Alliance says Bay County plays an important role in regional growth

If you’ve seen the signs promoting Bay City as part of a larger region and thought that was something just for big businesses, think again.

“If you live in Bay County, go eat in Midland,” suggests Matthew D. Felan, president & CEO of the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance. “Go to a show in Mt. Pleasant. Go check out St. Charles in the summer. Really enjoy the community in which you live. If you’ve never gone and just walked in any of the downtowns, you’re missing out, and you’re not understanding that so much of what you seek, you can find right here.”

Love professional sports? Catch the Saginaw Spirit at the Dow Event Center or the Great Lakes Loons at Dow Diamond in Midland. Love music? REO Speedwagon performs in June at Soaring Eagle Casino & Resort in Mt. Pleasant. You can be at the concert in less than an hour.

Regionalism might feel like a new concept, but think about other Michigan communities. If you plan a weekend in Traverse City, you’ll likely leave the city limits to walk up the sand dunes, play a round of golf, or enjoy a craft beer at a specialty brewpub. People say they’re going to Detroit, but actually never leave the suburbs.

“Understand that you live in an amazing region. Go and enjoy that which is already yours and you’re overlooking,” Felan says.

Regionalism was always part of this community’s identity. Bay City, Saginaw, and Midland were known as the Tri-Cities for generations. But in 2005 and 2006, business and government leaders began talking about deliberately collaborating to improve the economy, education, and quality of life in this area.

Artist Adam Wernecke painting on mural on the building housing Asian Noodle. Located on Saginaw Street in downtown Bay City, surrounding businesses offer sushi, art, coffee, craft beer, and artisan chocolates and cheeses.

The Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance, now 12 years old, resulted from those talks. Today, the Alliance consists of a core group of four counties – Bay, Isabella, Saginaw, and Midland. The Alliance also considers Arenac, Clare, Gladwin, and Gratiot counties part of the economic region. The Alliance represents both the largest cities and smallest towns in each of those counties.

The Alliance actively recruits businesses, spearheads improvements in education, advocates for political change, and rallies for the arts in this area. 

“We’re actively involved in economic development,” Felan says. “We tell the story of a region of over a half-million people, a region of a workforce of 260,000, a region with 8 universities and community colleges and 60,000 students. An area with world-class logistics, an international airport, a port that brings in ocean-going vessels, massive manufacturing, agriculture, and world-class healthcare. It’s an absolutely phenomenal region.”

Felan says the waterfront restaurants, festivals, trails, concerts, parks, and more are getting the community noticed.

Regionalism works for much more than economic development. 

It helps promote tourism. One reason behind branding this area as the “Great Lakes Bay Region” was to emphasize our connection to the signature natural asset of Michigan. Anyone planning a vacation to Michigan is likely to type “Great Lakes” into a search engine and discover our communities. From there, it’s simple to plan a trip with stops for shopping at the outlet mall in Birch Run; a chicken dinner in Frankenmuth; fishing in the Saginaw Bay; a show at the Midland Center for the Arts; or a birdwatching hike through the Tobico Marsh.

Owner of Brooklyn Boyz pizza, Kevin Novellino stands in his booth at City Market, an indoor market housing more than 20 local businesses.

Education also benefits from a regional approach.

Lori Flippin, who leads STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) Initiatives for the Alliance, says businesses and schools were experiencing a disconnect. Businesses told the Alliance that students didn’t have the right skills for today’s jobs. Schools were focused on state mandates, which didn’t always line up exactly with job skills. Funding was a major obstacle to expanding programs to bridge the gap.

“Even if a district wanted to run those programs, they simply couldn’t afford it, so we helped with grant writing to fund those programs,” Flippin explains. 

The Alliance also connected schools with community organizations, such as the Saginaw Children’s Zoo and Saginaw Children’s Museum, to support STEM education. Universities and colleges also offer STEM-focused summer camps for K-12 students. Two years ago, the Alliance helped 6 teachers pay for STEM training. Last year, 21 teachers benefited from training through grants the Alliance secured.

The Bay-Arenac ISD Career Center offers vocational training programs to both high school students and adults.

“We were initially a logging community, then manufacturing. If you look at us today, we’re a STEM region. We’re a STEM economy. Jobs in manufacturing, health care, higher education, agriculture … those are all STEM jobs,” Felan points out.

Education doesn’t end with graduation. One of the first Alliance programs was the Institute for Leaders. Through the program, leaders from all over the region come together to learn about the strengths and challenges of our communities. While they’re learning, they form bonds that will lead to further collaboration, says Moira Branigan, Director of Internal Operations for the Alliance.

Looking to the future, the Alliance expects to continue advocating for changes that improve the quality of life here. Felan is concerned with transportation issues, such as Bay City’s decaying bridges. “We know how important those bridges are. Those bridges impact our regional economy.”

Felan says the future of the bridges in Bay City will have a strong influence on the area's economic growth.
Quality of life issues matter to the Alliance too. Many neighborhoods and homes in Bay City are deteriorating. Felan also says the community should consider the first impression its neighborhoods make. “When you’re coming in and out of town, either on River Road or down the one ways (Jenny and Thomas streets), are we really showing our best to people? We probably have some pretty big opportunities there.”

Felan also says Bay City also needs to rebuild its job base. The Alliance is advocating for state-level incentives to attract businesses to Michigan. Without the incentives, Michigan may lose jobs to other states.

It’s far from all bad news for Bay City. You can’t talk about Bay City without talking about the Saginaw River. Felan says the waterfront restaurants, festivals, trails, concerts, parks, and more are getting the community noticed. Felan also sees growth and opportunity throughout the community. 

Something old: Once vacant and ready for demolition, the former Crapo building in Bay City has been redeveloped into apartments, with the creation of a first-floor restaurant underway. Something new: Uptown Bay City continue to grow, entering phase 2 of its development with this mixed-use building.

“Downtown development is through the roof. I don’t care if it’s Uptown or Downtown, it’s absolutely phenomenal to see the growth,” Felan says. 

He also praises local schools but particularly emphasizes the hands-on learning opportunities at the Bay-Arenac ISD Career Center. “I think education in Bay County is underrated. The programs that are offered (at the Career Center) are absolutely phenomenal. People take it for granted, but it’s actually pretty doggone good. They’re doing a lot of things well right now and are headed in the right direction.”

Branigan adds that the affordable housing and low cost of living here is attractive to young entrepreneurs looking to cut expenses as they start up businesses.

“The everyday person needs to embrace the region they live in,” Felan says. “We’re the same labor force, the same culture, the same economy, the same health care system.”

Learn more at the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance website. 

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