From its readily accessible location to its educated workforce, low unemployment rates, existing businesses, quality of life amenities, industrial parks and much more, Middle Michigan’s Isabella and Clare Counties are poised to welcome a range of companies.
The Middle Michigan Development Corporation (MMDC) develops, coordinates, and nurtures economic development in both counties under the leadership of President and Chief Executive Officer James McBryde. He was previously Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and served in the Michigan House of Representatives, 99th District.
The Middle Michigan Development Corporation was created in 1981 to provide economic development services in central Michigan. It works with local municipalities, the state, and federal agencies on a wide assortment of projects to encourage economic growth.
The MMDC’s recently unveiled plan for 2019 to 2021 concentrates on existing businesses and industries in the two counties, including those with capacities for and interest in pursuing defense and homeland security contracts.
“We are always trying to attract companies in general, but I would say the lion’s share of what we have done in the past year and a half has been focused on the expansion of current companies,” says McBryde. “We also have very low unemployment right now, so we are focused on helping our current companies find and meet their talent needs.”
The most recent unemployment rate in Isabella County is at just 4.2 percent, and in the county seat of Mount Pleasant, it is even lower at 3.8 percent, both below the Michigan state average. McBryde and his team work tirelessly to both retain and attract talent to the area. “As our unemployment is very, very low, a number of our companies are saying they would hire more people if they could find more qualified workers,” states McBryde. The counties have a combined population of over 100,000 people.
The area is home to many well-known manufacturers including Morbark, Bandit, Unified Brands, Delfield, and the American Mitsuba Corporation (AMC). These five employers alone account for approximately 2,500 jobs and make products like high-performance equipment, wood chippers, customized foodservice equipment, automotive parts, and more. For these and other companies, the MMDC played an integral role in successfully obtaining grants in 2018.
With assistance from the MMDC, American Mitsuba got a $360,000 business development grant from the MEDC. AMC, which has received contracts to manufacture parts for BMW and Ford, has locations in Bardstown, Kentucky, and Michigan. The grant, along with an industrial property tax abatement from the City of Mount Pleasant, ensured AMC’s expansion would happen in Michigan, rather than Kentucky.
“Without MMDC, our expansion may have occurred at our Kentucky plant, not here in Mt. Pleasant,” stated American Mitsuba Operations Senior Vice President David Stevens in MMDC’s 2018 Annual Report. “Jim McBryde was able to not only get our request for a business development grant on MEDC’s radar but also was able to leverage his relationships in Lansing to get support for this project. I understand this is one of the few times in MEDC history that an initial no to a business development grant was turned around to a yes. This couldn’t have happened without Middle Michigan Development Corporation’s direct involvement.”
For American Mitsuba, the business development grant and the industrial property tax abatement will see the growing business add about forty-five positions to run its new line and $13 million of investment into its facility in Mount Pleasant. The MMDC is proud that it secured at $8,000 per job – a higher-than-normal amount per worker, compared to the usual $5,000 – for a total of $360,000.
Another recent major expansion in the area is Unified Brands, a prominent manufacturer of commercial kitchen equipment. The company, which sells to restaurant, retail, healthcare, and other clients, was restructuring and considering moving some of its manufacturing operations to Mississippi.
McBryde met with company executives at their Atlanta headquarters beforehand and stated his belief that Unified Brands would benefit from remaining in Middle Michigan and having access to the superior workers at its Weidman facility.
“We were able to secure an industrial property tax abatement for the company to improve their building, put on a new roof, sprinkler system, and reconfigure the shop floor,” says McBryde. Unified Brands will keep its Isabella County facility and make over $2 million in future upgrades. “They accepted that, are staying here, and moving all of the custom work that they do company-wide to this location.”
The Middle Michigan Development Corporation was also instrumental in Bandit Industries, Inc. – a well-known manufacturer of wood chippers, stump grinders, and other land-clearing equipment – receiving two property tax abatements for expansion at each of its facilities in Broomfield Township last year.
“Middle Michigan Development Corporation worked very closely with us through the whole process of applying for both industrial property tax abatements as we expanded our business,” stated Bandit Facilities Manager Louie Jensen in the 2018 MMDC Annual Report. “Jim McBryde and Kati Mora [executive director of marketing and communications] walked us through each step and coordinated efforts with Broomfield Township and the Department of Treasury to ensure success. We are very thankful for the support of MMDC.” The two expansions will result in about twenty-five to thirty new positions at Bandit over the next two years and $1,226,942 in new facility investments.
McBryde says that smaller companies with fewer employees throughout both Isabella and Clare Counties also play a tremendous role in Middle Michigan’s ongoing success. “They may be smaller, but they add to the grand total of people who are involved in manufacturing,” he says, “We have a lot of manufacturing, and it is very diversified.”
Last year, the MMDC was given a Defense Industry Growth Area Grant from the Michigan Defense Center, a branch of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which aims to help the businesses that, in its words, “support our nation’s security and our military’s safety.” According to McBryde, “These funds will allow us to connect with companies in the region and identify unique opportunities that support business growth and development in these sectors.”
Although Middle Michigan only covers the counties of Clare and Isabella, the MMDC expanded the grant scope to include Gratiot, Gladwin, and Arenac and worked very closely with these neighboring economic development organizations on the grant.
“We shared the revenue with them, so each county received $10,000 for capacity building as part of the $100,000 grant, and the other $50,000 went to support our staff positions,” says McBryde. “The focus of the defense center this year is finding out what they have right now and looking forward to potential future grant opportunities, which is exciting. This first year would be focused primarily on capacity building, making sure we have a full inventory of what’s out there and making referrals so that we can start getting companies lined-up to pursue contracts.”
The Marshall Plan for Talent innovation grants were begun under former Michigan governor Rick Snyder with a focus on helping elementary and secondary school systems identify students who were wanting to pursue skilled trade opportunities. Grant applicants had to be school districts and were strongly encouraged to partner with economic development organizations. In 2018, the MMDC worked with two local consortiums on grant funding from the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development (TED). Clare-Gladwin and Gratiot-Isabella consortiums received a combined total of $2,615,611, about $1.3 million for each of the school districts.
These grants will be used to hire people who work in the school system as career navigators who will talk to students about work opportunities within the districts, identify area companies, connect students with companies and companies with students, and provide many great opportunities about necessary certifications to fill skilled trades’ gaps.
In particular, Clare-Gladwin is concentrating on helping students prepare for careers as automotive mechanics, specifically diesel mechanics, since there are not enough local diesel mechanics. Students on this track will earn their high school diploma and diesel mechanic certification to service diesel trucks.
Clare and Isabella Counties offer many opportunities for businesses to grow, and there is much to experience with many museums, the Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort, an emerging food scene, and plenty of entertainment.
“We are looking to highlight not only the talent opportunities that are here but the quality of life aspects,” says Executive Director of Marketing and Communications Kati Mora. “Some of the different activities throughout the region young professionals would be interested in ranges from grabbing a bite to eat to entrepreneurial activities, our park system, and the ability to enjoy moments outside of work and really adding to that quality-of-life aspect.”