Economic Development

GRAND RAPIDS –– The Grand River helped to make Grand Rapids “Furniture City” more than a century ago, and now many believe that Michigan’s longest river will soon revert from a largely passive asset back to an active one.

Water is the lifeblood for West Michigan communities. In this special report, MiBiz examines how the local economy is shaped by its access to water and wilderness, both of which are becoming increasingly important for the region’s quality of life — and talent attraction.

While closing coal-fired power plants is often lauded for improving air quality, it’s also saving billions of gallons of water a year from being withdrawn from the Great Lakes and local resources.

Similar to the city that borders its shores, Muskegon Lake’s progress has experienced setbacks and successes, with many different groups working behind the scenes to position the lake as an attractive place to live, work and play.

LANSING –– The crowded field of candidates seeking to become Michigan’s next governor offer distinctly different views for how they would shape the state’s economic development policy.

KALAMAZOO — The public’s view of the Kalamazoo Nature Center is one of beautifully preserved nature trails, numerous wildlife habitats, and a safe haven within the urban areas surrounding it.

The final goal will take years to accomplish, but the early data coming in from a long-term project to clear the waters of Lake Macatawa and the surrounding watershed has been trending in the right direction.

For all of the arctic grayling’s remarkableness, the mechanics behind its eventual extinction in Michigan is a story all too common.

A broad statewide partnership is examining what it would take to reintroduce a native fish that disappeared from Michigan waters more than 80 years ago.

MUSKEGON –– It’s taken years, but demand for rental residential units in downtown Muskegon appears to be on the upswing.

Snaking across eastern and northern Ottawa County on its way to Lake Michigan, the Grand River provides much more than a source of recreation and a home to aquatic wildlife.

Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed final state budget includes hundreds of millions of dollars in one-time investments, increased funding for roads and years-long fees to support environmental initiatives.

GRAND RAPIDS –– The city of Grand Rapids over the next year will join the growing ranks of cities around the world seeking to enhance their data management practices.

President Trump’s recent decision to impose tariffs on imported washing machines and solar panels will raise prices for consumers and eliminate more jobs than they create, experts say.

Utility customers across the state could be refunded hundreds of millions of dollars as a result of the federal tax overhaul that passed in December, reducing the corporate income tax rate.

Every year, the Crystal Ball edition from MiBiz offers insights, economic sentiment and forward-looking strategies from West Michigan’s business leaders. Here’s what they had to say about 2018.

In the dozens of interviews with West Michigan executives for this special edition, the notion of momentum — whether within the overall economy, their industry or their company — seemed to dominate their outlook for next year.

As president and CEO of Ada-based construction management firm Dan Vos Construction Co. Inc., Dan Vos would like to continue to see the pro-business philosophy that’s been on display in Michigan for nearly the last decade. Vos generally thinks 2018 will continue the momentum of the past few years, although he harbors some concern over burnout from the firm’s lengthy pipeline of work.

Tasha Blackmon becomes CEO of Cherry Health on April 1, 2018, succeeding long-time chief executive Chris Shea, who retires on March 31. Blackmon will move into the CEO’s position of the largest federally qualified health center in Michigan — with 20 locations in Kent, Barry, Eaton, Montcalm, Muskegon and Wayne counties and some 70,000 patients annually — after serving as chief of operations.

As the end of 2017 approached, Grand Rapids-based Independent Bank Corp. cut a deal to buy TCSB Bancorp Inc. in Traverse City, the parent company of Traverse City State Bank. The $63.2 million deal, which is expected to close in the first half of 2018 pending approval from regulators and TCSB Bancorp shareholders, would extend Independent Bank’s presence in northwestern Michigan, where Traverse City State Bank has five offices and assets of $346.9 million. Independent Bank, which opened lending offices in Traverse City and other markets this year, has 65 branches across the Lower Peninsula with total assets of $2.75 billion as of Sept. 30.

Brian Walker continues to believe the overall fundamentals of the economy remain strong, but the ongoing wave of nationalism and demonstrations of military might cause him some degree of concern. The president and CEO of Zeeland-based office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller Inc. (Nasdaq: MLHR) counts on free and open access for the trading of goods for his company’s continued success. Meanwhile, the continued “geopolitical noise” from external events like Brexit only creates uncertainty, he told MiBiz at the recent Business Leaders for Michigan CEO Summit in Detroit.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) publishes the quarterly Architectural Billings Index (ABI), which is generally viewed as a leading indicator for the construction industry. While the data fluctuated throughout the year, architects’ billings have been largely positive, according to the Washington, D.C. trade association. Heading into 2018, AIA Chief Economist Kermit Baker generally expects more of the same, albeit with some uncertainty surrounding national policy issues.

