KALAMAZOO — The Kalamazoo City Commission unanimously voted to withdraw $10,000 in annual funding for Southwest Michigan First on the same day former GOP House Speaker Lee Chatfield started as the economic development organization’s CEO.
The city has directed the funding to Southwest Michigan First’s Council of 100, a public-private regional economic development initiative, since 2015.
City Commissioner Erin Knott, who is also the executive director of Equality Michigan, introduced a motion at Monday night’s commission meeting to withdraw the funding.
“Hopefully this will give other organizations having a similar debate an example to follow us,” Knott said. “We’re taking the lead and doing what’s right for our community.”
Chatfield’s appointment as CEO has brought an unusual amount of political attention to an economic development organization. The announcement on Thursday has caused backlash from some city and county officials, while one economic development consultant called the appointment of a recent lawmaker — particularly one of Chatfield’s prominence — to such an organization “very rare.”
“If (Southwest Michigan First) is changing its focus more on being a business advocacy group and maybe not so much on attracting businesses and job creation, then that would make sense hiring him,” said Dean Whittaker, an economic development and real estate consultant and CEO of Holland-based Whittaker Associates Inc. “If you want to turn the organization into a lobbying organization then that would make sense.”
Chatfield, 32, is from Levering and served six years in the state House before he was term-limited out of office representing the 107th House district. Before that, he was a teacher and coach at Northern Michigan Christian Academy.
Southwest Michigan First conducted a national search led by North Carolina-based Jorgenson Consulting to replace former CEO Ron Kitchens, who resigned effective Jan. 15 after 15 years to accept a similar position in Alabama.
Chatfield told MiBiz that he was approached by some Southwest Michigan First officials when the previous legislative session ended in December. Chatfield sees the position as a new job opportunity and a way to keep his family in Michigan.
Monday was Chatfield’s first official day of leading the Southwest Michigan economic development organization.
“My goal is to be nonpartisan in this position, though it’s no secret I lead with the basic foundations of the Republican party,” Chatfield said. “Just like my time in the legislature, my goal will be to work with every person on both sides of the aisle and that spans both politically and personal beliefs. I believe every person deserves civil rights.”
However, some local officials are skeptical about Chatfield’s appointment and are particularly critical of his positions involving the LGBTQ community.
Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners Chairperson Tracy Hall called the appointment “a step backwards.” Chatfield repeatedly opposed expansions of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act when he served in the House. He claimed in 2019 that “reverse discrimination” would occur if basic civil rights protections were codified into law for the LGBTQ community.
Kalamazoo County contracts through Southwest Michigan First for economic development support, and has contributed $75,000 a year to the organization since 2015, according to county budget documents.
“As a member of the LGBTQ community, I’m surprised that Southwest Michigan First didn’t give the queer community or other marginalized communities a voice in the decision,” Hall told MiBiz.
Hall also said it’s a “real possibility” that the appointment could hinder economic development and effort to attract diverse talent to the area.
“His values do not align with what I believe Kalamazoo County has, with what the majority of our population has,” Hall said. “We’re a diverse community, especially the city of Kalamazoo. We have a wonderful university in our backyard that values diversity and inclusion and has made a great deal of strides when it comes to welcoming LGBTQ students on campus.”
Kalamazoo City Commissioner Eric Cunningham said during Monday’s meeting that he is “highly disappointed in this hire” and that it doesn’t reflect the “culture of the city of Kalamazoo.”
Vice Mayor Patrese Griffin added: “For me it’s very clear that you either believe in equity in your practices and your procedures reflect that, or they don’t and there is no room in between. You can grow and change and be different but right now this is not where Kalamazoo needs to be. Things will align with the culture as long as we allow them to.”
Local opposition to such an appointment could hinder efforts to attract talent and companies, according to Whittaker.
“Put yourself in the shoes of a company looking at several cities to relocate,” Whittaker said. “It’s really important to have everybody pulling in the same direction as a community. When a company comes in to look they don’t want a community with people pulling in different directions.”
In response to the early criticism, Chatfield said Monday morning that he plans to learn more about the region and meet with business and community leaders.
“I find it’s difficult to dislike someone you know personally and I will get to know the leaders and business leaders of the community individually,” Chatfield said.