Automotive, Defense – and More

The City of Sterling Heights
Written by Claire Suttles

Sterling Heights, Michigan is gaining momentum. Unlike many other communities in the state, the city of more than 131,000 is growing steadily – both in population and number of businesses. The automotive and defense industries dominate the landscape and create opportunities for a range of additional sectors.
“Automotive and defense attracts a lot of different tier two suppliers and other businesses,” Economic Development Manager Barry Hicks points out. “There tends to be a spin off effect in manufacturing when you have that type of a base.”

Sterling Heights’ top four vehicle production plants have an annual impact of $1 billion, while prominent companies such as General Dynamics, BAE Systems, and SAIC line the community’s six mile long Defense Corridor. Homeland security is big business here, with over 600 local companies taking part in the defense industry to some degree – a total of 63 percent of the state’s defense business. The U.S. Army Tank-automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) and the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) are also located nearby, creating even more opportunities for contractors. In fact, over $26 billion was spent on defense related business in the area between 2000 and 2010.

TARDEC’s robotics focus is particularly fitting for the area. “Robotics and automation have really been growing in Sterling Heights and in South East Michigan as a whole,” Mr. Hicks shares. In response, the county recently launched the Michigan Automated Systems Collaborative (MASC) to encourage collaboration and innovation among industry leaders, academia, and manufacturers. The city’s aerospace industry is also enjoying positive growth. “We are in the heart of Michigan’s Arsenal of Innovation,” City Development Director Denice Gerstenberg summarizes.

A range of business friendly attributes are responsible for Sterling Heights’ ongoing growth and prosperity. The Detroit metro location is definitely a plus, says Mr. Hicks. “We have access to a lot of talent that work within the [automotive, defense, and automation] industries,” he points out. “We are culturally diverse and we have an educated and skilled workforce,” Ms. Gerstenberg adds – and the community has the roads, railways, and airports needed to bring those skilled workers and employers together. “Whether you need to connect to customers or suppliers or talent, we have an exceptional transportation system,” Ms. Gerstenberg reports.

The city’s unwavering commitment to the business community is another huge advantage. “We are known to be very business friendly,” Ms. Gerstenberg says. “We offer a number of incentive programs that businesses are attracted to, including tax increment financing and industrial facilities abatements. Our Sterling Heights City Council has approved nearly 100 percent of the tax abatements that were brought before them since the program started.” Sterling Heights also boasts a strong economic development team that is eager to help new companies with “anything that they may need to settle in and thrive within the city of Sterling Heights.” And, all of this support is available at a reasonable price. “We provide an exceptionally high quality of service for our businesses and residents at a very low cost,” Ms. Gerstenberg reports. “Our tax rate is the lowest of any city in Macomb County and among the lowest statewide.”

The city government works in close collaboration with a number of partners in order to support businesses better. “We are very fortunate to have proactive organizations working with us,” Mr. Hicks remarks. One of these partners is the Sterling Heights Regional Chamber of Commerce, which is one of the largest chambers in the state. While its 1400 members include industry giants like Ford, Chrysler, General Dynamics, and BAE Systems, the majority of members are small businesses. These local business outfits benefit from the chamber’s excellent networking opportunities, which include 15 networking groups with over 300 weekly participants.

The new MAComb-OU INCubator also provides valuable services to local businesses. A partnership between Oakland University, Macomb County, and Sterling Heights, the incubator offers entrepreneurial resources, business solutions, and proactive support to local startups, particularly those in the defense, homeland security, advanced manufacturing, and technology sectors. “We help them with everything from consulting, to making connections, to raising funds, to training,” says Julie Gustafson, Executive Director of Macomb-OU INCubator. The organization’s efforts are helping to bring new companies and jobs to Sterling Heights. “It has also created a real entrepreneurial mindset in Macomb County,” Ms. Gustafson adds.

Macomb-OU INCubator is located in Sterling Heights’ Velocity Collaboration Center alongside several other organizations offering business support. A Small Business Development Center, the Michigan Defense Center, the new Michigan Defense Center Landing Zone, and other service providers all help give the city’s businesses a leg up. “We also have a volunteer board of 60 individuals across numerous industries and with various skillsets that support the startup community here in Sterling Heights,” Ms. Gustafson adds. Fortunately, all of these organizations work together well. “The collaboration holds an average of 12 events a month ranging from short one-hour business development Lunch and Launches, to Startup Lean and Green Belt Lean programs, to overviews on crowdfunding, to proposal writing for the defense industry, to commercialization seminars on how to take an idea to commercialization, and many more,” Ms. Gustafson reports.

The city also has the quality of life needed to attract – and keep – businesses. “Sterling Heights has been nationally recognized many times as one of the best places to raise a family,” says Ms. Gerstenberg. “It is consistently named as one of the safest large cities in Michigan and we have a large variety of affordable housing options, both in Sterling Heights and in the surrounding area.” The community also boasts award winning, Blue Ribbon school districts, a nationally recognized library, and several institutions of higher learning nearby including the University of Michigan, Oakland University, Wayne State University, Lawrence Technological University, and Macomb Community College.

Outdoor recreation is also a big draw. Sterling Heights boasts an extensive park system, as well as trails for pedestrians, hikers, and cyclists. Located on the Clinton River and not far from 32 miles of Lake St. Clair coastline, the city is also well situated for water sports. Sterling Heights has recognized that its waterways are a huge asset – a “Blue Economy” – and officials are working to help make local waters more accessible to residents and tourists. For starters, a series of paddle landing sites are being developed along the river and paddle boarding / canoe / kayaking trails are being established. A local canoe race has also been launched. “We are really trying to promote our water resources,” Ms. Gerstenberg explains. “We are working together with adjacent communities and the county to be an active part of developing a Blue Economy initiative throughout the area.” The efforts are already attracting major events; the prestigious Bass Master Elite competition will be held on Lake Saint Clair this year.

Promoting the Blue Economy is only one part of the city’s efforts to improve livability. “The city has recently been going through a visioning process,” Mr. Hicks reports. “As part of this visioning process, the city has been much more proactive with place making. We want to create a sense of place.” High quality development will play an important role. For instance, the Van Dyke corridor, a state road that cuts through one of Sterling Heights’ commercial and industrial areas, is getting a $40 million facelift. “We are talking about how we make it more pedestrian friendly, more attractive,” Mr. Hicks says. “That is just one example of the things we are doing throughout the city.” Officials are also working on a master plan that will include a focus on redeveloping parks and trails. A seasonal farmers market is on the table, as well as several new dog parks. “It is simple things like that that make Sterling Heights home for people,” Mr. Hicks points out.

Of course, the city plans to maintain its business friendly focus. “Going forward, we are also going to be taking a look at some of our economic development initiatives and how we can be of more service to some of the major industries in the city,” Mr. Hicks reports. Sterling Heights’ healthy business climate and rapidly growing population demonstrate that the city’s efforts have been working – and this is only the beginning. “We have been talking a lot about what the future is going to hold,” Mr. Hicks remarks.



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