Tom Welch thinks the U.S. economy in 2018 will perform much as it did in 2017 with steady growth and further tightening of the labor market, the latter of which rates as his biggest concern. He said that, mixed with high business confidence and a boost from the expected passage of federal tax reform, the economy should generate plenty of commercial lending opportunity for Cincinnati, Ohio-based Fifth Third, the deposit market leader in West Michigan. Welsh also believes the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates further in 2018, while inflation should remain relatively low.

One of the biggest issues Carl Bednarski expects to deal with in 2018 is the national Farm Bill, which will address agricultural concerns in infrastructure, crop insurance and exports. The president of the Michigan Farm Bureau discussed what legislation will affect the agricultural community the most.

While 480 square feet of space may not seem huge for a taproom, it offers The Peoples Cider Co. needed visibility along the burgeoning West Leonard Street corridor in Grand Rapids. Owner Jason Lummen opened his new taproom in late October on a strip with a distillery and a brewery, which he hopes will create new synergies. The proximity to the other producers has increased the company’s exposure, as well as freed space at his production facility on Maryland Avenue in the Oak Industrial Park. Lummen’s operation currently produces about 200 barrels per year and he hopes that separating his taproom from his production operation offers room for growth. He describes business at the new facility in one word:

Annual increases in premiums for employee health coverage were mostly moderate in 2017. It’s a trend from the last few years that Shannon Enders, managing partner at Lakeshore Employee Benefits in Norton Shores, said largely continued for employers who renewed policies for 2018. Enders is also seeing more employers offering various options for employee health benefits, and some are even wondering whether they have gone too far in shifting the costs for health coverage onto employees.

Sam Cummings will be the first to acknowledge that he’s got a lot of office and retail space to fill in downtown Grand Rapids next year, with redevelopment work underway at 50 Monroe Ave. NW and unspecified plans in the coming years for the downtown Fifth Third Bank campus, which has been dubbed Vandenberg Center. Cummings says CWD plans to work diligently over the next year to attract large corporate users, bring more activity to ground-floor spaces and focus on the fundamentals of real estate development.

Decreases in funding from both governmental agencies and other funders who support the needs of the LGBTQ community are cause for concern as Outfront Kalamazoo goes into 2018. Executive Director Jay Maddock said his social justice organization relies on grant funding, individual giving and successful fundraising events, meaning that any hit to the economy will affect all areas of the group’s funding.

Jeff Mason took over in mid July as CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. after eight years of running the University Research Corridor, a coalition of the state’s top three research universities including Michigan State, Wayne State and the University of Michigan. According to Mason, talent remains the top issue for the MEDC, particularly as the state’s economy continues to grow.

Broadview Product Development Corp. had strong business in 2017 with its automotive industry customers and also grew sales to office furniture manufacturers by 25 percent. That growth has President Rick Arnold facing some key challenges at the prototyping and engineering firm. “We’re busier than we have been, and we are busier than our resources can support,” he said. Like most businesses these days, Broadview constantly wrestles with concerns over talent, which remains a key issue for the company heading into 2018.

The further the U.S. gets from the last downturn, the greater the likelihood that another challenge will eventually “rear its head again,” says Mercantile Bank Corp. President and CEO Robert Kaminski. Yet as 2018 approaches, Kaminski doesn’t see any warnings signs from the Grand Rapids-based bank’s clients that portend a downturn is imminent. Instead, he expects the U.S. economy to stay on track.

As Gov. Rick Snyder enters his final year in office, he remains optimistic about the state’s overall economic trajectory. The champion of “relentless positive action” continues to place heavy emphasis on better connecting the state’s resources for workforce development with employers in need of skilled talent. He’s also focusing on efforts needed to support the burgeoning autonomous vehicle sector. In a year-end interview with MiBiz, Snyder spoke about what he hopes to see in the state’s next governor.

The Burma Center is in the business of empowering people through advocacy, community engagement and education. One of its lines of service is Burmese-English language interpretation to serve the 2,500 Burmese residents who have immigrated to the area over the past 15 years. Burma Center advocates for equitable access to resources and services, but Executive Director Martha Thawnghmung says she thinks the pervasiveness of institutional racism and how immigrant groups are often pitted against one another are complicating efforts to unite various groups.

