Lakeshore Advantage Has Its Leader

    ZEELAND — The chance to build an organization from the ground up in an area with a strong economic base helped lure the first chief executive of the fledgling regional economic development agency, Lakeshore Advantage Corp.

    Randy Thelen has been in the economic development field for a decade, most recently spending more than four years as managing director of site development service at the Michigan Economic Development Corp. He saw the position with Lakeshore Advantage as a “great professional opportunity” in an area that places a high value on maintaining a healthy business environment and has a manufacturing base that “astounded” him.

    “The region has a lot of advantages,” said Thelen, who starts as the agency’s first president on June 1.

    Thelen’s primary role is to focus on employer retention and helping local companies grow, as well as recruiting firms to the Holland-Zeeland area, particularly targeting advanced manufacturing. Supporting existing employers can ultimately help to lure other companies to the area, he said.

    “You have to have a business sector growing before you can hope to have business investment in your community,” Thelen said. “Before you have a successful business recruitment, you have to have a solid business base. Once those are in place, then your recruitment becomes more viable.”

    Prior to his tenure at MEDC, where he helped to run state economic incentive programs, Thelen worked for the Monroe County Industrial Development Corp. for three years and the Osceola Economic Alliance in Osceola County for two years.

    That experience in successfully implementing business retention, expansion and attraction programs made Thelen an attractive candidate to Lakeshore Advantage’s directors when they searched for the organization’s first-ever president, Chairman Jack Marquis said.

    “We have a big job in front of us and we could not have found a more qualified chief executive,” Marquis said. “We are extremely impressed with him.”

    Thelen, in addition to his professional experience, holds a degree in economics from Alma College and a master’s degree in applied economics from the State University of New York at Binghamton.

    Formed last year, Lakeshore Advantage will address economic development from a broader, more regional perspective than how it was handled in the past.

    The organization is primarily private sector-driven. Its board consists of representatives from Holland and Zeeland, both towns’ chambers of commerce and the Holland Economic Development Corp., which returns to its original role of preparing industrial land for development.

    As Lakeshore Advantage gets off the ground, Thelen believes his professional background will serve him well as he begins learning about the business community, its needs and setting an agenda for the organization.

    “I know what it takes to implement programs,” he said.

    At the MEDC, Thelen gained valuable exposure to “some of the best economic development practices in the state” and “what works best.”

    One of the first tasks for Thelen is to get Lakeshore Advantage’s new business incubator, Lakeshore Business Garden, open and running.

    The facility, located near downtown Zeeland, will provide start-up companies with low-cost office space and match entrepreneurs with business executives in the community who will serve as mentors. The goal is to nurture the next generation of companies that can create new jobs for the area and grow the business.

    By offering that support network, Lakeshore Advantage wants to increase an entrepreneur’s chances of long-term success, interim Executive Director Dan Bourbon said. Much of the Holland-Zeeland area’s economic base today comes from homegrown businesses, he said.

    “Our biggest employers are people who started here and grew up here,” said Bourbon, chairman of EST Solutions Inc. in Holland and a director for Lakeshore Advantage.           

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