After 22 years with The Right Place Inc., Rick Chapla has stepped down and moves into the next phase of his career. Chapla focused on behind-the-scenes efforts to help public and private sector projects become reality, often serving as a conduit for connecting people. Chapla, who got his start in planning and economic development in Muskegon more than three and a half decades ago, spoke with MiBiz about how West Michigan has changed throughout the years and what he has planned next.
I don’t see you as the kind of guy who would ever retire.
You’ve heard me say that I’m not retiring. It’s the equivalent of a filthy four-letter word.
So what’s the plan for Rick Chapla Consulting LLC?
I think I have plenty to contribute to the wellbeing of West Michigan. It’s a joy to mentor the next generation. It further just energizes me that we’re in good hands. But I think the skill sets that I’ve attained over the years, I can still deploy them. I think my mind is still active and strong. I think the value sets that I’ve tried to live and preach are still valid. And I want to continue to build West Michigan. I’m not done.
Over your career at The Right Place, how has economic development changed the most?
In terms of deal making, it’s the changes in technology and especially because of the internet, which 20 years ago was really in its infancy. You didn’t have the same tools, so you literally had to call people or they’d come and visit and slink around town sort of anonymously. That’s certainly not the case anymore, as especially manifested by site selection consultants. They can garner a whole lot of information about people in an organization, the culture of a community, even before they come to town.
Does that change help or hurt West Michigan’s chances?
It doesn’t make any difference because I think we’re still as real today as we were even when I started. In fact, I think we’re better.
What’s an example that best defines your role in economic development?
It was the recruitment work that I did associated with the Van Andel Institute. Because the Van Andel Institute didn’t have any staff, Mr. Van Andel approached (RPI CEO Birgit Klohs) and asked, ‘Could you help me with the recruitment of these scientists?’ To Birgit’s credit, she recognized I (could do it). Mr. Van Andel said, ‘Here’s the list of 17 people that we want to recruit to be our startup staff.’ I’m proud to say we got 16 of the 17. … I was never given a script. It was, ‘Your job is to convince them to come to Grand Rapids.’ That’s it. I was given a resume, I was given contact info and then it was up to me to figure out how to convince them to come here.
What reactions did you get in that process?
There were family members, significant others, kids, who were struggling with would Grand Rapids be an accepting community. I needed to give those family members and significant others a comfort level that we, in fact, were a community that was changing … from a demographic standpoint and that we weren’t some sort of second-class, second-rate community. The people that I would meet with, there was healthy skepticism. But I needed to at least get them comfortable enough that we are not perfect, but we are trying.
What’s a key economic development challenge that West Michigan needs to be paying attention to in the years ahead?
Almost all of what happened from a redevelopment standpoint 22 years ago was financed with local money and local developers. Grand Rapids has been attracting more and more outside capital, and so part of the challenge is that the development interests are going to be different. They’re going to be more non-local, and it’s going to be way more transactional and bottom line driven. Bottom line driven carries different criteria and different investment objectives that may not be in sync necessarily with our culture and relationship-oriented dealmaking.
There are stories of local companies out there where during the Great Recession, people were kept on the payroll, they weren’t laid off. They were told, ‘You will stay on the payroll and I will pay you, but if you want to volunteer at your church, if you want to go volunteer at a library, that’s OK.’ That doesn’t happen if you’re owned by somebody out of New York that’s bottom line driven. It changes the dynamics.
What’s your best advice for the next generation of leaders?
You can’t stop listening. It’s such an intangible sort of thing, but you build on the successes, you build on the positives that those before us have built or started or created. You don’t start with a blank slate, you don’t start with an empty whiteboard.
What gives you optimism for the future?
The next generation of leadership is ready, and it’s going to look very different, and it’s going to look a whole lot more like the rest of the world than the generation that was empowered 20 to 25 years ago. That’s a competitive advantage. The faster we get there, and are very meaningful and deliberative in that accommodation, cultivation and acceptance, then we will win.
Is there anything you’d do differently?
It took me a long time to learn patience. Norm Kruse was the mayor of Muskegon and he lived down the street from us, and we literally developed a father-son relationship. He was a private sector guy. He was a corporate titan. He was worth a lot of money. And I’ll never forget one of those days at city hall, it was after a city commission meeting, he pulls me aside: ‘Come to my office after the meeting. I want to talk to you.’ When I got there, he says, ‘I like you a lot, but you’ve got to learn patience. You’re too impatient. You want things done tomorrow versus what may take 10 years.’ It was a real wake-up call. What would I have done differently? I don’t know, maybe I would have learned patience sooner.
Interview conducted and condensed by Joe Boomgaard.