With former CEO Jim Edmonson back at the helm and a new board of directors, Muskegon Area First has positioned itself for fiscal and programmatic growth to support Muskegon County’s economic development into the next decade.
MUSKEGON AREA FIRST
Top executive: Jim Edmonson, CEO
Annual budget: $923,000
Total full-time employees: 8
Brief business description: Economic development organization serving Muskegon County. MAF serves 13 counties for Procurement Technical Assistance Center and seven counties for the West Michigan Food Processing Initiative.
Transition board members: Nichols Paper Co. CEO Mike Olthoff, chair; Northern Machine Tool General Manager Steve Olsen, vice chair; Hazekamp Premier Foods President Dave Hazekamp; Challenge Machinery Co. President and CEO Tom Zant; Hemisphere Design COO Katie Wierengo; Consumers Energy Community Affairs Manager Rich Houtteman
Key goals of reorganization: Change from public-sector board to private-sector control; restructure sources of funding; redesign array of services; take on new economic development responsibilities; reinvigorated marketing strategy; aggressive performance standards; new branding and possible name change
Muskegon Area First’s directors spent the last year or so restructuring the countywide economic development organization into a private-sector-led model. The successful transition garnered recognition as the winner in the economic development category of the 2019 MiBiz Deals of the Year Awards.
Since its founding in 1999 by area business and government leaders, Muskegon Area First has been largely led and funded by the public sector. The reorganization included hiring Edmonson’s consulting firm, Baton Rouge-based Edmonson Associates, to help restructure and transition the nonprofit economic development corporation.
Under the prior structure, Muskegon Area First’s primary financial support came from service fees and memberships paid by cities, villages and townships in Muskegon County. The 20-member board of directors also consisted of mostly public sector representatives.
“The reason they needed to do something different was funding,” Edmonson told MiBiz. “Funding was declining in the public sector and manufacturing is changing.”
Now, the 18-member board has 15 members from the private sector and three from the public sector. The new board consists of representatives from Muskegon County’s manufacturing and business sector, DTE Energy, Consumers Energy, Muskegon Area Intermediate School District, Muskegon Community College, Muskegon County, the City of Norton Shores and a township representative.
“That’s a big change, obviously,” said Edmonson, a part-time resident of West Michigan who previously ran Muskegon Area First from 2004 to 2007. “Manufacturers are better served if they are coming up with the programs and strategies to move the agency forward.”
The former board of directors also boldly voted themselves out of office after appointing a seven-member transition board last spring to define a strategy and a path forward. The transition board was charged with raising money for the organization and appointed the new board of directors in September.
“Today, with the new board, we have doubled, close to tripled the amount of money coming in and only 25 percent is public funding,” Edmonson said.
Edmonson said there is a nationwide trend for the private sector to take the lead in guiding local economic development organizations. Muskegon County has a long history of business leaders who were willing to step up and lend their expertise on community boards and organizations, which helped with the transition.
Under the new model, Muskegon Area First has lofty three-year benchmarks: Obtain $500 million for infrastructure; 12,000 new and retained jobs; $90 million in new capital investment; $75 million in new annual payroll; and maintain an unemployment rate below that of the state and nation.
Over the last year, in the middle of the transition, Muskegon Area First helped 11 companies expand or attracted new companies that led to $52.1 million in new capital investment and the projected creation of more than 300 new jobs. The organization also helped local companies secure $153.6 million in government contracts, Edmonson said.
Some of Muskegon Area First’s key initiatives going forward will focus on workforce and talent development, business retention and attraction, a new marketing and branding campaign and possible name change, small business growth and development, and strategic infrastructure projects. In particular, the organization wants to retain a portion of the 34,000 workers who leave the county every day, as well as work with local manufacturers to determine their health and needs and assist with expansion and talent retention. Other efforts include lead generation and targeted recruitment of new companies to the county.
Muskegon Area First’s current pipeline includes 52 projects that have the potential to result in $127.1 million in new investment, a minimum of 575 new jobs and more than $13.5 million in new annual payroll, Edmonson said.
Muskegon Area First also plans to ramp up small business support services, offering assistance with development projects, customized market research reports, and a business connect portal for minority and disadvantaged businesses.
Additionally, MAF will focus on capacity building in rural communities through infrastructure improvements.
FINALIST: The Right Place partners with Lake, Oceana counties
Expanding its reach throughout West Michigan, Grand Rapids-based economic development organization The Right Place Inc. forged new ties with Lake and Oceana counties to help drive long-term economic growth for the rural areas.
The deals include providing comprehensive business retention and expansion services, assisting with marketing and communications, and connecting companies to economic development resources. The organization was recognized as the finalist in the economic development category of the 2019 Deals of the Year Awards.
As part of the multi-year strategic partnerships with Lake County Economic Development Alliance and the Oceana County Economic Alliance, The Right Place hired Jodi Nichols as the business development coordinator for the two counties.
Since the partnerships began in November 2018, The Right Place has worked with the counties on a variety of projects. They include working with Hart, Shelby and Pentwater on Redevelopment Ready Communities designations through the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC); matching broadband provider Casair to Lake County stakeholders to discuss installation routes; and convening local stakeholders to begin addressing community housing needs.
The partnership was selected as the finalist in the real estate category of the 2019 MiBiz Deals of the Year Awards.
As well, the partners in May 2019 co-hosted the first-ever Pitch North competition, open to Oceana, Lake and Newaygo county residents to submit business ideas for a chance to win $4,000, $2,500 or $1,000 to bring their visions to life.
“Our communities must collaborate and work together as one economic region if we want to remain competitive in the global marketplace,” said Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place. “These new partnerships with Lake and Oceana counties, when combined with our established partnerships in Ionia, Montcalm, and Newaygo counties, create a solid economic foundation on which to continue building the economic strength of West Michigan.”