Why, he asked himself, were DSS workers encouraged to enroll people onto the welfare rolls? Shouldn’t it be the other way around, with the department working to help people avoid public assistance?
“This is no way to run a program,” said Byrnes, whose experience as an intern years ago led him to decide on a career that would help people by providing them with opportunity.
Blending a youthful idealism with an entrepreneurial spirit inherited from his parents — his mother was a real estate agent who owned her own firm and his father sold and serviced dairy equipment — Byrnes was soon on his way to helping communities build their economic base. Economic development, he reasoned, produces jobs and provides opportunity for people.
“It was a good blend of wanting to build something good and help people build communities and have a good quality of life,” said Byrnes, the 39-year-old president of the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce and the Holland Economic Development Corporation (HEDCOR).
A native of Marlette in the thumb area of lower Michigan, Byrnes last fall succeeded long-time Holland Area Chamber of Commerce chief Lou Hallacy, who retired Oct. 1.
Byrnes joined the Holland Area Chamber in 1996 as vice president and spent four years being groomed to eventually succeed Hallacy, whom he describes as a mentor.
The area’s strong local economy and entrepreneurial heritage, a chance to work in a growing community and the combined administrative structure of the chamber and HEDCOR lured Byrnes to Holland. He considers the position one of the best economic development jobs in Michigan.
“It’s a plum job,” Byrnes said.
The route to Holland began after Byrnes graduated from Michigan State University in 1983 with a degree in public administration. He initially intended to change the world “one community at a time,” working as a city manager or county administrator.
But after graduating from college, Byrnes saw economic development as a good career path. He sought and landed a job as executive director for the Sanilac County Economic Development Corp.
“It just clicked. It just made sense,” he said of the career choice. “I was lucky enough to interview for the job and get the position, and here I am.”
Byrnes served two years in Sanilac County before being recruited to go to Three Rivers, where he worked as general manager for the Three Rivers Chamber of Commerce. He left that position for a job with the Greater Niles Economic Development Foundation, where he met and began a working relationship with Hallacy that would eventually lead him to seek the new position as the vice president of the Holland Area Chamber and HEDCOR.
He was one of more than 170 people who applied for the position.
Byrnes’ focus for the chamber in the years ahead centers around technology, work force development, enhancing member services and continuing HEDCOR’s strong economic development efforts.