Published in Economic Development

Muskegon staffs up city economic development office

BY Sunday, March 17, 2019 10:31pm

MUSKEGON — The city of Muskegon has bolstered its economic development office amid a wave of major redevelopment projects, and while a local support organization continues to define its future and transition to private-sector support.

The city reorganized and expanded the office from a half-time economic development position shared through a contract with Muskegon County, to two new full-time, in-house staffers.

Muskegon City Manager Frank Peterson

The staffing change “was already on our mind that we needed more than a half of a person” contracted from the county, City Manager Frank Peterson told MiBiz.

The city proceeded after Muskegon County decided to wait to fill its economic development office following the departure last November of manager Jonathan Wilson, Peterson said. Wilson’s move “helped us accelerate our decision making,” Peterson said. As well, the move comes as Muskegon Area First determines its next steps as an organization, either with or without the support of the city.

“We have a lot going on here,” he said. “We were just kind of worried important things happening in Muskegon would kind of slip through the cracks if we didn’t have the right staff on board.”

LeighAnn Mikesell, previously director of municipal services at the Muskegon Public Works Department, now focuses on economic development, planning, and community development and leads the economic development staff.

To staff the office, the city hired Jake Eckholm as economic development director and Peter Wills as director of strategic initiatives. Eckholm previously worked as city manager in Muskegon Heights before stepping down in late February, and Wills served as chief of staff for eight years for former state Sen. Goeff Hansen.

“A professional, competent, and confident team will be greatly appreciated by commercial and industrial developers and business owners looking to relocate to, or expand in, Muskegon,” said Cindy Larsen, president of the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce.

The city’s reorganized economic development office will focus primarily on industrial development, plus in-fill housing development and creating “opportunity zones” that use tax incentives to drive capital investments in low-income communities.

The office’s work will include developing a master plan for the former West Shoreline Correctional Facility, a 66.5-acre site that would enable the city to expand the adjacent Port City Industrial Park, as MiBiz previously reported.

Pending as well are major redevelopments for the site of the former B.C. Cobb coal-fired power plant and the 120-acre former Sappi Paper Mill property, both located along Muskegon Lake, plus a proposed land swap between the city and West Michigan Dock & Market Corp., known as The Mart Dock.

Larsen also cites the continued redevelopment of the downtown area, plus three large single- and multi-family housing developments proposed in Muskegon that would add about 500 homes.

“It’s important the city is well-staffed to be able to facilitate the number of projects taking place,” Larsen told MiBiz. “We’re talking about entire neighborhoods.”

MAF debates its future

The city’s decision to expand the economic development office also comes as countywide economic development organization Muskegon Area First operates with an interim director and continues to restructure. Muskegon Area First’s ongoing deliberations were a peripheral concern for the city, but combined with the vacancy of Wilson’s former position at the county, “together they were a bigger issue when they were happening at the same time,” Peterson said.

“On their own, probably neither one of them would have been enough to push us to make this kind of decision, but when they’re happening together and the timing and the transition period (for Muskegon Area First) seemed to be prolonged, we decided that it made sense,” said Peterson, who also represents the city as a director on Muskegon Area First’s board.

“The economy is moving in the right direction here right now and we didn’t want to miss a beat,” Peterson said. “There’s quite a bit of economic activity that we want to make sure that we see through to a successful completion.”

Muskegon Area First’s ongoing strategic planning focuses on transitioning to become an economic development organization driven by the private sector. The organization aims to have a new plan in place by this summer that will include new bylaws and board composition, Interim President and CEO Darryl Todd told MiBiz.

City weighs funding

Muskegon Area First is mostly supported by contract service fees and membership dues paid by the county, local cities, townships, villages and other members that have representatives on the board of directors. The Muskegon city government is the largest public-sector supporter at about $40,000 a year, Peterson said.

The city remains committed to participating in Muskegon Area First through the present fiscal year that ends June 30 and will decide on future support once a new organizational model gets put into place, Peterson said. If Muskegon Area First shifts to a private-sector model, a lot of the funding would come from industrial employers in the city, Peterson said.

“We want to be part of that collaborative conversation. We’re not planning on building a silo and just going it on our own, but we want to make sure that we’re strong and can take care of ourselves from an economic development standpoint and then we partner with our neighboring communities on things that make sense to partner with them,” Peterson said. “If that makes sense for us, we’ll continue to be a part of it. If it doesn’t, then maybe we’ll be part of it at a lower level or we won’t be part of it.”

Even with the city’s move, plenty of work remains for a broader economic development organization in the Muskegon area, said Larsen, an ex-officio member of Muskegon Area First’s board. The organization may alter its role and the services it offers, she said.

An announcement on the city’s hiring of new economic development staff cited how Site Selection Magazine recently ranked the Muskegon metropolitan statistical area 10th in the U.S. for communities with a population less than 200,000 for the ability to attract economic development projects.

“There is so much going on,” Larsen said.

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