Muskegon recalibrates econ dev initiative


Muskegon Area First is going through a total reinvention.

Muskegon’s economic development organization has a new president and CEO, is establishing a new board and is transitioning fund sourcing from the government to the private sector.

The Muskegon Area First Economic Development Corporation was founded in 1999 by Muskegon County’s major cities and townships, who since have wholly funded the organization, along with the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce.

MAF’s focus is to leverage public and private investment to accelerate business growth and create jobs in Muskegon County. MAF serves as a clearinghouse of information for businesses about programs and incentives offered by the government.

Without undergoing much change in its 20 years, it’s time for MAF to go through a complete restructuring, said Jim Edmonson, who began as MAF’s president and CEO on June 3.

Reversing a downward trend

Though fluctuation is the nature of economic development, Edmonson said the organization has been in a downward trend that he is working to move in the opposite direction.

So, the government and business leaders got together and decided to “pull the curtain shut, reinvent and open the door back up.” He said the new board and systems should be set by the start of MAF’s next fiscal year Oct. 1.

“It was time to catch up with what's going on in the rest of the county, particularly downtown Muskegon,” Edmonson said.

Edmonson said MAF did about 70 industry visits last year. Next year, he plans to do 200.

He said MAF was working on about 15-20 expansion projects and about 20 attraction projects last year. Seven of those projects were completed, which created at least 145 jobs. He plans to double the project list for the next year and triple it the following year.

MAF had about $162 million in economic activity across all services last year, he said.

Edmonson brings 43 years of economic development experience to the new position, including three years as MAF head in 2004-07.

Besides his prior work for MAF, Edmonson was the director of community and economic development for the city of Muskegon in 1993-97. He also held economic development positions in New York and Louisiana.

Edmonson’s Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based consulting firm has been working with MAF for the past three months to help the organization through the restructuring. A couple of weeks ago, Edmonson said a new board that was established to transition the organization “convinced” him to join as the staff leader.

The transitional board contains six representatives from the private sector and one from the public sector. It’s led by Mike Olthoff, CEO of Nichols, the Norton Shores-based paper, packaging and sanitary supply distributor.

“Honestly, I did not consult with MAF to become its next president and CEO,” Edmonson said. “But board members were very persuasive, and this is an incredible time to be involved in Muskegon County economic development. Look around — Muskegon County is going through a historic community transformation.”

Edmonson said he has a home in Louisiana but also has a summer home in Muskegon, so he has remained familiar with the area.

Muskegon Area First has been in transition since former president and CEO Ed Garner left the agency in October 2017. Leading MAF through its transition has been Interim President and CEO Darryl Todd, who will remain with the agency to work on business and talent development.

Establishing framework

Edmonson is spending his initial months with MAF establishing framework for the revamped agency, which still will have financial and strategic relationships with local governments in Muskegon County.

Early work includes fundraising, establishing a first-year budget and reorganizing staff.

Edmonson said MAF will continue focusing on what it always has — expansion, retention and attraction — but he plans to deliver those services in a more modern way, using technology and more efficient systems. That also includes sharing staff with organizations that may need that resource.

“The type of service the users need has changed over time,” he said.

MAF has three total staff at this point. He plans to have a couple more business and community development staff by October and a couple more in the coming years.

Historically, the MAF board had only three industry representatives. He and the transitional board are working to establish a new board by September.

Edmonson said MAF is about halfway toward the first year’s fundraising goal of $500,000, which will increase after the inaugural year.

The majority of MAF’s funding will come from corporations, the Muskegon Chamber and utility companies. The next tier will come from nonprofits, such as education institutions, community foundations and hospitals. About a quarter of the funding will come from the public sector. MAF charges for a few types of projects, depending on size.

‘Recruit, capture, cultivate, automate’

Working with the Muskegon Chamber, where MAF’s office is located, Edmonson said the focuses for services are: “recruit, capture, cultivate and automate.”

Edmonson said MAF will have a significant emphasis on talent development, including workforce training and content development.

“We need somebody that keeps everyone talking the same language between industry and trainers, and so we'll have a position that oversees that,” he said.

For those trained workers already in the county, Edmonson said he wants to make sure they can get jobs there.

“Thirty-four thousand people a day leave Muskegon County and go work somewhere else,” he said. “If we can capture 20% of them, that's a big boost to the workforce here.”

He wants to “cultivate” the next generation of workers, introducing them to the workforce and making adjustments based on the way they see and understand the world.

Focusing on automation, he said the intent is modern technology can help manufacturers increase production, which will lead to expansions and high-paying jobs.

Edmonson said MAF is analyzing proposals to contract an international marketing company for three years, which will help with branding, target marketing and identifying a list of potential client companies.

He said there may be opportunities for local PR companies.

The Muskegon Area First Procurement Technical Assistance Center will continue providing businesses with government contracting support services through MAF for the 13-county West Michigan region.

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