Published in Economic Development
Battle Creek Unlimited and officials at the Battle Creek Executive Airport want to construct facilities to accommodate commercial drone aircraft. Battle Creek Unlimited and officials at the Battle Creek Executive Airport want to construct facilities to accommodate commercial drone aircraft. COURTESY PHOTO

West Michigan projects shut out of lucrative federal grant program

BY Sunday, January 30, 2022 06:00pm

Late last year, the U.S. Department of Commerce named 60 finalists across the country that each could be eligible for up to $100 million in grants to support regional economic development initiatives. 

An advanced mobility project by the Detroit Regional Partnership Foundation was the only plan selected from Michigan under the Economic Development Administration’s $1 billion Build Back Better Regional Challenge that was funded through the American Rescue Plan Act.

The West Michigan initiatives that missed out on $500,000 in phase 1 funding include a regional food systems initiative near Muskegon, regional advanced manufacturing preparedness, a planned drone airport in Battle Creek, and an outdoor recreation “growth cluster” plan in Kent County. Economic development organizations and one local government submitted project proposals on behalf of their regions.

While the West Michigan proposals are in varying stages of development, they also shed light on key initiatives that local officials say will bring prosperity to their areas.

B.C. drone airport

Among the more developed West Michigan proposals is a plan to build the Michigan Unmanned Aerial Systems Park at the Battle Creek Executive Airport. 

Economic development organization Battle Creek Unlimited Inc. and airport officials have planned for nearly five years to build facilities that would support commercial drone aircraft manufacturers and a flight testing area.

Battle Creek Unlimited President and CEO Joe Sobieralski says the airport has a couple hundred acres of vacant land that would support the development. The Michigan Economic Development Corp. also provided $150,000 for a project feasibility study in 2018.

“We’ve been looking for funding opportunities ever since then,” he said. The organization’s Build Back Better grant application sought $53 million.

Sobieralski noted that the executive airport doesn’t have commercial flights, is located near the Fort Custer U.S. Army National Guard base and the Fort Custer Industrial Park, and also hosts Western Michigan University’s College of Aviation. The project aims to support large military-style machines that are becoming commercialized, not small personal drones often found at popular retailers.

“We know it’s a good idea to position the airport for the future of air mobility,” Sobieralski said. “The Build Back Better grant was a golden opportunity we were unsuccessful with.”

However, the plan will press forward. Sobieralski said the project includes two phases for virtual and physical infrastructure, such as building out a facility on the west side of the airport and installing systems “beyond the line of sight” that allow drone air traffic, which could take up to two years.

The project also comes as Michigan ramps up efforts behind unmanned aerial vehicles. Michigan and Canadian officials recently announced that they are collaborating on a feasibility study for a “commercial drone skyway” at three locations between the two countries, including in Southeast Michigan. The study will examine whether small drones can be flown beyond the line of sight of a pilot for operations including just-in-time delivery and medical transport.

“This is not just a Battle Creek thing — this is a statewide thing,” Sobieralski said. “It has to start somewhere. … We hope the MEDC and state recognize that they’ve already invested dollars into the Battle Creek study.”

Food systems initiative

To the northwest, officials at the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission (WMSRDC) submitted an application for funding the West Michigan Agricultural Technology and Regional Food Systems Initiative, an ongoing effort to build up the agribusiness sector along the lakeshore.

WMSRDC Executive Director Erin Kuhn said the initiative includes a handful of organizations in Muskegon County that have spent several years working to build up the area’s food processing network.

“We have over 9,000 farms in West Michigan and more than 200 food processors surrounding our area. This is a really large industry and cluster that we have,” Kuhn said. “We wanted to really talk about and take steps to advance that and build it up because there’s so much more we could be doing.”

Moreover, the food processing industry has seen growing demand during the COVID-19 pandemic, with announcements of several food processing expansions totaling tens of millions of dollars announced along the lakeshore in recent months. In August 2021, the West Michigan Food Processing Association tapped Michigan State University to manage its Food, Agriculture, Research and Manufacturing (FARM) food processing accelerator adjacent to Muskegon Community College.

Kuhn said the Build Back Better application involved assembling a coalition representing more than a dozen counties in the region. The proposal was based on several pillars, including product development and incubation, mobile food processing, workforce training, and supply chain logistics.

Kuhn said the coalition is regrouping, and the food processing work remains ongoing.

“We’re going to pull together the coalition, talk about our next steps and priorities, and put together a game plan of who’s doing what,” Kuhn said. “Then we’ll identify those next steps and seek funding moving forward.”

Outdoor rec, Industry 5.0 plans stall

Meanwhile, missing out on the Build Back Better funding spells uncertainty for less developed proposals.

Economic development organization The Right Place Inc. submitted plans for an “Industry 5.0” initiative titled “Catalytic intervention for manufacturing competitiveness and inclusive growth in (the) West Michigan region.”

A spokesperson for The Right Place said in an email that the future of the initiative is uncertain.

“The initiative doesn’t exist right now and was dependent on receiving the funding,” said Andria Romkema, senior vice president of marketing and communications.

Building off the Industry 4.0 concept of introducing widespread automation into manufacturing, Industry 5.0 emphasizes the human element needed to work along with smart machines and robots. 

The Right Place was seeking the $500,000 in phase 1 funding to “explore the concept and prepare for further phases,” Romkema added.

Additionally, Kent County and its partners also submitted an unsuccessful application to build out an outdoor recreation “regional growth cluster.” Like The Right Place, Kent County was seeking the phase 1 funding to help further build the initiative.

According to a presentation on the initiative, nearly two dozen public and private entities in Kent and Ottawa counties sought to secure funding for a strategy to create public recreation infrastructure and leverage various research and technology firms that could make outdoor recreation products. That includes building riverside parks, waterways and non-motorized trails, and helping manufacturers and startups commercialize outdoor recreation products.

“There were valuable recreation and economic development components in our application that we will continue to discuss with the partners but we do not have any concrete plans nor have identified other funding opportunities,” Kent County Spokesperson Lori Latham said in an email. 

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