MUSKEGON — Todd Battle envisioned himself heading on to law school after graduation from college.
His career took a more direct route, however, when after getting a taste of the business while serving an internship during his waning weeks at Central Michigan University, Battle decided economic development fit him well.
Two weeks after graduating, he moved to the Upper Peninsula to begin a new job as head of a small, fledgling economic development agency in Iron Mountain. That position led him to Muskegon a year ago, where the 25-year-old Battle serves as executive director of Muskegon Area First, the community’s lead economic development group that was formed in 1999 after the break-up of its umbrella organization.
At a time when Muskegon is on the brink of what many believe is a renaissance, with major plans for the redevelopment of the Muskegon Lake waterfront anchoring the area’s economic renewal, Battle is glad he put his law career on hold.
“There are so many things on the drawing board. How can this not be fun?” said Battle, who joined Muskegon Area First in April 2000 after a two-year stint with the Dickinson Area Economic Development office. “It’s a community that really does have a lot of potential.
“It’s so incredible what’s going to happen here in the next five to 10 years,” he said.
A Reed City native, Battle started down the path toward Muskegon at Central Michigan University, where he earned a degree in political science, with an emphasis in public administration and a minor in economics.
Two things changed his original plans.
First, to earn the final credits he needed to graduate, Battle took an eight-week internship at an economic development agency in Mecosta County. While there he did everything — from creating databases to measuring the size of industrial properties — and found that he could combine the skills he learned in college in a profession that has an element of civic service.
As the internship came to a close, Battle concluded that he had found a field that suited him well for now. He put law school on hold, partly because he enjoyed the work he was doing, and partly because he had no great desire to spend the time and money it would take to earn a law degree.
“The calculator went off in my head,” Battle said. “It’s just one of those things where I just don’t see the need to put myself through three more years of school when I’m very happy with what I’m doing.”
Nearing graduation in the spring of 1998, Battle sought and was offered the job in Iron Mountain. Part of the allure of the position was to become part of a new organization. Two weeks after graduating, he was in Iron Mountain with the responsibility to start and run the community’s economic development efforts.
While “a little daunting” at first, Battle settled in. Today he credits the position with teaching him the nuances of developing an organization and working with the public and private sectors.
Battle chose a small town to start his career over seeking work in a larger community because it allowed him to gain broader experience and do more professionally, rather than settle into a specialty within a larger organization.
“I just said, ‘I can go up there and get every experience I ever want and be in charge,’” he said. “It was pretty neat. We were building something from the ground up.”
After two years in Iron Mountain, Battle was ready to move on. He landed in Muskegon, where the former Muskegon Area Growth Alliance — an umbrella group consisting of the local chamber of commerce, tourist bureau, and economic development agency — had recently broken up into separate organizations. As he had done in Iron Mountain, Battle set to work in Muskegon building a new organization.
Battle spends most of his time working with existing employers. In seeking to attract new firms to Muskegon, the agency wants to focus on bringing companies to the area that pay good wages.
“We’re starting to look at quality,” Battle said. “We want companies that are good corporate citizens. We want them to move here and grow here. We want economic development that goes with the quality of life we have in West Michigan.”