SIDNEY — Local officials are still trying to figure out how to make Montcalm County “the right place” for progressive marketing.
An economic development discussion took place Monday evening at Montcalm Community College, hosted by MCC President Bob Ferrentino and Vice President of Academic Affairs Rob Spohr. About three dozen local business and government officials attended the gathering to talk about the growth and advancement of commerce in Montcalm County.
Economic development has been a much discussed and debated public topic since late last year, when members of a Montcalm Alliance subcommittee asked the Montcalm County Board of Commissioners to use Michigan’s Public Act 88 to approve a special millage which would bypass a vote of the people to fund the Alliance joining up with The Right Place, a West Michigan economic development organization. The proposal died last autumn after commissioners declined to even vote on the proposal.
However, PA 88 was repeatedly discussed again Monday as the most viable way to secure sustainable funding for local economic development.
Spohr said aligning with The Right Place at an estimated cost of $120,000 per year would provide Montcalm County with a full-time economic development manager employed by The Right Place exclusively for Montcalm County, as well as a local director contracted by Montcalm County (most likely Franz Mogdis, the current executive director of the Montcalm Alliance). Ideally, the two positions would compliment each other.
Spohr noted the positive impact the Alliance has had on Montcalm County over the years. He said Mogdis and the Alliance were responsible for developing some of the most successful rural Renaissance Zones in the state, as well as obtaining grant dollars for multiple local businesses and efforts.
However, Spohr said joining forces with The Right Place is a critical component of the future of Montcalm County.
“If we raise the economic standards, if we raise the bar in Montcalm County, the money will be there because everybody will have a job and more money will be available,” he said. “This is something that’s going to impact all of us. No matter who you are, no matter what you do, this impacts all of us. We believe The Right Place is the place to start.”
An issue of funding
Greenville Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Candy Kerschen doesn’t think the annual $120,000 price tag is out of reach for Montcalm County.
“I think if we’re talking about a countywide effort, $120,000 is attainable,” she said. “We could do it through dues structures, we could ask all the different municipalities and townships to pitch in a little bit, we could have PA 88, which we talked about last fall and did not succeed. I’m pleased to see there’s several ways it could happen.”
Greenville City Manager George Bosanic voiced his support for revisiting PA 88, adding that he thinks the ongoing community discussion about economic development has become “a beautiful collaboration countywide.”
“This is different from a typical tax,” said Bosanic of PA 88. “This will end up paying for itself. If the tax base is raised, their (the local school districts) debt goes down. You don’t get that with any other service millage levy. Just think about that.
“Let’s not call it PA 88,” he added. “Let’s call it the economic development tax. Today economic development is so much more sophisticated. We’re on a global scale now. We never know what opportunities we have missed.”
Montcalm County Commissioner Ron Baker of Howard City proposed perhaps the most revolutionary funding idea at Monday’s meeting. First, he suggested consolidating Montcalm County’s 20 townships into five townships (merging four townships into one five times over).
“The government units can save dollars,” he said. “We have townships that were designed hundreds of years ago. There are 20 of them and they did that back then because of horse travel. If we went to five townships, we could save money by townships alone.”
Baker also proposed consolidating all seven of Montcalm County’s school district’s underneath one superintendent, with each school district retaining its own administrators and unique aspects.
“We could save millions of dollars,” Baker said.
Montcalm County Commissioner Ron Braman of Vestaburg was one of the few people who voiced concern at Monday’s forum about asking taxpayers to fund economic development.
“My district is almost all agriculture,” he said. “A lot of those farmers have 20, 25 parcels (that they pay property taxes on). That can be a real hard sell to farmers. I’ve got 100 acres and I’ve got three different crops that I sell every year. They all go to a different county. We don’t even have a place to take our crops.”
The Right Place?
Edmore Village Manager Neil Rankin said he is in favor of a more conducive economic development culture in Montcalm County.
“The streamlined process is so lacking,” he said. “There’s so many small villages in Montcalm County and we’re all wearing a lot of hats. One of the things I would love to see is to hand that football off to the county and the county knows exactly who to hand off to. We really have to move in that direction.”
Roger Thelen, the former superintendent of Central Montcalm Public School and current director of United Way Ionia-Montcalm, voiced support for a change in direction.
“I think that if we continue to do what we’ve done, we’re going to continue to get what we’ve got,” he said. “We’ve got to make a change. We’ve got to make an improvement. If The Right Place is the improvement, I think we need to get on it and get it done.”
Monday’s forum ended with Spohr saying he would email everyone in attendance — as well as others who were invited but didn’t attend — and ask everyone to rate the funding options that were discussed. The effort will move forward from there, based on the results of the survey.
“It’s time for us to work together,” Ferrentino summarized. “It’s time for us to find ways to advance the effort, ways to advance the cause of Montcalm County. How do we get Montcalm County back to prosperity?”