Lakeshore’s ‘hidden gem’ rebounds from recession


The German freighter HHL Elbe arrived in Muskegon earlier this month from Bremerhaven with a delivery of wind turbine parts for a project in Mid-Michigan. The ship is docked at The Mart Dock. Courtesy Arn Boezaart

(As seen on WZZM TV 13) As unemployment levels decline and investments in Muskegon County continue to increase, economic activity is on the rise.

Investments in expansion projects in the manufacturing sector make it one of several industries driving economic development in Muskegon, and employment figures continue to rise among the different areas.

The jointly published June 2014 Muskegon Market Report by the Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, Muskegon Area First and The Employers’ Association of West Michigan noted several projects Muskegon Area First is assisting, including the transformation of the Muskegon port into a multi-modal logistics hub, workforce development programs, and exploration of food-related industry developments.

Founded in 1999, Muskegon Area First is an economic development corporation focused on spurring business growth and employment opportunities in the county.

Ed Garner, its president and CEO, said, along with the Muskegon port development initiative and the Mercy Health Muskegon expansion project, the manufacturing sector is impacting economic activity in the area.

“Manufacturing continues to be on the rebound,” said Garner.

In the past couple of years, the Muskegon area has seen more than $100 million invested into projects that are now completed, with another $300 million worth of projects in the process of development, according to Garner.

“The largest of these are a proposed $220 million medical center for Mercy Health, $28 million in facility projects for Muskegon Community College — which includes a downtown campus — and $22 million in lakefront homes and downtown apartments,” he said.

Manufacturing companies impacting economic activity include: ADAC Automotive, a full-service automotive supplier specializing in door handles; Port City Group, a manufacturer of zinc and aluminum die castings, mechanical assemblies and injected molded plastics; GE Aviation, a provider of aviation aircraft systems and ship propulsion applications; and Alcoa Howmet, a manufacturer for jet aircraft, gas turbine and other technology industries.

“We have a strong presence in aerospace here and we also have a strong presence in automotive,” said Garner. “Our largest projects over the last couple of years probably have been with … ADAC Automotive. Most recently, in the past couple of years they completed a $15 million expansion and then they proceeded to do another $5 million expansion.”

Port City Group also completed a recent expansion project at an estimated $5 million, while GE Aviation and Alcoa Howmet have continued to grow and add investment in equipment.

“They continue to make expansions, as well, and due to the Boeing line, they see continued growth over the next half-dozen years in the aerospace sector. And there are a number of smaller places that support aerospace here in the community,” said Garner.

George Erickcek, senior regional analyst at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for employment research, said the economic activity in the Muskegon area is overall very positive, and the addition of roughly 200 more jobs in the manufacturing sector bodes well for its future.

“The important thing about that is that these jobs bring in other jobs … a strong multiplier in manufacturing,” said Erickcek. “Muskegon has some very strong auto manufacturers, so they have been enjoying the bump in auto sales. In addition to that, there is still a strong growth that has taken place in the aeronautics and aerospace fields. So I think that is positive, as well.”

The Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget released an employment statistics report in May 2014 for the Muskegon-Norton Shores MSA, which reported a 1.56 percent increase in employment for the manufacturing sector from March 2014 for a total of 13,000 jobs.

Trade transportation and utilities saw an increase of 0.78 percent, or 100 more jobs from March to May, while educational and health services remained unchanged during the same period, according to the labor market report.

Total nonfarm employment increased by 1.62 percent, from 61,700 in May 2013 to 62,700 in May 2014, while total private job positions increased from 54,000 to 55,500 during the same period, a 2.78 percent increase.

Erickcek said the creation of jobs and positions is encouraging people to re-enter the workforce who had previously given up.

“When we look at the data for the last 12 months, May to May, it is really good news,” said Erickcek. “Three thousand more have jobs than a year ago … and because of that, the number of people who are unemployed has dropped.”

The DTMB released April unemployment rates for Michigan regional areas May 22. It reported the Muskegon-Norton Shores MSA unemployment level dropped to 6.9 percent as of April, with a decline of 13.6 percent of unemployed individuals actively seeking a job from the month of March, with 6,600 people, to April with 5,700 people.

Brittany Lenertz, community relations worker at Michigan Works! Muskegon-Oceana Counties, said in the last five years, there has been significant growth in health care, manufacturing and hospitality.

“There are a lot of jobs available. … One of the things that we are tirelessly working on is making sure our workforce has the skills they need in this new economy and what that looks like,” said Lenertz. “We are doing a better job than ever before at partnering with those employers who are growing and expanding and having needs … and getting the right people at the table.”

Michigan Works! Muskegon-Oceana Counties developed a HotJobs! report that outlines local high-demand employment opportunities. Some of the high-demand jobs listed in the spring/summer 2014 edition include: industrial engineer, process engineer, mechanical engineer, registered nurses, physical therapists, pharmacy technicians and software developers.

With its economic vision to create a model waterfront community where all people may prosper, Garner said Muskegon Area First’s primary strategic goal is the retention and growth of the existing customer base to attract visitors.

“Growth begets growth. To continue the momentum, we are continually trying to, number one, provide or make notification of our availability of what we have to offer here, such as land available, trying to make sure our workforce is up to speed, identifying other things or stuff for people to do and enjoy while they are here on the lakeshore community,” said Garner.

Other aspects of the strategy are a promotional campaign through the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and maintaining the partnership among employers and the Michigan Works! agency.

“It’s an overall approach that is kind of one strategy, but we still sometimes, I think, (believe) that Muskegon is a hidden gem, so to speak,” said Garner. “A number of times we have had people from outside this community come here who are fascinated by some of the things we have here. So we are working on doing a better job of promoting Muskegon.”

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