After 12 years leading economic development in the city of Grand Rapids, Kara Wood will join Western Michigan University as an associate vice president for community partnerships on Oct. 7. Wood, a WMU alumna who currently serves as the managing director of economic development services for the city of Grand Rapids, will work with university leadership to advance corporate engagement in areas including research, economic development and talent development. The city has appointed Jono Klooster as acting director of economic development services in Wood’s place. Wood spoke with MiBiz about how economic development has evolved in Grand Rapids, with a focus on collaboration and equity.
What will your new position with WMU entail?
I’m excited about this new opportunity in higher education and the role that they play in the state economy. It’s a great opportunity that builds on my education and 20 years of experience in state and local government and specifically economic development. I’ll be leading the university’s efforts to engage and develop collaboration with community partners, both locally and regionally, and advance corporate engagement in areas that include research, economic development and talent development. In addition, I’ll be working to create public impact through new student, faculty and staff engagement opportunities and the communities we serve.
Why is this the right time for you to make the transition?
It’s interesting. I never thought I would have to leave my dream job, nor did I think that there was anything beyond that, but I guess it’s just a great time for me as a professional, because I’ve spent 12 years here at the city and I’m mobile, I’m still young and I have a lot of energy to tackle another challenge ahead.
How did the city approach economic development when you were first hired?
Things were very different. We were entering into a recession and the focus was on the retention of the existing businesses and really keeping projects that were underway afloat during a difficult financial time. Fortunately, the way the economy in Grand Rapids and the region is diversified, we weathered the recession very well.
How has economic development evolved since the recession?
There’s been more of a real estate development focus as part of our economic development efforts. We’re finding that industrial businesses have struggled to grow in their current locations because of physical location constraints and as a result, we saw during that time of recession a lot of manufacturers moving out to the suburbs and residential housing taking its place — the redevelopment of old manufacturing facilities into residential housing.
Also, more creative redevelopment has occurred as a result of the density increasing in the city. We’ve gotten really creative about reusing buildings. We’re also looking at more equitable approaches to economic development, focusing on supporting people that live in the city, supporting entrepreneurs and small businesses that haven’t traditionally been part of our focus in the past.
You’ve been very involved in equitable development efforts. Where will you leave those?
The Equitable Economic Development and Mobility strategic plan is still underway. It’s entering into the tail end of it. We’re going through some focus group sessions and drafting some strategic objectives and the strategies that would be executed. It’s looking like the department will be able to wrap that up yet this calendar year and make a presentation to the City Commission.
Why has equity been such a focus recently?
It’s certainly a priority of the mayor’s and was during her first election. In the last five to six years, the city has placed a higher priority on citizen input, so placing more decision making in the hands of community and allowing input to influence policy decisions, which I think is critical to create a place that people want to live, because they know that their voice is being heard. If in fact we’re going to be successful, we need to make sure that we’re meeting the needs of our residents. … We asked the question, ‘Who is going to live there? Who is going to work there? Who is going to build it?’ And if the answer to that question is none of our residents, then is it really a project that the city should be investing in?
What strides have been made in business development?
I’m most proud of the work we did to support the organization and growth of the neighborhood business districts that have now developed into corridor improvement authorities. That was really critical during a time when we were going through that recession and the organization of those neighborhood business districts reinstilled the city’s commitment to them. Then ultimately, that has grown into support for local small businesses and companies that are located in those neighborhoods. Atomic Object is a good example of a startup company that has grown in a neighborhood business district. The growth of those small businesses has been really critical, but I would say that even earlier in this job, I spent a lot of time getting those neighborhood business districts organized. Now they’re flourishing and the city is reinvesting in those districts, allowing them to decide how they want to spend their resources.
Is Grand Rapids in a good position to address its continued growth?
I would say yes … because we have evolved to become a really amazing arts, education, culture and entertainment hub of the region. As that becomes known, people will want to live here. The employers will be compelled to somehow attract people that live here to work for their businesses, because this is where people will want to live.
What will the next person in your position at the city need to focus on?
Wrapping up the Equitable Economic Development and Mobility strategic plan and making sure that that aligns very closely with the city’s strategic plan, then building a budget around executing that. Also managing all of the economic development projects that come as a result of the continued growth of the city’s economic development efforts that support a growing population and economy. We have a very small, but very mighty staff and we execute a lot of projects with very few resources. That is a major challenge.
An upcoming challenge will be to support growing companies with workforce needs. As companies need more people, how are we ensuring that we’re the place that they can accomplish that and not have to open another location or move their business elsewhere to find the talent that they need to succeed? The key to the future will be making sure to leverage the existing partnerships and resources in the region and not duplicating any of that activity, but collaborating.
Any parting words of wisdom?
I think the city has a really bright future, and I can’t understate the importance of collaboration and connectivity. We need to continue to find ways to strengthen partnerships for the benefit of the city’s residents.