KALAMAZOO — Former Republican Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield has been named CEO of Southwest Michigan First, the economic development agency announced Thursday.
Chatfield is replacing Ron Kitchens, who resigned from the CEO role on Jan. 15 after 15 years to accept a similar position in Alabama. Managing Partner Carla Sones served as the interim CEO of the organization while the organization conducted a national search to replace Kitchens.
“I am looking forward to partnering with an amazing organization that’s focused on creating more opportunities and good paying jobs in our state and this region in particular,” Chatfield said in a statement. “There’s so much more we can do to grow and assist people in these challenging times. I’m ready to get to work with a very talented team that’s already serving on the frontlines and impacting people’s lives daily. I can’t wait to be in this community with my family and serve alongside this incredible team.”
Chatfield, who was based in Levering in Emmet County, served three terms as state representative. He was term limited out of office at the end of 2020.
In his last term, Chatfield supported the Regional Event Center Financing Act that was signed into law by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Dec. 30. The legislation gives several counties, including Kalamazoo, the option to create a new financing tool to fund an event center.
Chatfield told WWMT that constructing a new event center in downtown Kalamazoo will be one of his “first priorities” as the new leader of Southwest Michigan First. Plans for an event center in Kalamazoo have been talked about conceptually for the past two decades, but no formalized plans have ever been put forth, in part because of a lack of a funding source and community consensus, as MiBiz previously reported.
The 32-year-old former lawmaker was an athletic director, teacher and coach at Northern Michigan Christian Academy in Burt Lake before he was elected to the state legislature in 2014. He told WWMT that he would be moving to Kalamazoo with his wife and their five children in the coming weeks.
“We are proud to welcome Lee Chatfield to our team as CEO and are excited to work with him to do even more to improve our region and assist companies in creating Michigan jobs,” Southwest Michigan First Chairman Aaron Zeigler said in a statement. “Southwest Michigan First has had incredible leadership and success over the years, but we are eager to see Lee grow our company and expand our impact and footprint even more. We believe he has the right vision and work ethic to partner with our team to take us to new heights. We couldn’t be more excited.”