GH Turns Toward Recruitment

    GRAND HAVEN — At a time when unemployment is higher than it’s been in years and a large inventory of manufacturing space sits empty, economic development efforts locally are about to get an added dimension.

    The Chamber of Commerce in Grand Haven is just beginning a multi-year initiative that will put renewed focus on recruiting industries to the area, an emphasis that hasn’t been applied for several years.

    The primary focus of the chamber’s initiative, now in the formative stages, is to fill existing industrial space that is either vacant or underutilized. The strategy builds on a broader push the chamber has made in the last two years to retain local employers and help them grow.

    “We’ve got a wonderful base (of employers) but we want to make sure we keep bringing those entrepreneurs in that can grow in this community,” chamber President Joy Gaasch said. “We really want to make sure we’re giving those kinds of companies a chance in our community.”

    The initiative is starting at square one.

    The first step is updating and assembling into a readily accessible format a community profile that details the existing public infrastructure, utility and labor costs, tax rates, and amenities that support business such as the availability of worker training. Doing so would provide that information in a format that firms and site consultants can easily tap when scouring the region for facilities. The chamber also needs to get a better handle on the industrial space that’s available in the area and assemble it into a continually updated database.

    As with any economic development agency, the Grand Haven chamber receives periodic calls from companies and site consultants wanting to know what’s available locally. The organization wants to have the ability to better react to inquiries and begin taking a more proactive approach toward business recruitment.

    “If you don’t do that, then you’re just waiting and seeing. And then maybe the phone calls don’t come,” said Tricia Ryan, chamber vice president for economic development.

    Business recruitment was a major emphasis in the Grand Haven-Spring Lake area in the 1980s and early 1990s, that, following the departure of large employers in the early 1980s, resulted in the development of a slew of new industrial parks, as well as the movement to town of several small manufacturing firms and formation of new businesses.

    Things have since changed, however, for a variety of reasons.

    As the political winds in several local communities blew back and forth and anti-growth sentiments emerged over the years, business recruitment languished, resulting in the area getting stuck with the reputation across West Michigan as being anti-business at a time when other communities in the region were aggressively courting new investment.

    Part of the new initiative is to break down that perception by trying to get the political leadership in the five communities that comprise the Grand Haven-Spring Lake area to identify what they want in economic development, Ryan said.

    At the same time, the success of the recruitment push several years ago left little industrial land available in the area for new and growing firms, resulting in a tailing off of recruitment efforts and a return to primarily focusing on serving existing businesses.

    “There really hasn’t been a whole lot of places for industry to move into the community, so people were comfortable with focusing on industries that are here,” Gaasch said.

    Now, with unemployment up and a sizable inventory of industrial space vacant because of the economic downturn, the recruiting end of the economic development game once again needs more attention, she said.

    “There’s facilities available,” Gaasch said.

    While a specific strategy for recruiting new employers to the area is still to come as the chamber’s economic development committee begins working on the initiative, both Gaasch and Ryan foresee a two- to three-year effort that takes a targeted approach. To that end, the chamber needs to work with existing industries to identify service voids in the area and then fold that particular sector into its planning.           

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