Growing West Michigan’s advanced manufacturing, health sciences and technology sectors while expanding economic opportunities for minority residents are key components of The Right Place Inc.’s new three-year strategic plan.
The Grand Rapids-based economic development organization’s 2023-2025 strategic plan announced today aims to retain or create 4,000 jobs with an average wage of $26.50 an hour by 2025. The Right Place also set goals for $550 million in capital investments and $100 million in community development investments in that time.
The strategic plan, developed in partnership with global consulting firm Ernst & Young, is the culmination of six months of interactions with about 300 leaders from the public and private sectors. It establishes benchmarks for employment, population and GDP growth against 19 other U.S. cities.
“We see talent, placemaking and business development as the three core elements of our economic development strategy,” The Right Place President and CEO Randy Thelen said in an interview.
Four pillars of The Right Place’s three-year plan involve intentional economic growth, championing inclusive opportunities, elevating the greater Grand Rapids market to improve national visibility, and approaching investments with a regional lens. The Right Place oversees economic development activity in eight West Michigan counties: Ionia, Kent, Montcalm, Mason, Mecosta, Newaygo, Lake and Oceana.
“We know through research and through first-hand interactions that our communities of color and diverse populations have not enjoyed the same economic gains as others, so we’ve got to find ways to remedy that,” Thelen said.
Thelen and The Right Place board members presented the strategic plan today at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park to nearly 250 “investors” from across the region.
“There’s an enormous amount of uncertainty in the economy with inflation, high interest rates and ongoing labor shortages,” Lauren Davis, Huntington Bank’s West Michigan regional president and The Right Place board member, said during today’s event. “Regardless of the economic climate, there’s one thing we can all count on: West Michigan continues to be critical to our state economy and a great place to build a business. Success in our region is the direct result of quality, diversity and innovation of businesses, both old and new.”
Thelen noted that the organization exceeded targets from its previous, 2020-2022 strategic plan by creating or retaining 3,667 jobs, $196 million in new or retained payroll, and $598 million in new capital investments.
Over the next three years, The Right Place will measure Grand Rapids’ success against 19 other U.S. cities, including four in Michigan, Salt Lake City, Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Raleigh, N.C., to name a few.
“It’s no longer good enough to measure ourselves against statewide or national averages,” Thelen said. “We have to compare ourselves with the best of the best.”
Of these 20 cities, Grand Rapids ranks 11th in population growth from 2016-2021 (3.5 percent); 15th for GDP growth from 2015-2020 (12 percent); 15th for employment growth from 2016-2021 (-0.9 percent); and 12th in tech workers as a share of total employment in 2021 (6.5 percent).
The technology sector, in particular, has become a key priority for The Right Place, which last year launched a 10-year tech strategy and more recently has joined a pitch to lure recently laid off tech workers to the region. The Right Place has set a goal for the tech sector to employ 10 percent of the region’s total workforce.
Meanwhile, West Michigan fares better compared to the other 19 cities in other metrics, including the fourth-highest percentage of workers aged 25 to 34 years old, first in the cost of living index in 2021, and third in labor force participation rate.
The strategic plan’s “paramount” goal is to foster economic growth with intentionality, Thelen said.
“Some regions are opting out,” he said, noting NIMBY approaches to development in some cities in the country, or areas that have opted against using tax incentives for projects. “You can’t just hit the gas and accelerator and assume you’ll get power going forward. If you choose to slow down the process, that’s a recipe for disaster. We don’t get to pick and choose. We’ve got to stay committed and stay focused.”