In 2018, Michigan voters will elect a new governor to succeed Rick Snyder — who’s term-limited and cannot run again — as well as a new Legislature. John Truscott, president of the public relations firm Truscott Rossman Group LLC and a veteran of the Lansing political scene, says Republicans who have been in charge for years in Lansing need to guard against complacency if they want to maintain control.

When Brad Davis looks ahead to 2018, he gets very excited about the future of his company, Zeeland-based Industrial Woodworking Corp.

Since merging into the University of Michigan Health System nearly a year ago, Metro Health has steadily bulked up its clinical services, growing the number of physicians that it employs from 150 to about 270. The opening of a gastroenterology subspecialty clinic that includes five faculty physicians from Michigan Medicine in Ann Arbor who are in Wyoming once a week, the addition of five ICU intensivists, and the formation of a pulmonary division are a few examples of the clinical upgrades Metro Health made in 2017 under the affiliation. Metro Health also launched bariatric surgery at midyear in partnership with physicians at Grand Health Partners in Grand Rapids, and most recently expanded its stroke program with the addition of three specialty physicians. Much more will come in 2018 and in the years ahead, said Dr. Peter Hahn, Metro Health’s chief medical officer.

Rather than focusing on massive corporate attraction projects, local economic developers should instead put their efforts behind homegrown entrepreneurial talent. That’s according to Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a Washington, D.C. policy organization that tracks economic development deals around the country.

GRAND RAPIDS — After a decade of growth in manufacturing, the sector still finds itself having to defend its worth to parents and high school counsellors.

Tower cranes constructing offices, hotels and apartments dot the skyline in and around downtown Grand Rapids.

The Great Recession might be years in the past, but commercial real estate executives haven’t forgotten the lessons learned from that time. Rick DeKam, principal with Midwest Realty Group, a Portage-based full-service real estate firm, has spent the last several years building up the company’s cash reserves to prepare for an eventual downturn. But beyond external factors such as “national and global issues related to the country’s presidency and the fact that our county continues to become more and more divided,” he believes the overall business climate continues to look positive.

2017 was a busy year for Grand Rapids-based Lake Michigan Credit Union with the opening of new branches and mortgage offices, insurance agency acquisitions, and the pending deal for Encore Bank in Naples, Fla. Michigan’s largest credit union, LMCU has 42 branch locations, three of them in Florida, and total assets of $5.1 billion as of Sept. 30, up more than 9 percent from a year earlier. President and CEO Sandra Jelinski expects more growth in 2018 as the economy remains in good shape.

With a backlog of construction projects extending out two years at Triangle Associates, Jim Conner feels “cautiously optimistic” heading into 2018. Conner says the company’s diversified clients ranging from education to health care to industrial work should keep it busy even in the event of a downturn.

Matt Jones anticipates another banner year for the buying and selling of apartment properties in Michigan and around the Midwest. Jones, the founder and president of Beacon Realty Group LLC, a boutique commercial real estate brokerage practice focused on the multifamily sector, largely foresees a period of continued slow growth with some potential pressure coming from rising interest rates.

Grand Valley State University will continue to grow its presence in and around downtown Grand Rapids in 2018. As well, the university also hopes to tap into the ever-changing world of technology and data as a means of improving the learning experience for students. President Tom Haas discussed these topics and more at the recent Business Leaders For Michigan CEO Summit in Detroit.

A partner at accounting and consulting firm Plante Moran, Joel Mitchell has a front-line look into how manufacturers are faring. Mitchell, who heads the manufacturing and distribution industry service team in Grand Rapids, said companies are bracing for disruptions and closely watching how passage of the federal tax reform bill could affect their businesses.

Business and local government advocates aren’t always aligned on policy issues, but both groups say 2018 will require concerted efforts to attract and retain talent in Michigan.

In late 2017, Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine opened the $88.1 million Grand Rapids Research Center in the city’s downtown. As the medical school now looks to build a larger research base in Grand Rapids in 2018 and beyond, Dean Norman Beauchamp said the center opens opportunities for further partnerships with local care providers and companies not only in medical research but also with businesses that address the economic issues that affect health care.

GRAND RAPIDS — Employers continue to struggle to find people to fill open positions and drive growth in their business.