In the Middle of it All

Middle Michigan Development Corporation
Written by Jessica Ferlaino

Since 1981, the Middle Michigan Development Corporation (MMDC) has been the primary economic development organization driving business growth in Clare and Isabella Counties. While its composition and purpose have changed, it achieves ongoing results for the region.
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MMDC works closely with the local business community to fully assess their needs and address them comprehensively. By helping companies make investment decisions, MMDC deploys the region’s assets to plan for the long term.

Home to a combined population of 90,000, Clare and Isabella Counties – affectionately known as Middle Michigan for the location in the center of the state’s Lower Peninsula – offer residents and businesses the advantages of a low cost of living, a desirable quality of life and economic prosperity.

Key to this prosperity is a strong education system supported by institutions of higher learning. Through partnerships with Central Michigan University and Mid Michigan Community College, MMDC is helping to create the necessary talent. Understanding that lack of access to skilled talent has become the largest impediment to business growth in both the region and the country, MMDC with its educational partners, have made great strides in addressing this issue.

“Central Michigan University has an engineering school – a very good one – and we are working with our companies who are telling us that they’re looking for engineers. We talk with the engineering school and see if we can help place interns as well as inform their grads of opportunities in the area. That’s been an outstanding resource to have here locally,” explained MMDC president and Chief Executive Officer James McBryde.

Mid Michigan Community College, has a presence in both counties. Its primary campus is in Harrison, in Clare County, and its secondary campus is in Mount Pleasant, in Isabella County. The college turns out graduates in the skilled trades with a focus on welding, metal fabrication and machining. “They have responded to the needs that we have expressed based on company contacts,” McBryde continued.

“You need to get the educational institutions to recognize the need and gear up, and they have done that, but then you have to get the students through the system and into the workplace, and that doesn’t happen overnight.”

“It takes years, as a matter of fact,” stated incoming Clare County Director for MMDC and Michigan Works! Region 7B Pam O’Laughlin.

Economic development cannot occur in isolation, and so the development of partnerships has become crucial to the impact of economic development organizations like MMDC.

Other partners include Central Michigan University Research Corporation (CMURC), which helps to commercialize research taking place at the university; Central Michigan Manufacturers Association (CMMA); Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC); both counties and their various communities; as well as Michigan Works!, the state’s workplace development association.

“We are part of an eight-county region that’s working on this because our labor shed is a fifty-mile radius, so we’re working with our partners in other counties, but I don’t think anybody else is working any harder than we are creating that talent pipeline. It’s difficult, but we find workers for people,” explained outgoing Clare County Director for MMDC and Michigan Works! Region 7B Kathy Methner.

After twenty-two years of service, Kathy Methner will be retiring, though she will remain active, offering MMDC her assistance with grant writing applications. Pam O’Laughlin will assume the position to advance the needs of the business community and the region.

Middle Michigan is close to large centers in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Port Huron and the Upper Peninsula and an international trade zone that offers outstanding accessibility via expressways, rail, and airport connectivity. This location, paired with its affordable cost of living, gives Middle Michigan an unbeatable value for business and residents.

Throughout the years, MMDC’s approach to economic development has changed to reflect the economic realities of the region better. Through changing its bylaws, the organization remains flexible and relevant to the needs of business.

“Our organization changed dramatically within the last couple of years. We reduced the size of our board,” from upwards of ninety members to a maximum of twenty, McBryde said of the changes that have taken place at MMDC. “It was probably difficult to manage, but it was a different time, a different era, and the structure was different at that time than it is today.”

The primary modification was a shift away from incentives and right to work legislation, as Michigan is now a right to work state. “When I first started, it was all about business attraction, and we did our own business attraction at that time. We didn’t have a site selector; there probably wasn’t such a thing, but we spent probably about fifty percent of our time chasing projects,” Methner recalled. “Now it’s more like ten percent of our time going after new companies or projects and ninety percent in retention.”

“We are committed to attraction, but our primary focus is on company retention and expansion right now,” McBryde noted. “We are working closely with our existing companies to manage the increased demand for quality talent and skilled trades which currently is our highest priority. We are not unique in that.”

MMDC can rest assured that its partners have responded and everything is being done to create the requisite talent. This is especially important as Clare and Isabella Counties added a remarkable 702 jobs in 2016.

Key employers like Delfield, Unified Brands, Morbark and Bandit Industries, are growing, putting Middle Michigan on the map while proving repeatedly why they are leaders in their respective markets.

Other notable companies are Roz’s Diner, which was selected as one of Michigan Small Business Development Center’s (SBDC) Regional Best Small Businesses and Advanced Battery Concepts and MTW Industries LLC, which were ranked as two of Michigan’s Top 50 Companies to Watch. MMDC worked with each of these companies in the pursuit of growth.

These employers and their ability to expand has had a lasting effect on the community. Every manufacturing job in the community has the potential to create numerous indirect jobs to support it. That is the case in Clare and Isabella Counties where the 2,500 manufacturing jobs have far-reaching benefits.

Complementing the thriving manufacturing base of Middle Michigan is agriculture, and MMDC is working to identify potential processing opportunities that could further bolster growth in this sector.

“Michigan’s second largest industry is agriculture. Outside of California, we produce the most diverse agricultural crops in the U.S. In our region, we have several good-sized dairy farms. Our largest milks 3,500 head of cattle a day on a carousel, and what we are finding is, while we have a lot of dairy producers, we don’t have much in the way of processing,” said Methner.

The region leads the nation in the production of blueberries, squash, tart cherries, cucumbers, dried cranberries, black beans, navy beans and red beans and is second in terms of asparagus, carrots, celery and so much more.

Last year, MMDC supported local craft brewers as well as Mid Michigan Community College in hosting a hops summit that brought together industry players to study the feasibility of hops production and processing in the region. The companies, together with the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, secured a USDA grant to support the study, and work is ongoing.

It is clear that there is no shortage of charm and unique opportunities in Middle Michigan, from the rural countryside to the historical and bustling downtowns of communities. Clare, for example, is home to the original location of the renowned Cops & Doughnuts, founded in 1896. The business is owned by members of the Clare County Police Department and has expanded to five locations.

Indeed, Middle Michigan boasts all the amenities one would expect to find in a huge metropolitan area, but with a small-town charm. There are arts and culture, entertainment, shopping and dining options to please the most difficult palate. There are also Division One athletics and recreation with fifty thousand acres of state forests, three hundred miles of rivers, twenty public access lakes and twenty-eight miles of snowmobile trails to enjoy.

Middle Michigan also has Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort, a huge employer in the region and a source of world-class entertainment that is rare for a community of its size. The venue will be undergoing a substantial $26.5 million renovation that will be completed by the spring of 2018.

MMDC is doing its part in creating an economic development dialogue in the region by inviting guest speakers to its sponsored quarterly meetings. Meetings are attended by hundreds of people and breakfast is provided.

Past speakers include Gregory Burkart, a managing director of Duff & Phelps in Detroit; Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan; Director of the Michigan State Police Colonel Kriste Kibbey Etue; Director Jamie Clover Adams of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and Senior Vice-President of MEDC Tino Breithaupt. McBryde joked that he had set the bar very high for future meetings.

It is the cumulative efforts of MMDC and its partners that have championed Middle Michigan in a way that affords businesses and residents the opportunity to grow. McBryde and his team continue to identify new ways to facilitate and support prosperity in the region.

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