BENTON HARBOR — A new campaign aims to stanch Berrien County’s population losses and attract thousands of new residents over the next decade.
The move is intended to address what Cornerstone Alliance, the economic development agency for Berrien County, calls “Southwest Michigan’s biggest obstacle.”
In collaboration with community organizations, Cornerstone Alliance has launched “Vacay Every Day” as its new recruitment campaign, which the organization hopes will grow the population and spur continued economic development.
Workforce issues rank as a top reason the group launched the campaign, said Christina Frank, vice president of external affairs at Cornerstone Alliance.
“You’re competing with every community and every asset other communities have,” she said. “You have to be able to play in that same arena and people are a key part of that.”
Not having people to fill positions in the workforce makes it difficult for companies to expand and for the community to attract new companies, Frank added.
According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, Berrien County’s population declined 1.7 percent since 2010 to 154,141 people as of 2018. Van Buren County and Cass County, the two counties touching Berrien County, also posted decreases in estimated population.
By comparison, Kent County’s population grew by more than 51,000 people in the same time frame. Other West Michigan counties also showed growth.
Cornerstone Alliance has set a “very lofty goal” of an increase of 10 percent in population over the next decade, Frank said.
“That would be tremendous for the community,” she said.
The new campaign was created by King Media Inc., a marketing and public relations firm with an office in St. Joseph. The goal is to reach tourists from around the U.S. who visit Southwest Michigan and encourage them to move to the region. Cornerstone Alliance expects the campaign to launch in the fall and continue into next spring with outreach via television, radio, billboards and social media.
Cornerstone Alliance board chair John Janick, the president of financial consulting and investment management firm Jako Holdings LLC in St. Joseph, said directors supported the campaign because it involved many community partners and could help spur further economic development in the county.
“It only made sense that we try to do something to move the needle and create the population growth, with the theory that some of those people could fill the human capital needs, but they also bring with them a family base which helps with schools, with retailers and the overall community,” Janick said.
Despite the population declines, Berrien County has notched several key business wins in recent months. That includes Vail Rubber Works Inc., which started construction on an $8.3 million facility in St. Joseph after outgrowing its previous location.
Meanwhile, Cornerstone Alliance in June issued a request for proposals to redevelop the vacant Farmers and Merchants Bank Building in Benton Harbor, which is in close proximity to other development projects, including the nearby Harbor Center project. Cressy Commercial Real Estate is completing a $3 million historic renovation of the building, which will bring a dozen new apartments and more than 2,000 square feet of commercial space downtown.
As well, United Federal Credit Union bought a former Whirlpool Corp. (NYSE: WHR) office in St. Joseph to house its new corporate headquarters, MiBiz reported in April. The 80,000-square-foot office on Hilltop Road will accommodate the credit union’s growth plans and house staff who worked at corporate offices on South State Street in St. Joseph and in Niles.
A talent issue
Companies in the area need to be strategic about attracting talent, something Jeff Noel, corporate vice president of communications and public affairs at Whirlpool, sees as a collaborative effort among various local organizations.
“This is really the individuals, companies and organizations that make up our communities that can improve the quality of life for all our residents,” he said. “One of those strategic areas is to focus on making yourself attractive, so people will want to move here, want to live here and want to stay here.”
Noel wouldn’t say Whirlpool is “struggling” to find talent, but it is an issue the company has to overcome, just like other businesses in Michigan and nationwide.
“There’s lots of areas where demand for great talent is as high and strong as it’s ever been before,” he said.
The implications of a population decline remain a concern for Southwest Michigan communities, Noel said.
‘Step it up’
Michigan’s population growth peaked in 2004, according to the Census Bureau, but declined until 2012. The state’s population has been growing slowly ever since. Even so, other red flags have emerged, such as in 2017, when the state recognized its lowest birth rate since 1944, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
Working alongside organizations like Cornerstone Alliance to attract new residents is something companies are likely to focus more time and energy on in the future, because population growth affects everything from schools to retail and the industries in the area, Noel said.
“If you’re not growing, the laws of supply and demand are that you’ll start to see buildings and spaces that are no longer needed,” Noel said. “That’s not the environment of a growing community, and that’s not an environment that makes it easy to attract and retain talent.”
While talent isn’t an issue unique to Berrien County, Janick said business leaders and employees can serve as ambassadors to the community and help sell its attributes.
Cornerstone Alliance sees the new campaign as one step it can take to encourage population growth, which is something it has focused on for years, Frank said. The organization aims to target an audience that has “the greatest potential to relocate to our community.”
“Our community is competing globally for talent, so we’ve really got to step it up,” Frank said.