A Model for Success

The Midland Business Alliance
Written by Stacey McCarthy

The County of Midland, Michigan is a hub of business activity with a diverse range of small businesses, retail, manufacturers, and Fortune 500 companies. It is no wonder why the Midland Business Alliance (MBA) is one of the busiest groups in the county.

The Midland Business Alliance was formed in 2015 as a result of some foresight and opportune timing. There were vacancies in the role of chief executive officer for both Midland’s economic development organization and chamber of commerce, and so the respective boards decided to come together to discuss the possibility of forming a coalition to support county businesses.

Within the year, the Midland Business Alliance (MBA) was launched, and the alignment of five entities – the MBA, economic development group Midland Tomorrow, the Midland Area Chamber of Commerce, collections organization CBM Services, and information technology services MITCON – with more than 250 years of combined experience began.

Over the next few years, the MBA spent time producing its goals and objectives and deciding how it could best serve the more than 3,500 businesses in the region. In December 2018, Tony Stamas took on the role of president and chief executive officer, and with the formalization of permanent leadership, the MBA began focusing on its mission.

Through this unique alliance, businesses now have a single point of contact with a variety of resources to help them grow and prosper. Businesses like MidMichigan Health, Midland Cogeneration Venture (MCV), Dow, Trinseo, DuPont, SKSaran, Corteva, Aberro Creative, Fisher Companies, Midland Center for the Arts, the Midland Area Farmers Market, and the Drone and Robotics Festival all thrive here.

“The goal of the MBA has been to be a ‘one-stop shop’ for businesses in every stage – from the idea stage all the way through growth and sustainability,” said MBA Vice President of Economic and Business Development Becky Church. “This allows us to work seamlessly with businesses in all areas of growth to foster a strong business environment in Midland, which in turn, brings a higher quality of life, more job opportunities, and a community with immeasurable amenities.”

Under the guidance of a newly formed board of directors, the employees who work for the MBA build a varied business community that supports existing businesses while attracting and creating new businesses and business sectors. Services offered that support this mission include everything from site selection and in-depth retention visits to networking and educational events.

For a relatively small population of 85,000 – in two cities, one village, and sixteen townships – there is a lot of innovation happening in Midland County and a strong workforce to support the activity. Innovation, in fact, has a long history in Midland County. Dow, originally the Dow Chemical Company, has been in the community for over 120 years.

In recent years the business community has grown to become more diverse, welcoming multiple world-class companies to the Dow Michigan Operations Industrial Park (Dow I-Park), including: technology-driven DuPont; Corteva Agriscience, whose Midland site is their largest manufacturing facility in the world; SK Saran, the first American operations for SK Global Chemical Group; Trinseo, a leading global materials company with its largest employee base located in Midland; and Cabot, a leading global specialty chemicals and performance materials company.

“We are a community of modern explorers and align well with Dow and other Dow I-Park companies,” said Church. “Having a large company headquartered here, a world class medical facility (MidMichigan Health), as well as generous local foundations, gives our community features you don’t often find in cities of the same size. From the largest canopy walk in the nation (Whiting Forest of Dow Gardens) to a minor league baseball team (the Great Lakes Loons), Midland has a lot to offer people of all ages. Being able to offer these things with a relatively low cost of living is another benefit.”

Historically, Midland being in Dow’s backyard made this the ideal place for businesses in the chemical industry. While that is still true today, with Dow spinning off into Dow, DuPont and agriculture business Corteva Agriscience, there is opportunity for businesses of all kinds in the community right now. Industries like material science, advanced manufacturing, chemical manufacturing, healthcare, construction, agriculture, steam and electrical energy are on the list, in addition to robotics, aerospace, data processing, hosting, and anything related to technological manufacturing.

Unlike traditional economic development organizations that only pursue industrial manufacturing opportunities, there is still work done to foster some of the more traditional businesses as the county has a good mixture of retail, restaurant, mixed-use space and other service sector businesses, as well as some multi-family housing. There is also a concerted effort to revitalize the downtown core.

