Situated about 35 miles north of Grand Rapids, Newaygo County is a mostly rural area of Michigan that boasts an abundance of natural resources, but struggles with infrastructure.
Driven by its major employers, Gerber Products & Nestle Nutrition, Magna Mirrors and Spectrum Health, the county also faces issues many others face in 2020: a struggle for talent and a lack of housing at a variety of price points.
“We’ve seen reinvestment in our manufacturing facilities. We’ve had some recent success stories with manufacturing that has not only preserved jobs, but increased jobs,” said Newaygo County Administrator Chris Wren. “We continue to see a strong tourism boom. We have a lot of assets people enjoy with lakes, rivers and trails.”
Wren also said he is seeing a push from northern Kent County into Newaygo County as people are being priced out of Grand Rapids’ housing market, which presents opportunities for developers looking to build multifamily housing.
“We have a lot of opportunities for development,” said Julie Burrell, business development coordinator at The Right Place Inc., who focuses specifically on Newaygo County.
“Just like any other county in Michigan, we need housing at every price point,” she said.
The Right Place has worked in Newaygo County for the last five years, focusing on business retention and expansion services. Because Newaygo County is more rural and far less populated than neighboring Kent County, for example, it faces its own unique challenges.
“From my experience, as you get farther out of a metro area, you have to approach economic development a little differently,” said Travis Alden, director of business development with a focus on rural development at The Right Place. “It’s not just business retention, expansion, attraction, although that’s still a cornerstone of it. You’re getting into things like community development, housing, transportation, entrepreneurship, recreation.”
Real estate market
Several significant commercial real estate transactions took place in the last couple of years in the city of Newaygo.
NAI Wisinski of West Michigan worked to sell the Pine Lake Village Apartments near Newaygo’s main retail area. The company also did some work for Spectrum Health and in the main retail area in Newaygo. AutoZone recently received approval to develop a store in the city of Newaygo.
In 2019, the Newaygo County market included 13 commercial sales and 165 land sales. The residential market was busier with 673 units sold in 2019 at an average price of $158,842.
Todd Leinberger, a retail sales agent at NAI Wisinski, said more development opportunities exist in the city of Newaygo, specifically on vacant land that could be used for multifamily housing. However, developers often run into challenges because of construction costs, he said.
“The rents you can charge in a more urban area like Grand Rapids are significantly higher than in a market like Newaygo,” Leinberger said. “Developers have to work on tax credits and tax structured deals, and those can be challenging as well.”
Marijuana also presents opportunities for the Newaygo County real estate market. Skymint White Cloud opened last year with medical marijuana sales and in February debuted adult-use recreational marijuana sales. Skymint also operates a medical marijuana provisioning center in the city of Newaygo. Other properties in the county have changed hands to start the process of opening marijuana businesses.
The Fremont Industrial Park, owned by the city of Fremont, also has 51 acres of available land for businesses to locate there. The city of Fremont is in the process of issuing a request for proposals to expand wastewater services to make room for growth at the industrial park, said Todd Blake, the city’s finance director. The city hopes to complete the process by 2021.
Opportunities & challenges
With the Muskegon River and White River watersheds, dozens of inland lakes and portions of the Manistee National Forest in its boundaries, Newaygo County offers ample recreation opportunities, Wren said, noting the county can be attractive to people who enjoy a quieter lifestyle because of its remoteness.
However, those remote areas also present challenges when it comes to providing broadband access throughout the county.
“Once you get outside the populated areas, it’s a significant struggle,” Wren said.
Newaygo County Advanced Technological Services, a public network owned by the county and that also serves the Newaygo County Regional Educational Service Agency, is working to help expand broadband to areas that lack it. The distance between population clusters does present issues for expanding broadband.
The Right Place is also working to market Newaygo County’s Opportunity Zone, which is 63 square miles and begins just south of downtown Newaygo and extends to the southwest. It offers 17 miles of Muskegon River frontage.
Like other counties in West Michigan, Newaygo County also has a low unemployment rate that can pose its share of challenges for companies. Partnerships with Michigan Works! and The Right Place are helping to retain and attract talent, and the career-tech center also offers a talent development program, Wren said.
Even with the existing challenges, Wren is optimistic for the future in Newaygo County.
“This year has a lot of promise,” he said.