Immigrant, refugee population research won’t change GR’s boyhood image


A curious assortment of bedfellows is interested in researching the existing Combined Statistical Area immigrant population for wide-ranging sets of information, ostensively to “tell the story” of immigrants and refugees within the area. The information, however, is expected to be used by economic development groups to make the case for the area’s diversity and to “address the talent shortage” within the area. The latter two identified goals seem vague or veiled: the existing minority population (estimated to be approximately 10 percent of the total population) is, by definition, already part of the talent force; West Michigan’s lack of diversity is having an increasingly negative impact on business recruitment and economic growth opportunities.

The size of the talent recruitment problem has been known for a decade (and is shared by many U.S. states). Hello West Michigan Executive Director Cindy Brown has noted in Business Journal reports that one-third of West Michigan’s population must be recruited from outside the area by 2025, according to research from the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.

New American Economy and Welcoming America, nonpartisan, immigration-focused nonprofits, will conduct tailored research over the next three months through a “nonfinancial award” to Samaritas, a faith-based nonprofit; the city of Grand Rapids; and the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. The project is called “Gateways for Growth.”

Among the stated objectives is to highlight the contributions immigrants are making by bolstering population growth, increasing the tax base, starting new businesses, creating jobs, and adding vibrancy and culture to the region. Another expectation is the information culled will be helpful to the chamber, the Michigan Office of New Americans, economic developers, the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, nonprofits that serve refugees, the city and its education systems. The research will be shared with the Grand Rapids community to “help with strategic planning surrounding systems-level change.”

Here’s the fly in the ointment: West Michigan is a landscape vastly populated by private, family-owned businesses, the majority of which expect to remain family owned — even if the C-suite talent comes from outside the family circle. It is a defining difference from Detroit’s largely public company population and world stage status. The minority and female business community in the Grand Rapids area rarely has been at the table — including that of economic development groups — of those constructing a vision of the city or region. Such representation is from government entities or nonprofits. Public entities cannot feign to represent the private sector.

Countless studies will not change the boyhood image of Grand Rapids unless and until that occurs.

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