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Published in Economic Development
Jonas Peterson Jonas Peterson COURTESY PHOTO

Southwest Michigan First announces new CEO

BY Friday, October 22, 2021 08:30am

KALAMAZOO — Southwest Michigan First has selected a new CEO from Las Vegas, roughly eight months after the economic development organization’s previous executive resigned following his controversial hiring.

Southwest Michigan First announced today that Jonas Peterson will be its new CEO starting in January. Peterson has been president and CEO of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance for more than eight years and during a period when Nevada surpassed every other state in the U.S. for job creation.

For Peterson, the position in Kalamazoo was an opportunity to return to the Midwest.

“We love the Midwest, so in some ways it feels like coming home — or at least coming closer to us for us,” said Peterson, who’s originally from the small town of Warren in northwestern Minnesota and a married father of two.

“It’s easy to see that Southwest Michigan is a special place with a lot of opportunities and incredible companies there,” Peterson said in an interview with MiBiz. “The work that Southwest Michigan First has already done and the team in place is very attractive. I think this is one of the best organizations and one of the best jobs in the country. It’s very attractive for me to come in and be part of that team and, hopefully, continue the great work and push it to the next level.”

Southwest Michigan First directors selected Peterson after a six-month search for a new CEO working with executive search firm Jorgenson Consulting. President and Interim CEO Carla Sones will remain as the organization’s president.

In announcing his hiring, Southwest Michigan First credited Peterson with leading a team in Las Vegas that worked with more than 250 companies from 2012 to 2021 to create more than 29,000 high-wage jobs. The organization also cited his work on embedding diversity, equity, and inclusion into Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance’s work plans. Peterson is also credited with implementing strategies that moved Nevada from 50th in the U.S. in job creation in 2013 to first prior to the COVID-19 pandemic that began in early 2020.

“Jonas’s credentials are second to none and right for our community,” Bill Manns, CEO of Bronson Healthcare Group and a member of the Southwest Michigan First board’s CEO search committee, said in a statement. “The board charged us with identifying an exemplary slate of candidates, and the Southwest Michigan community unequivocally stated they wanted a visionary and inclusive leader with a proven history in economic development and in building partnerships with leaders in business, government and the community. Jonas exceeds all those criteria.” 

‘Soul searching’

Issues around diversity, equity and inclusion were an important part of the CEO search for Southwest Michigan First. Early this year, the organization first hired former Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield to succeed former CEO Ron Kitchens.

Chatfield resigned in February after objections from the community and as some supporters pulled funding from Southwest Michigan First because of his opposition while House Speaker to expanding Michigan’s civil rights law to include protections for the LGBTQ community. Specifically, Chatfield sought to include religious exemptions under a potential expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

Chatfield’s hiring also was criticized by some for a lack of transparency.

The Southwest Michigan First board subsequently went about a “thorough, thorough process of regrouping to really do an internal look at how we should be going about finding a CEO,” said James Liggins Jr., a board director and senior counsel with the Kalamazoo office of Warner Norcross + Judd LLP.

The CEO search committee reached out to 655 participants from 469 community organizations to determine the key attributes of the new CEO.

“The organization as a whole learned a lot through that process and has grown significantly because of it,” Liggins said. “We really did some soul searching and really jumped in and embedded what we thought was a good process into the search this time around.”

Going forward, “I would suspect we’re going to be hyper-vigilant and really introspective and transparent and try to make sure that we truly evolved as we should as an organization,” he added.

As directors moved on and searched nationally for Southwest Michigan First’s next CEO, Peterson “rose to the top as the individual who most thoroughly embodies the skills, experience and attributes identified by our community as critical for success in this position,” said Bill Parfet, a board member who chaired the CEO Search Committee.

“As president and CEO of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, he led the startup and explosive growth of what is now the largest nonprofit economic development organization in Nevada and one of the most productive community and economic development organizations in the southwestern United States,” Parfet said.

Prior to Las Vegas, Peterson served as the president and CEO of the Santa Clarita Valley Economic Development Corp. in California, and director of the Mohave County Community and Economic Development Department in Kingman, Ariz.

In Las Vegas, Peterson announced his pending departure on Oct. 10 “to pursue a new opportunity.”

“We hired Jonas to help us build a cutting-edge economic development organization with the capacity to transform Southern Nevada’s economy. That is exactly what he has done,” said Betsy Fretwell, board chair of the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance.

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