(As seen on WZZM TV 13) West Michigan is a place with something for everyone.
That’s the message of Cindy Brown, executive director of Hello West Michigan in Grand Rapids. Since its founding in 2011, Hello West Michigan has been a one-stop shop for those interested in relocating or returning to the area, tickling their interests and inviting them to check out the area’s economic and career opportunities.
The nonprofit talent attraction initiative, at 125 Ottawa Ave. NW downtown, started as a fiduciary of the regional economic developer The Right Place.
It launched in 2010 under the name “Quaeris” — Latin for “seek” — and changed to its current brand and name in 2011.
Hello West Michigan’s website (hellowestmichigan.com) has about 250 pages’ worth of information about the region. The site also offers a jobs portal.
Brown and Program Manager Rachel Bartels run the nonprofit, which is funded by 65 employer members. Hello West Michigan also works closely with the marketing organization Experience Grand Rapids, at 171 Monroe Ave. NW.
“(Membership) helps us cast a wider net to people outside the area, but it also gives people a chance to market their own employment as well,” Brown said.
Brown hopes her work attracts more than just new talent. She’s also looking to bring back people who have left the state and may want to return to live closer to family or to start their own.
That’s why Hello West Michigan throws the annual ReThink West Michigan event on “Thanksgiving Eve,” considered the biggest bar night of the year and a time when many return to visit families for the holiday.
“As our members are hiring folks from the outside the area, we look to connect (them and their) spouses to the community,” Brown said. “The other part we (focus on) is ‘boomerangs’ — individuals who’ve left the area but want to come back.”
So what is it that attracts people to West Michigan?
Well, for one thing, the area has won a flatteringly high number of awards for its growth and lifestyle, Brown said. That recognition counts for more than people may think.
There’s also the area’s four-season climate (arguably too much winter) and opportunities for many outdoor activities, particularly centered on Lake Michigan.
“The majority of people who leave say they miss the lake and the outdoor activities. They miss that people know each other and there’s a sense of camaraderie,” she said. “It’s not just the lifestyle. We have such a strong business economy here. It’s also very entrepreneurial.
“All this stuff goes hand in hand. There’s great employers here, and (many of) their global headquarters are here.”
Economic diversity reassures outsiders, Brown said: The area doesn’t have all its eggs in one basket, and that’s a key to attracting a diverse pool of talent.
“We have a wide variety of sectors that are extremely important. We have health and lifestyle. We have science and manufacturing. They’ve diversified to different products,” she said. “We also have up-and-coming IT and tech sectors. We have a lot of different sectors that are very strong and a lot of collaboration to keep it strong.”
Talent from outside is vital to the health of the community, Brown said. She notes that according to the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, one third of West Michigan’s population will have to come from outside our area by 2025.
This is why Hello West Michigan throws events for interns every year, like the upcoming West Michigan Intern Connect 2016.
The event, planned to be bigger than last year’s, will feature two programs, Brown said.
The first, Day in the Park, is 5:30-8 p.m. Thursday, June 23, at Ah-Nab-Awen Park downtown. The event will feature carnival games and food trucks and introduce the interns to downtown and each other. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased online. Brown said she expects more than 400 interns to attend.
“The goal of the event is to get the interns together,” she said. “We want to give them an opportunity to meet each other, meet new friends — some of them might go to the same college — and really get a feel for the different backgrounds that interns have.
The second event is a Professional Networking Night, 5:30-7:30 p.m. July 2 at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, 101 Monroe Center NW. Interns can network with employers and companies, Brown said.
“We’ve got a lot of these interns from West Michigan, but they might not know of other opportunities in the area, so we want them to talk to employers,” she said. “We want to keep it business casual. Right now we’ve got about 10-12 employers signed up. We’re hoping to get 20-30.”
The key to attracting interns and outsiders to West Michigan is knowledge, Brown said. So many people have relocated to the area and don’t know about opportunities West Michigan has to offer in both lifestyle and employers, she said. Hello West Michigan wants to make it so even if interns and potential residents are looking for any type of work, “they’re already sold on the area.
“We’re a well-kept secret. A lot of people don’t know who we are,” she said. “The more they do, the better.”