In a state that is known for its automotive history, leading the charge to drive the local economy forward in Bay County, Michigan is Bay Future, Inc. The economic development organization has found ways to rally communal support for the local economy and community well-being at a time when it was needed most, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Like many mid-sized, mid-western economic development organizations, Bay Future and its team partner to take on many challenges as it seeks to grow the tax base, attract investment, create jobs and facilitate business retention and expansion activities.
Its roadmap to success is fueled by creating a strategic plan and setting aggressive goals and then rallying businesses and community partners together to make those goals a reality. The recent successful implementation of these goals has served as continuing validation for the work that has been done, setting the stage for future targets and getting them across the finish line.
“The most important thing an economic development organization can do is say they’re going to provide positive economic and community impact and then prove it, and we’ve been fortunate enough to have been able to do that. We’re transparent about our plans, we work hard, and we celebrate our wins with the community,” says Bay Future, Inc. President & CEO, Trevor M. Keyes.
Bay Future kicked off its current strategic action plan, Bay Future: Drive. Forward. in early 2020, with the intention of exceeding lofty expectations, fueled by past successes. Those goals included retaining existing business, supporting entrepreneurial development, attracting new business, and facilitating job creation and expansion efforts. It is a strategy focused on better local and regional collaboration to leverage existing strengths and identify and address gaps.
Life in Bay County. Your new hometown.
From a community standpoint, Bay County has always been a safe and affordable community, boasting a great variety of housing stock at every price point, coupled with quality schools and a geographic midpoint to Detroit and the Pure Michigan Upper Peninsula via the Mackinac Bridge. The area hosts numerous festivals, concerts, and entertainment options throughout the year, and has a vibrant and historic downtown filled with an eclectic mix of dining options. There is literally something for everyone.
The Saginaw River runs through the heart of Bay City and Bay County, marked by draw bridges that enable easy vehicle passage as well as commercial shipping traffic. Further to its commercial purpose, the area is primed for recreation with more than 3,200 acres of natural terrain and well-developed trails and parks. You’ll frequently see a great lakes freighter on the water being flanked by a family in kayaks or someone taking sailing lessons.
It’s an easy place to live. Not only is it safe with a mix of vibrant entertainment options, but it’s also affordable. The community has been recognized by Forbes and Realtor.com for being an affordable and attractive place to live.
Coping with COVID
With all of those strengths being highlighted, one of Bay Future’s greatest strengths is its ability to plan, forecast and make good on its goals – and nothing changed when it came to COVID-19 recovery. COVID didn’t slow Bay Future down, but accelerated the organization’s efforts to address the immediate needs of local businesses and residents.
Bay Future drafted an addendum to expand the work of Bay Future: Drive. Forward. to ensure that the community emerged from the pandemic in the same state as, or better than, how it went in. From Keyes’ perspective, “Since the beginning of the pandemic, one hundred percent economic recovery has been and continues to be our driving goal.”
With that goal in mind, the strategy began with the Bay Future Board of Directors developing the RECOVER Bay County addendum plan as a supplement to the Bay Future: Drive. Forward. plan with the aim to mobilize and support small businesses and at-risk local industries as well as providing workforce tools, addressing the loss of jobs, and attempting to mitigate the impacts of work stoppages and shutdowns.
According to Keyes, this enabled Bay Future to, “Identify gaps in services and support, working with small businesses and other community organizations to come up with programs that were impactful. There was no template, best practice, or training wheels, but it was something that we needed to do as quickly as possible to ensure our businesses and our community had a fighting chance.”
Spreading the support
Armed with a plan, the team at Bay Future, along with their partners, identified multiple ways to create and implement programs to support businesses affected by the statewide shutdown that began in March of 2020. Identifying and advocating for financial support to seed these programs was key. Bay Future was the recipient of and administrator for grants and worked with community partners to develop new initiatives. The result was significant for the community with a population of just over 100,000. 13 financial support programs were executed resulting in over $3 million in direct support through nearly 500 individual company awards.
One such program is Buy BC / Buy Local Buy BC, a gift card program that was established to drive activity at local retail, restaurant, and service providers. With over eighty local businesses participating, the program had nearly a quarter million dollars of direct economic impact to those affected business through sponsorship and community engagement.
