Just over three years ago, Joe Sobieralski was hired as the President and CEO of Battle Creek Unlimited. Sobieralski joined BCU in 2015 as vice president and was then appointed interim CEO in 2016. Later that year, the interim title was removed. While there has been a lot of forward momentum under his leadership, he says there is still a lot more to be accomplished. With the renewal of his contract for another three years, we wanted to check in with him to get his view from the corner office.
Why does BCU operate as a nonprofit?
BCU was created as a 501(c)(3) in the late 1970s. The forefathers of the city decided to buy a portion of the retired Fort Custer Military installation, which became what is now Fort Custer Industrial Park, from the federal government for $1. They saw the need to have a 501(c)(3) that would be an arms length away from city government so they could do some more creative stuff. At the time, a lot of communities were doing this.
Where does BCU’s funding come from?
The majority of our funding comes from the TIF District. We also have rental income, interest income and grant administration fees. We were at 85-90 percent publicly funded and now we are about 65 percent publicly funded, so we’re making the transition from public to private. Ideally, we’d like to be 50/50 because it gives us more flexibility.
What prompted you to seek a job with BCU?
I was running a small economic development organization in Niles where I learned the fundamentals, but it was just me and my assistant and I saw the opportunity that Battle Creek represented for me. Everyone knows Battle Creek for the Kellogg Co., but once I started doing the research, I really found lots of opportunities and resources and there was this industrial park with this international presence. I could see a ton of potential there beyond what had already been accomplished and in the community as a whole.
Things in the Fort are good. We’ve got an asset in the Fort that can be built out even further. W.K. Kellogg Airport can be built out beyond anyone’s imagination. Downtown has a ton of potential with somewhat of a small footprint that is starting to be realized. I’m confident that the Fort is firing on all cylinders and will see additional investments as the auto industry evolves. We’re positioning the airport to fire on all cylinders, and the downtown is right there behind it. It doesn’t take a lot to turn things around when you’ve got those three pieces and they’re all firing on all cylinders working in concert together. We have a lot of the amenities that people look for in a community, but we can grow upon those amenities.
What were some of the challenges you faced when you took over the leadership of BCU?
BCU wasn’t perceived that well at the time. I had three high-level positions that needed to be filled. I also had to turn the perception of Battle Creek and BCU around. To this day, Battle Creek still has some legacy perception issues. I was trying to do all of this while trying to demonstrate and showcase incremental economic development success. Today we’ve got a lot of successes we can highlight, but we’re not all the way to the finish line. We’re trying to get projects over the finish line, while also capturing new opportunities that are constantly arising.
What are your current challenges?
Our biggest struggle in Battle Creek is that everyone wants transparency about what we’re doing earlier in the process and they want us to share that information. That leads them to think that it’s going to happen tomorrow. Economic development is the sexy thing. Everybody loves to hear about something new coming in or changing. Because of the gratification and sense of pride that economic development provides, everyone wants to be involved and informed. I don’t blame them either.
Issues surrounding our workforce and labor participation are also a challenge. Our unemployment rate is at 3.7 percent. You couple that with a lower-than-average participation rate, and we’ve got a lot of people sitting on the sidelines who could be improving that labor participation rate.
We also have an economy in transition in Battle Creek with respect to commercial development opportunities. That creates financial gaps and gaps create delays.
We have an aging population too – which isn’t unique to Battle Creek. At some point, we’re not going to have enough people to backfill those jobs that become available. We’re participating with as many companies and workforce agencies as possible to educate on the workforce crisis and to develop creative ideas to solve problems facing all employers.
What needs to happen to continue forward momentum?
We’ve got to embrace change. Change is coming at an exponential rate. We know why our population is stagnant, but do we want to face the challenges that come with turning that around? People are motivated first by the job and second by the place.
Bigger cities like Chicago and Dallas are providing the jobs and amenities that many of these people, especially younger people, are demanding. At a certain point they may want to have kids and they may want the small-town comfort that they grew up with.
We’re never going to be a Chicago or Dallas, but we’ve got to figure out a way to offer pockets of those same amenities here that not only will attract folks back home and retain talent but attract those jobs that they seek as well. But, in order to accomplish that, we’ve got to embrace change.
It’s not like it was 30 years ago where we knew that something would be coming in five years. Change is happening now, and you must position yourself (and the) community to capture when the opportunity arises.
How are you positioning the area for this change?
On the manufacturing side, we all hate to hear about job losses. But, the reality is that industries come and go and we need to embrace that and we’re always going to have to be continually beating the drum on this and embrace new technologies even if automation is involved. We’re positioning ourselves for newer technologies and thinking outside of the box on community development initiatives and incentives.
Between Fort Custer and the airport, I believe the game changer which will have ripple effects is supporting Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) development. Every community in the United States has an industrial park and every community is going after traditional manufacturers. You take an asset like our airport which has a long runway, no commercial air traffic and commercial space and now we’re competing against 10 or 12 communities. Those communities that are embracing UAS development earlier in the process will benefit.
I think the big military presence that we have here factors into it as well. We have good airspace and we’re downstate, a UAS development area can’t just be plopped down anywhere. These are good paying jobs with average salaries of $70,000.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I could definitely see myself still in Battle Creek. It’s not always about the dollars, it’s about having the ability to affect change. Battle Creek offers the resources and the ability to affect change in a meaningful way and that’s what makes me tick.
You don’t go into economic development to make all the money in the world, you do it because you want to affect change that benefits the community you are in by moving the ball down the court in a meaningful way. Being able to do those things is what fulfills an economic developer, it’s an adrenaline rush for me.
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