Multiple initiatives and projects in Ottawa County next year will focus on retention and attraction of people to the area, according to County Administrator Al Vanderberg. With the lowest unemployment rate in Michigan (2.5 percent in December), the talent shortage is affecting companies on the lakeshore. Most projects Vanderberg is watching have some tie to the future prosperity of the county.
What are the big projects coming up next year?
We are implementing a public defender office. Basically, that’s like adding an almost 20-person law firm with 15 attorneys and some administrative staff to represent indigent folks with legal services. It’s a result of a state mandate, and they’re paying the cost for us to add this extra office, yet it’s a big undertaking. We’re in the early stages of that implementation.
We’re also working hard on our groundwater issues. Within the past year, Michigan State University completed a half million dollar study of groundwater in Ottawa County.
Most people wouldn’t think groundwater is an issue in West Michigan. How did the study come about?
It was sparked early on by a township that called because residents in two newer subdivisions went to take showers, and the water wouldn’t go on. What we found is that there’s been a 40-foot drop in static water level since 1975. In some parts of the county, we have the worst geology in the state for water. There will be a major effort that’s developed throughout the next year, both to see areas where we might be able to remediate, or at least equalize what comes out and what goes back into the ground, and probably will also feature a water conservation type of program.
What are the next steps for diversity and inclusion initiatives in Ottawa County?
It would involve hiring two people. A number of our largest employers have indicated that West Michigan and Ottawa County are not as welcoming as we could be to people who are different than the cultural norm. Ultimately, they’re having retention issues, some companies. They believe that their presence here could well be determined by how welcoming we are in the future. I think at first blush, people see this as a little controversial because they think of old quota programs and affirmative action, and a number of other things that really a lot of people in West Michigan, especially in Ottawa County, have a bad taste in their mouth for. This isn’t like that at all. We’re trying to be forward thinking as an organization and make sure that we remove potential blocks to our future prosperity as early as we can.
How will the county be involved in regional affordable housing conversations?
(Housing Next has) interviewed most of the major housing developers. The goal is to try to eliminate the gap that exists for developers when they can build a $500,000 home versus building an affordable home. It’s about a 35-percent gap in profit they can make. There’s people now who would like to buy smaller houses, so 800 square feet to 1,200 square feet on smaller lots, or maybe as part of developments. Currently, most of the land use and zoning plans don’t allow for that.
It’s a change in our culture that’s happening right now to see to what extent can cities and townships meet that growing demand in the future. Our major employers have told us that talent is their lifeline to the future. Talent resides in all different kinds of people. That’s why some of the diversity work is important for their future to keep providing jobs, hopefully for our kids and grandkids in the future as well.
How do you see the legalization of marijuana affecting the county?
The county doesn’t have a role to opt in or opt out, but the county sheriff has been a source of information. He was firmly opposed to the law passing. A majority of Ottawa County residents did vote against the marijuana law. Our position is mostly from concern about the likely impacts on society, on safety, on cost of government. Our sheriff has done a lot of study and has actually been to Colorado and looked at how that went down. Then also the ability to hold people personally responsible in traffic stops and all that type of thing isn’t there yet. There’s just a lot of concern about how it will impact operations, and what that could mean in terms of cost to our residents.
How does Ottawa County plan to address the ongoing talent shortage?
Thirty-five percent of our sheriff’s department could retire in four years, and other areas of the county and our department heads and our leadership all have that same kind of metric. That is a concern. When we look at the greater Ottawa County, we have a significant shortage of both skilled and unskilled labor. Diversity can play into it. Affordable housing can play into it. Transportation can play into it. Ultimately, groundwater — if we don’t approach this seriously and figure out some solutions, then we would be able to build less places for people to move to. All those things tie together with the shortage of labor county-wide. Lakeshore Advantage has been working on that, working with the Smart Coast summer intern program and Talent 2025.
Interview conducted and condensed by Sydney Smith.