Lakeshore Advantage could have its first director on board this spring, although it has set no timetable beyond hiring someone “as soon as we find the right person,” interim Executive Director Dan Bourbon said.
As the search progresses, directors of the agency are considering space near downtown Zeeland for Lake Advantage’s offices and a business incubator that would house start-up businesses, a classroom for worker education and training, and a “coffee shop” setting where business owners and entrepreneurs could meet in a relaxed atmosphere to network and talk business.
The executive director search, which commenced two weeks ago, and preparations for the business incubator come some 14 months after business and political leaders began planning a regional economic development group in the Holland-Zeeland area to build on existing efforts and take a broader approach. Work to form the regional economic development agency accelerated last September, when Chris Byrnes resigned as president of the Holland Area Chamber of Commerce and the Holland Economic Development Corp., or HEDCOR.
“It’s taking life,” said Bourbon, the chairman of EST Testing Solutions in Holland who signed on as Lakeshore Advantage’s interim executive director in December.
‘Things are progressing. They could just progress faster once we have somebody on board,” he said.
Funding for the new agency is private. Lakeshore Advantage has received enough financial support so far to proceed hiring the director and creating the business incubator, Bourbon said.
Founders estimate the agency will need to raise about $300,000 annually to support its initiatives and a staff of three and a half people, he said. Bourbon believes that level of support exists in the business community around Holland and Zeeland.
“I think it’s doable,” he said. “It’s just a matter of asking enough people and businesses.”
In setting up Lakeshore Advantage, founding directors sought to build an organization that complements the work of existing business groups — the Holland chamber, the Zeeland Chamber of Commerce and HEDCOR — and avoids a duplication of efforts.
The premise is that certain issues and duties, such as recruitment and seeding new businesses, are best addressed from a broader, regional perspective.
“We’re here to fill in the cracks and play on a bigger stage than we can today,” Bourbon said. “We getting some things done and everybody’s arrows are still aligned.”
In that spirit of collaboration, founding directors of Lakeshore Advantage devised a business plan that has the agency focusing primarily on nurturing and supporting start-up and small businesses and working to retain large existing employers to grow in the area, particularly companies that are headquartered elsewhere, like auto suppliers Johnson Controls Inc. and Magna Donnelly.
Bourbon notes that much of the area’s economic growth for the past four decades has come from home-grown businesses. Among the most notable examples are Herman Miller Inc., Haworth Inc., Gentex Corp. and, prior to their buyouts, the former Prince Corp. and Donnelly Corp.
Lakeshore Advantage staff will conduct regular retention visits with top corporate executives of large employers and, at the other end of the spectrum, administer a mentoring program that will match today’s generation of young entrepreneurs and small business owners with long-time business leaders of successful companies that can provide advice and guidance to their younger counterparts.
The mentoring program would essentially leverage what many see as unique attributes of the local business community: a deep-seated spirit of entrepreneurship and the strong willingness of business leaders to reach out and help the younger generation behind them.
“We just need to facilitate that connection,” Bourbon said.
And that connection is an invaluable service to nurturing and growing new companies and creating the business leaders of tomorrow. It can help to sustain a business environment that makes people willing to start a business in the Holland-Zeeland area and create jobs.
“There’s a lot of talent and passion out there, but sometimes you need somebody there with you,” said Jane Clark, interim president of the Holland chamber and member of the Lakeshore Advantage board of directors.
Overall, Lakeshore Advantage, which uses the slogan “Where success continues,” will focus on significantly increasing the region’s research and development activities, enhancing the manufacturing engineering capability, aggressively seeking to retain and grow local businesses, and increasing the rate of business start-ups, according to the organization’s business plan.
Left out of the mix for now for Lakeshore Advantage is the critical area of work-force development.
Directors felt that work-force development is an area that’s best handled by the Zeeland and Holland chambers, which already have the needed staff and structures in place and are best able to handle that responsibility. Keeping that responsibility with the chambers assures continuity in work-force development efforts as Lakeshore Advantage grows and prevents too much from getting piled on to the new organization’s plate at the onset, Clark said.
“We’re going to do what we’ve been doing,” she said. “At an appropriate time, if it makes sense for someone else to do (work-force development), we’ll look at it.”
The structure and role that has been defined for Lakeshore Advantage also leaves HEDCOR pursuing its traditional role of developing and selling industrial land.
With about 100 acres of land in its Northside Industrial Park still available, HEDCOR “will still be around a while,” said Clark, who also serves as secretary of HEDCOR.
While there were worries a year ago about whether the formation of a regional economic development agency would duplicate existing efforts, triggering turf battles, organizers say a cooperative atmosphere among the players has helped to avoid problems and forge stronger partnerships.
“We’re not competitors. We’re collaborators and partners,” Clark said. “If we have good news for Holland, it’s good for Zeeland.”