virtue of its partnerships, MAREC is meant to be an economic development initiative that was designed to come behind the shutdown of Continental Motors. I remind people sometimes that that site used to employ 7,000 people. Right now, everything added, best guess: There (are) about 110 working on the site. So we have a ways to go.
Despite the challenges, how does MAREC move forward to do its part in helping Muskegon continue its revitalization?
Development of property is fundamentally challenging. MAREC doesn’t have the industrial presence, connectivity and the big names that my colleagues at Next Energy do. As much as we like to talk about West Michigan, some people don’t think of Muskegon as a hub of technology, and really Muskegon isn’t Grand Rapids. So the whole Muskegon equation is kind of difficult. Muskegon is working on redefining itself once more. What the community in Muskegon is confronted with is business diversity. Muskegon also has some very serious legacy problems.
What does that mean for the next director for MAREC?
To keep MAREC in the conversation, the new director has to be cognizant of that history and be prepared to engage with the city, the property holders and of course the university to have MAREC be a worthwhile enterprise.
Interview conducted and condensed by Elijah Brumback. MiBiz file photo: Elijah Brumback.