The goal of this program was to encourage community members to continue to support their local businesses in the retail, restaurant, and service industries by purchasing gift cards to be used as those businesses reopened from the shutdown. The benefit for consumers was the ability to stretch their dollars further by receiving an incentive of additional spending dollars for shopping local.
“Our community organizations and business community here in Bay County really came together to do what was needed to support these small businesses that are at the heart of what makes us a unique and eclectic community. Small businesses are the lifeblood of a community’s economy. We see their measurable and impactful contributions to our local economy, the jobs they create, and their commitment to the community and to each other. Many of these owners and entrepreneurs risked everything to establish and run successful businesses that contribute to the quality of life we experience here. We knew our action and response needed to mirror that commitment. We needed to step up and do so in a big way and that is exactly what we did,” says Keyes.
Likewise, Feet on the Street was an initiative that was designed to create social districts to allow for outdoor dining and entertainment in the city’s core. Several blocks were closed to traffic to safely welcome pedestrians and allow them to casually traverse roadways, temporary decks and parklets, and support local business “en plein air” in safety and in comfort.
“Three streets in the downtown, and two blocks on Midland Street, just on the other side of the bridge, are closed to traffic. It started with the intention of providing restaurants with limited capacity the opportunity to seat people outside on the street,” says Megan Manning, Investor Relations and Marketing Manager. “It snowballed into a great opportunity to have outdoor events and create a larger sense of community.”
A place called home
Some of the unique approaches taken by Bay Future and its partners to engage the community and stimulate activity were just as important to building communal identification and involvement with the place they called home as they were to economic growth and recovery, all of which are inherently connected.
In implementing these the community was reengaged, which fostered a sense of collective responsibility to ensure that Bay County and its many businesses and residents were able to navigate the pandemic. Community and business leaders in Bay County have worked together in channeling a singular focus onto recovery and growth and Bay Future is at the center of that effort.
Addressing the success of the recovery plan and the resilience of the community thus far, Keyes notes, “A lot of that success is directly attributed to collaboration – all rowing in the same direction and rowing with a purpose, with a common goal. We pulled in resources together, reshaped some of those tools in our toolbox, and learned to use them in new and better ways. This is a part of what our community’s new normal will look like and we are confident it will produce dividends for our residents and our businesses.”
While navigating both the challenges and the opportunities a global pandemic presented, with a significant local impact both socially and economically, Bay Future still kept its eyes on the goals of the Bay Future: Drive. Forward. campaign for long term economic sustainability in the community.
While the five-year strategic action plan has aggressive goals for job creation (800) and capital investment ($500 million), Bay Future has not slowed its traditional work in economic development.
One such example is the continued expansion of Uptown Bay City. The former industrial brownfield site just south of the downtown core of Bay City along the Saginaw River has been transformed with mixed-use developments that complement the traditional atmosphere of the walkable and historical neighboring downtown core, while breathing new life into the area. Earlier this year, an additional $10 million was announced for the already multi-million dollar investment, and Bay Future spoke of future plans to create a more vibrant and energetic area and walkable community, contributing to a strong sense of place.
Similarly, Wilkinson Minerals, which will be the second largest producer of calcium chloride solutions in North America, will invest $150 million in a property next to the Saginaw River that will create nearly 100 new living wage jobs. The site happens to sit 4,000 feet above the Sylvania Formation, a naturally occurring limestone formation rich in key resources.
Wilkinson will extract and process the brine onsite, taking advantage of the high concentrations of magnesium, calcium chloride and sodium chloride, resources that are used to create a number of downstream products.
These announcements speak to the opportunities in Bay County and the work the team at Bay Future is doing to turn opportunities into realities. Since 2004, Bay Future has brought nearly 4,000 jobs, $1.76 billion in investment, over 200 successful projects and significant business growth, retention and expansion to the community.
While the past eighteen months have brought significant challenges to the community, Bay Future stepped up to the plate to engage growth and reengage the community. And the organization and its many partners found a way to reposition challenge as an opportunity.
By adapting its priorities and expanding impact, the organization found a way to accelerate pathways to development and, according to Keyes, the outcome, “turned into something more than we had ever imagined or hoped it could be.”