In Mason County, Michigan, residents and visitors have access to the best of small town living without sacrificing the services and amenities of a larger center. This West Michigan county offers picturesque natural beauty, an unmatched quality of life and great potential.
Fueled by an entrepreneurial spirit and smart development, Mason County is bursting with possibilities. Leading these efforts is a forward-thinking partnership of economic and community-based organizations that work diligently to streamline the investment process to foster an environment favorable to business development.
“What is unique about Mason County is that the Mason County Growth Alliance (economic development), the Chamber of Commerce and our Visitors’ Bureau all share the same office and staff,” said Ludington & Scottville Area Chamber of Commerce CEO and President Kathy Maclean.
The Mason County Growth Alliance is responsible primarily for economic and workforce development. The Chamber of Commerce has dedicated its efforts to supporting the local business community more directly, helping small businesses to grow, and the Visitors’ Bureau markets and promotes the county’s many assets and attractions.
According to Maclean, this “allows us to have a very unique synergy as we all work together toward pretty much the same goal but with a bit of a different focus.”
“Tourism is one of our biggest industries because we have Lake Michigan, we have beaches, we have trails and outdoor recreation. As well, for a community of our size, we have a great arts and culture scene, a strong history and tradition of live performance,” explained Mason County Growth Alliance Economic Development Coordinator Spence Riggs.
Mason County’s lifestyle is attractive to residents and tourists alike. It is home to twenty-eight miles of shoreline and parks and trails that support a multitude of outdoor recreation activities.
“We have a lot of the benefits of small town living: safe, tight-knit communities, places where you want your family to grow up, without sacrificing that sense of place. We have a very unique identity as a community,” Riggs said. “It’s like having the best of both worlds in a small community.”
“You are not alone. You have a whole community behind you,” said Riggs. “Both our small business owners and our large employers have done a really good job of becoming a part of our community, as opposed to what often happens in other places where industry is on the fringe of the community. They draw their workforce from the community, they draw assets but don’t really give anything back. We don’t have that situation in Mason County.”
Tim Murphy is a perfect example of a resident with a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Murphy introduced Google Startup Weekend to Mason County. The event drives innovation, creativity and development by bringing together business leaders and entrepreneurs, both in the community and across the region, to network and work together to develop ideas into viable business solutions.
Startup Weekend Ludington was a fifty-four-hour long event that took place on the shores of Hamlin Lake over the course of a long weekend this past July. It brought together sixty entrepreneurs, designers and professionals representing a number of industries and sectors. They participated in an intensive process of developing, vetting and evaluating ideas and transforming them into viable business plans.
Startup Weekend Ludington was hosted by Camp BluSky. As Riggs explained, Murphy “envisions turning this newly renovated camp into a technological innovation retreat center,” and Google Startup was his kickoff event.
Another significant initiative geared toward fostering entrepreneurship is the Momentum Business Plan Competition. “We were fortunate with the Momentum Startup competition to have a local private foundation approach us and say, ‘We’d like to help spur entrepreneurism in Mason County, and we’ve got $50 000 that we would like to give away in a business plan competition,’” noted Maclean.
The Momentum Business Plan Competition is a joint effort that is administered by the Chamber of Commerce in partnership with other local businesses and organizations. Business plans are collected, evaluated and narrowed down to the top five, which then participate in a live presentation night.
“It’s kind of got a Shark Tank type of appeal where competitors pitch their business plans to the panel and at the end of that presentation, the judges decide on the winner of the $50 000,” said Riggs. The winner is able to take the cash prize and invest in the startup or expansion of their Mason County-based business.
Last year’s winner was local micro-brewery Starving Artist Brewing Company. “He’s had a great year, and that’s been a fun learning experience,” reflected Maclean. This year’s top five finalists have already been selected for the second year of the competition.
Both Momentum and StartUp Weekend Ludington have found a way to come together to promote entrepreneurship in Mason County. The winning submission from Startup Weekend Ludington gets an automatic entry into the top ten of the Momentum Business Plan Competition, granted it meets all of the necessary qualifications and requirements.
Though innovation and technology are playing a significant role in the county’s growth, the county also benefits from other industry sectors. Mason County has a relatively diverse economic composition for a population of just under 30,000 residents. Its economy has a globally-competitive manufacturing sector, a strong agricultural foundation, an ever-expanding retail base, a growing environmental technology and energy sector, four-season tourism, as well as a budding healthcare industry.
Some of Mason County’s largest employers include Consumers Energy, Occidental Chemical Corporation, ProAct Services Corporation, House of Flavors, UACJ Whitehall, FloraCraft, Harsco Track Technologies, Metalworks, Great Lakes Castings, Gourmet Mushroom, Lake Michigan Carferry, Spectrum and Mercy Health Centers and Indian Summer Co-op.
“In West Michigan, being somewhat of a rural community, agriculture and agri-business are a really rich part of our identity as a community,” Riggs acknowledged. To make the most of its farms, Mason County has also become home to a number of food processing businesses.
There are many efforts to innovate and incorporate new technologies and processes to make these sectors increasingly competitive. “We are looking at ways that can help bring them into the twenty-first century,” explained Riggs. “Agriculture has a long history and fairly intensive manual labor and blue collar appeal, and we want to look at ways to help them grow and integrate new practices and technology so that they can streamline their process and become increasingly efficient and competitive.”
Other county assets are its deep water port, highway accessibility, safety, quality of life and affordability. Mason County enjoys a good education system and a strong healthcare sector to support this well-being. Its educational performance even exceeds some national and state performance averages. The county is home to Spectrum Health’s Ludington Hospital which, in addition to world-class healthcare and state-of-the-art facilities, offers the Win With Wellness program to emphasize and promote the importance of the health and wellness of the community. A healthy and happy individual makes for the best kind of employee!
The county has also dedicated a great deal of effort to workforce development to support its diverse economic foundation. Opportunities are available, so it is just a matter of connecting residents with those opportunities. In many cases, it is possible for Mason County ex-pats to return to the community they know and love.
“We’re working with our local employers and community partners from the school districts. We’re trying to work with K-12 education, as well as our local community college to essentially create a talent pipeline for our local employers, so students know what type of employment opportunity Mason County has to offer,” described Riggs. He works closely with the Mason County Manufacturers’ Association which is committed to promoting manufacturing through community outreach efforts and encouraging students to consider career opportunities in skilled trades and STEM.
Mason County’s planning is apparent in initiatives like the Bowling Alley Block redevelopment project, a mixed-use development on the site of an old bowling alley that will provide commercial and retail space on the main floor and will attempt to address some of the demand for affordable housing units.
“It’s one city block in the heart of the downtown,” Riggs said. “We’re creating sixty new units in the epicenter of our community for affordable living for both workforce and seniors – two segments of our population that we are really trying to accommodate and make room for in our community.” This project originated in direct response to community housing needs and is indicative of the kind of development being encouraged.
“We’re trying to be responsive to the needs of the local community,” concluded Riggs. The goal is to, “pursue the interest of our partners. It’s not about us; it’s about their benefit in the long run. The opportunity to work with us is limitless.”
And so too is Mason County’s potential.
It has been the foresight and proactivity of Mason County’s leaders and the ability to adapt to changes in global economic trends that has enabled its economic growth and community vitality. The community has greatly benefitted as a result and has grown while maintaining its small town charm and continuing to offer the best of both worlds.