Published in Economic Development

In shift to private sector model, Muskegon Area First takes more proactive role

BY Sunday, June 23, 2019 07:00pm

MUSKEGON — Jim Edmonson’s return to a position he first held 15 years ago provides momentum for Muskegon Area First, whose directors are planning for the future after restructuring the economic development organization into a private-sector-led model.

A part-time seasonal resident of West Michigan who splits his time between Muskegon and Baton Rouge, La., Edmonson previously ran Muskegon Area First from 2004 to 2007. 

Jim Edmonson, CEO, Muskegon Area First COURTESY PHOTO

Earlier this year, directors hired his consulting firm, Baton Rouge-based Edmonson Associates, to help restructure and transition the economic development organization. They ended up hiring Edmonson to lead the new version of Muskegon Area First.

Edmonson gives Muskegon Area First a CEO with deep experience who’s well acquainted with both the organization and the market, said Mike Olthoff, board chairman at Muskegon Area First and CEO of Norton Shores-based Nichols Paper & Supply Co. 

“Who better? What we wanted to do was to hit the ground running,” Olthoff said. “As we thought about this, and as we thought about moving this organization forward, we thought who’s a better person to do it right now than Jim?”

Edmonson has worked for 43 years in economic development. Prior to his first time with Muskegon Area First, he served as director of community and economic development for the City of Muskegon from 1993 to 1997.

Edmonson committed to serving up to two years as president and CEO of Muskegon Area First, which had been largely led and funded by the public sector.

In the prior structure, Muskegon Area First was supported by service fees and memberships paid by cities, villages and townships in Muskegon County that held a majority of seats on the board of directors. Most directors now come from the private sector.

His initial months will focus on establishing the new organization, which retains ties with local governments in Muskegon County. He’ll work to secure financial support and memberships from businesses in the area that want to support economic development.

Edmonson views his role as working to get the new iteration of the economic development organization off the ground, stabilizing it and putting it in a position to hire his successor. He aims to create “a solid base for whoever comes in (after him) so they’re not struggling with trying to do two critical things at the same time: Learn the people and the players, stakeholders and the community, and to raise funds.”

“That would be difficult,” Edmonson said.

Shifting roles

The previous board of directors at Muskegon Area First, first formed in 1999, began to explore a transition after former President and CEO Ed Garner left in October 2017 for a position at the Michigan Small Business Development Center. Interim President and CEO Darryl Todd led the organization through the transition planning process and remains on staff to work on business and talent development.

By restructuring Muskegon Area First, “our goal is to make it a much more alive organization” that takes a more proactive posture toward economic development, Olthoff said. The organization wants to break beyond the traditional role of business recruitment and retention.

“What else can be developed here? We need to be looking outside of what we’re currently doing,” Olthoff said. “We’re not just looking for manufacturers, and it’s not going to be, ‘Hey, we’re hanging out our shingle here. Anybody and everybody: Come one, come all.’ Of course, the door is always open, but we want to be fairly targeted in the kinds of industry and businesses we want to attract.” 

Edmonson and Olthoff each see a large need to focus more on talent, which is in short supply everywhere in a tight labor market. They both specifically cite the 35,000 Muskegon County residents who go elsewhere each day to work and the need for Muskegon Area First to look locally at how to keep that labor force, especially 18 to 26 year olds.

Edmonson envisions an organization that’s more integrated into the community and works closely with strategic partners such as education and the nonprofit sector, perhaps even designing programs that share staff. He suggests working directly with the owners of vacant industrial or commercial real estate to market properties not just to users but also to possible investors by identifying a potential return on investment.

“You take those to various, select or targeted industry trade shows and they’re not presented as just an empty building or site. They’re actually ‘we have an investment opportunity here’ with an actual calculated return on investment for them,” Edmonson said.

Time to change

Directors decided to change Muskegon Area First as membership and financial support began to wane in recent years.

In researching options and consulting with economic development professionals, directors saw “the best” organizations are structured such that they’re led by the private sector with strong partnerships with the public sector, Olthoff said.

“We needed to change our model. It’s not that what we’ve been doing in the past is wrong, but the whole idea is we want to take services to the next level,” he said. “We just felt we needed to go in a different direction. It’s an evolution and it was time. The feeling was we needed to do more. We want to build on the strengths we already have.”

Edmonson moves into the position as Muskegon enjoys an economic resurgence. Unemployment remains low, at 3.7 percent as of April, tying the statewide rate. As well, the city’s downtown has seen a push of redevelopment activity in recent years. 

When he first ran Muskegon Area First, unemployment was 8.2 percent in Muskegon County and downtown “had a bunch of sand” following demolition of the defunct Muskegon Mall.

“We had our downtown beach going,” Edmonson said. “It’s come a long ways since then.”

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