New leader refines The Right Place game plan

Randy Thelen reframes the economic development agency’s existing strategy under three new pillars.
Perrigo’s new headquarters in downtown Grand Rapids will be one example of significant growth Right Place officials can use to tout the region. Rendering courtesy Perrigo

As The Right Place moves through the second year of its three-year strategic plan, the new guy at the helm has some terminology changes he believes will help more effectively describe its plans.

Randy Thelen, president and CEO of The Right Place since March 1, said in a recent meeting with the Business Journal staff that he celebrates and wants to build on the 33-year legacy of his longtime economic development peer, Birgit Klohs, who retired as top leader of the organization in January.

During the leadership transition period, he said he and Klohs both agreed now is not the time to ease off the gas pedal, because the region’s competitors for talent and investment are not stopping, and West Michigan can’t afford to lose the ground it’s gained in the past few years relative to other U.S. metro areas.

“We’ve got a lot of opportunity here, and I think we have stories to tell. We’ve got to get the market to understand this is a unique moment coming out of a pandemic. Do we sit back and let it pass us by, or do we attack and be bold and try to leapfrog some of our competition?” Thelen said. “This pandemic has caused a recession, caused conditions that we’ve never seen globally quite like this before, where it’s universal; it’s everywhere. Communities that have poor strategy and poor leadership are going to do poorly, and communities that have strong leadership and strong vision are going to perform really well. We’ve got the makings of (the latter) here, and we’ve got to take full advantage.”

Randy Thelen

Although, as the Business Journal reported in December, The Right Place performed under plan goals in 2020, attributable largely to the pandemic-induced recession — with job creation and retention numbers, new and retained payroll, and wage goals well below the mark the organization would have liked to hit at the one-year point — Thelen said when compared to other regions’ capital investments during the same period, Grand Rapids stands out.

He cited Perrigo’s decision to invest $44.7 million to move its North American headquarters from Allegan to downtown Grand Rapids, which will create 170 jobs, as one of the shining examples, along with Spectrum Health’s North Monroe administration building that’s underway, and Michigan State University’s Innovation Park that’s nearly finished on the west end of Medical Mile — not to mention progress on the Grand Rapids Whitewater Project and the development goals of the 201 Market Ave. SW property along the riverfront.

“You can go around the country, and frankly you don’t see the kind of major project announcements that we have underway right now,” he said. “I think that’s going to help propel us forward faster.”

Thelen said The Right Place consulted “hundreds and hundreds” of individuals and businesses when developing its three-year strategic plan, and he believes the fundamentals of that strategy remain strong.

“We are not spending our time right now recrafting the objectives or the tactics; we’re full speed ahead. We are reframing it, however. … We needed to have it reframed in a way that people could better understand and relate to it, and then outside of The Right Place, people might see a role for them to help advance our regional economy.”

Thelen and his team devised the three Ps as a way of communicating the plan it’s implementing: people, place and prosperity.

“Every single objective, every single tactic that we’ve had in the existing strategy stays true; we’re just rolling it up under those three pillars so that it invites more people into it. It invites more organizations, it allows (Philomena Mantella) at Grand Valley State or Rick (Pappas) at Davenport or Bill (Pink) over at GRCC to see within their work and all of their staff’s work, that the talent piece — our ‘people’ focus as a regional economic development strategy — is paramount.

“It helps inspire and excites communities that are building up our downtowns throughout the region, that we have to be exceptional at ‘place.’ Whether it’s the riverfront redevelopment here in Grand Rapids or redeveloping the Main Street in Newaygo, we have to keep making our place better and a higher quality of life environment for people.

“And then finally is that ‘prosperity’ piece, which is our business developments, our innovation, our technology type of work that we have historically done. Those three pillars represent our comprehensive strategy.”

While Thelen said the reframing likely won’t necessitate restructuring or hiring within The Right Place, the business development “prosperity” piece may include getting its industry councils — especially the Manufacturing Council and the Technology Council — to talk to each other and collaborate more often, to meet a moment in which the automation and global supply chain forces of Industry 4.0 are increasingly making technology and manufacturing “attached at the hip” instead of separate entities.

In order for the region to prosper, Thelen also noted it will be important for state and local governments to use long-term thinking when allocating the record-setting stimulus dollars in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that President Joe Biden signed into law a few weeks ago.

“Our view at The Right Place is we want to see those dollars be invested in long-term assets that provide a return on investment rather than one-time expenditures that may provide a short-term stimulus but then are gone,” Thelen said. “I think of it as a little bit like cotton candy. You eat some cotton candy, you get a sugar rush for a moment, and it feels pretty good, but then 30 minutes later, you’re back down, and you got no nutritional value for long-term health. I think we need to find ways to invest in something that’s going to provide greater return, and that’s a high-level conversation.”

Thelen noted investing in better broadband throughout the region could be one example of a long-term investment that would position West Michigan to be competitive in the tech industry.

On the “people” side of things, Thelen said he believes Grand Rapids is well positioned to be one of the midsized cities that people are looking for as they choose to move away from the expensive and crowded mega-cities on the coasts and into the lower-cost Midwest. But in order to attract and retain the kind of Fortune 500 companies that people outside the region might want to work for, he said greater Grand Rapids will have to step up when it comes to training and educating its talent to meet today’s workforce needs.

He believes — spurred on by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s talent initiatives such as the Sixty by 30 goal to have 60% of Michigan’s working-age adults attain a degree or skilled credential by 2030, up from the 45% that fit that description today — institutions like Grand Rapids Community College, Davenport University and Grand Valley State University are making huge strides in helping the 24% of Michigan adults who have some college education to finish their degree or certificate program and increase their employability.

Thelen said cities like Omaha and Denver — where he worked in economic development leadership before returning to Michigan — have success stories of institutions coming together to upskill their workforce into the in-demand tech careers of today, from which Grand Rapids can take some pointers.

“(In Omaha), we identified how many tech hires were expected over a five-year period. We then analyzed how many tech workers were going to be produced within the various tech pipelines coming through the high schools, colleges and universities. And there was an enormous gap, and so those employers and the universities and the colleges and the high schools all came together and tried to figure out ways to accelerate and expand that pipeline,” Thelen said. “We did some things that have happened here, too, but at a bigger scale there — code schools were launched, summer tech camps were launched, university and college programs were dramatically increased, and so suddenly, we were able to see a substantial boost in the tech talent being produced there.”

When he worked in Denver, the city was full of young adults with tech experience who had moved to the city for its lifestyle and culture aspects but were waiting tables due to lack of opportunity during the Great Recession. Having that talent pool in place drew in tech startups.

“As the Denver tech scene grew and more people started to move there, then more tech companies came, and now, it’s just booming to where the downtown economy there … is now 10% tech. Ten years ago, it was about 2%. So it’s really taken off.”

If Grand Rapids can quickly upskill its workforce, Thelen said he sees no reason why it can’t compete for becoming home base for tech companies looking to expand out of Silicon Valley to cities with a lower cost of living and lower wages.

“I think there’s a desire on the part of some companies that they don’t necessarily want to be a small fish in a big pond, but they might choose to be a leader, be a big fish in a pond like the size of greater Grand Rapids,” he said. “I think we’ll start to see more and more of that.”

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