“We are no different than any other community; we are continuously attracting companies that will bring in high-quality, high paying jobs,” said Church. To take advantage of all these opportunities, the alliance places much effort on partnership development, not surprising, given that its own story began from partnerships.

“Partnerships are the pinnacle of leadership and collaboration in all that we do in economic development. Our best tools when it comes to effective decision-making are partnerships,” said MBA President and Chief Executive Officer Tony Stamas. “Effective partnerships leverage the strengths of each partner and apply them strategically to the issue at hand. It might take more work, and it might take longer, but strong partnerships build the relationships, shared understanding, and collective focus to make lasting progress.”

The partnerships it has formed are not only with other businesses in the region but also with the educational sector. The Midland Public Schools system itself is composed of seven elementary schools, two middle schools, and two high schools, and there are many close options for post-secondary education, including six area institutes, colleges, and universities. The county is also home to Meridian Public Schools, Bullock Creek Public Schools, Midland County Educational Service Agency and Coleman Community Schools. The alliance works specifically with these programs and schools for workforce development.

“There is so much value in working with a diversity of organizations, for many reasons,” explained Church. “We all function at our best when all members actively engage. Partnerships push us to see and understand issues from different perspectives,” she said.

“Though we live and work each day in our community, if we learn more than what we think when we listen, even when – especially when – opinions and ideas challenge us. There are so many new opportunities to learn of barriers to growth, learn of best practices, or even learn about new tools that others offer,” Church added.

Despite success over the past four years, there are always challenges. “I think like everybody around the state and around the country, when asked what keeps you up at night, it’s talent,” said Stamas. “Finding the right person, keeping them, getting the right skill-set, and that’s why that’s one of our focuses because we have a lot of businesses that are doing well and growing, and it’s kind of a daily task, and that’s where you see a lot of overlap.”

The strategies that underpin the work the alliance will do over the next few years are centered on innovation and entrepreneurship, business attraction, retention and expansion, as well as ensuring it is doing everything it can for area businesses. It is also involved in advocacy on the local, state, and federal levels. The alliance places a significant effort on attracting and retaining talent because it understands that without skilled workers, businesses cannot do well.

Before the MBA was formed, a campaign called ‘A Catalyst for Growth’ was launched in 2005 that concentrated on the continued health and economic vitality of their community by keeping and generating good jobs and broadening the economic base.

“Fifteen years and six campaigns later, we have continued to be a preferred location for businesses of all sizes and industries, said Church. “We continue to accelerate job growth and capital investment in the county by effectively telling our story, retaining and attracting top talent, and working with our partners to ensure our sectors of strength continue to grow and emerge as global leaders.”

In fact, in the last three years, it has assisted more than 472 clients and helped to generate more than $32 million in investment in Midland County. This investment, in turn, has spurred economic growth and created jobs across the county and the region.

One exciting new business for the county is the first year of a five-year commitment with the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) to host the 2019 Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational on the LPGA Tour, which will bring world-class golf to the center of Midland at the Midland Country Club.

“The MBA’s greatest success has been coming together as one unified organization in the past year. Bringing together different organizations with different cultures and workflows is never easy, but staff and board members dedicated the time and effort necessary to develop a cohesive strategic plan,” Stamas said. The one thing that made this all possible was that every person working for the MBA has the same goal: to support businesses in Midland County and make it a better place to live and work.”

Looking ahead, the alliance will continue to emphasize increasing the tax base and employment numbers and fostering business growth. This unique alliance has clearly been a model route to success for similar regions to note and follow.

“I think you are going to see more and more folks looking at this model in the years ahead,” said Stamas. “There really is an ability to connect, and there is a common goal, even though there are some distinctive pieces, and they kind of have to operate as such. I think there is a commonality in terms of goals and purpose.”

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