STANTON — A local economic development group has become as stagnant or more so than the local economy it’s trying to help.
The Montcalm Alliance hasn’t met in months. The group has suffered a net loss of almost $20,000 in the past year and incurred a debt of $6,750 to cover operational shortfalls. The current membership list hasn’t been updated online since 2010 and the website (montcalmalliance.com) and Facebook page haven’t been updated since 2011.
“Our membership has been steadily declining since we started,” Montcalm Alliance Secretary Candy Kerschen told members of the Montcalm County Economic Development & Physical Resources Committee on Tuesday morning. “Obviously we have some concerns.”
Kerschen was present along with fellow Montcalm Alliance members Vice Chairman Robert Spohr, Treasurer Bob Clingenpeel and Kathy Jo VanderLaan to give commissioners a heads-up about the Montcalm Alliance’s plan to pursue voter approval of .1 mills to generate $162,000 to allow the Montcalm Alliance to join forces with The Right Place. Montcalm Alliance members say if approved, the millage would cost each household an average of $5 per year.
“Nobody likes taxes, nobody likes new taxes, but in this case you’re going to see it come back to us,” VanderLaan promised commissioners. “We’re not looking at going on fishing expeditions. We want to grow the businesses that are currently here.”
The Right Place is a West Michigan business development and economic development agency which offers services to support existing and new businesses.
The Ionia County Economic Alliance has been working in collaboration with The Right Place since 2011. Recent success stories in Ionia County include Cargill Kitchen Solutions investing $10.6 million in an egg processing facility in Odessa Township, leading to an anticipated 28 new jobs, plus nearly 22,500 square feet of expansion; plus a $500,000 Michigan Business Development Program grant for Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch in Saranac, allowing for a $17.5 million expansion at three of its facilities, plus an anticipated 50 new jobs created over the next three years.
‘Are we going to jump to the front lines?’
According to Kerschen, if the Montcalm Alliance joined forces with The Right Place, Montcalm County would have a full-time economic development manager dedicated to replenishing and growing base jobs. The manager would communicate with key decision makers, establish relationships with site selection professionals, have a presence at state and regional meetings and participate in relevant conferences and trade shows — especially focusing on manufacturing, food processing and agriculture for Montcalm County.
Kerschen said the Montcalm Alliance would actively participate in selecting the new manager and writing the job description, as well as providing an office in Montcalm County. The Montcalm Alliance would also provide representation for Montcalm County on The Right Place board.
VanderLaan noted that The Right Place has a positive website presence (rightplace.org), something the Montcalm Alliance is sorely lacking.
“We’ve been listening and learning from The Right Place and that’s where our focus is drawn,” Kerschen said. “The key for us is to help retain and grow businesses that are already here.”
“Teaming with them will give us a much larger footprint,” Spohr added. “Are we going to jump to the front lines and start growing the county, or are we going to continue to keep doing what we already do?”
Clingenpeel noted that “an inordinate amount of people” are moving in with their parents and/or grandparents to save costs due to their poor economic situation. This, in turn, depletes planned retirement funds due to unexpected costs.
“We have to increase revenue, we have to give these people jobs or we can expect them to move out of Montcalm County,” Clingenpeel said. “If your kids don’t live in the state, there’s no sense in retiring on Dickerson Lake.”
Commissioner John Johansen of Montcalm Township noted that with more than 52,000 taxable parcels in Montcalm County, if voters approved a millage, the cost would average out to only about $3 per parcel.
“We’re watching other counties take away from the tax base of Montcalm County,” Johansen said. “That’s my opinion.”
Johansen encouraged his colleagues to look at job growth taking place in Gratiot County for the past 13 years, via the Greater Gratiot Development Inc. initiative (gratiot.org). Gratiot County enacted Public Act 88 in 1976, creating consistent funding for local economic development.
Is The Right Place right for Montcalm County?
Commissioner Ron Blanding of Greenville said the Greater Greenville Transportation Committee once heard a presentation from The Right Place. He said The Right Place looks for certain transportation services, which the area is currently lacking.
“We’ve got empty buildings in Greenville that ought to have industry,” Blanding said. “If you have the access, you’ll have a hell of a lot better chance of them getting to come. If we don’t offer the things they need to make this the right place for them to come, they’re not going to come.”
Blanding noted that United Solar Ovonic (which was open from 2006 to 2012) wouldn’t have come to Greenville in the first place if the city had not been prepared to house it.
“I bet (Greenville City Manager) George (Bosanic) has had half a dozen inquires into the solar building, some more serious than others,” Blanding said. “We’ve got the workers, we’ve got the water, we’ve got the power. We don’t have the proper transportation.”
Montcalm Alliance Chairman S. Michael Scott, who was in the audience at Tuesday’s meeting, agreed.
“You’ve got to build something to make the state take notice of you,” Scott said. “I think if you show that you’re moving forward, you’re going to get their attention.”
Commissioner Ron Baker of Howard City voiced his support for the Montcalm Alliance’s proposal.
“It’s important for Montcalm County to step up to the plate,” Baker said. “I think we ought to take a real hard look at this program.”
‘Government doesn’t create jobs or prosperity’
The millage proposal to join forces with The Right Place has not yet been brought before the Montcalm Alliance. Instead, a subcommittee first presented the idea to commissioners. The proposal will now go before the Montcalm Alliance.
One Montcalm Alliance member is vehemently against the proposal. James Freed was not present during the Montcalm Alliance’s proposal Tuesday morning, but he came in at the end of the meeting to voice his concern.
“How many United Solars will it take before we learn that government doesn’t create jobs and doesn’t create prosperity?” Freed asked commissioners. “Only free people, free markets and free enterprise can do that. The idea of a millage, an economic development millage to raise money to fund another government scheme, is just a false ideology that we’ve learned too recently just doesn’t work.”
Freed said Lakeview and Stanton, both of which he manages, are the two fastest growing economies in Montcalm County.
“What has government done to achieve that? Absolutely nothing except get out of the way,” he said. “The last thing we need is another millage that would take away money from small machine shops, small businesses and family farms which could be used to pay employees, buy equipment and purchase land.
“You’ll hear more from me regarding the basic economics of how we move forward,” he added. “Government will not rebuild Montcalm County. Local entrepreneurship will.”