Not all U.S. towns have shared the same good fortune as those of West Michigan’s lakeshore in recent decades. Ottawa and Allegan counties are the first- and fourth-fastest growing counties in the state of Michigan. This is no accident — it was not inevitable.
The success and prosperity of West Michigan's Lakeshore communities are a testament to the visionary leadership and collaborative efforts of business and community leaders in the region. In the early 2000s, West Michigan’s largest employers were undergoing drastic changes with mergers and acquisitions. Business and community leaders at the time set in motion a plan to secure the fate of the beloved communities that so many call home.
This foresight and willingness to join forces have made the region one of success and opportunity. With all of its natural beauty, it’s easy to take the good economic fortune of the region for granted. However, the ability of so many to make a good living here is thanks to several key initiatives:
Founding a regional force
Prior to 2003, there were a paltry dozen or so municipal and community professionals, with geographically narrow service areas, who could help a local business or introduce an interested outside party. It was difficult for businesses to get a sense of the resources, tools, and unique assets of the area. And, with rapid changes underway locally and globally, business and community leaders recognized the need for a grander, regional effort to attract and retain GDP-growing primary employers.
When asked about being part of the original effort, Lakeshore Advantage co-founder Dan Bourbon recalls, “The entire industrial complex was becoming global. If you think about the fact that Holland-Zeeland has a history of entrepreneurial development — family-owned businesses that grew to be big businesses — there’s some strength in that.”
was founded in 2003 to protect the economic strengths of Lakeshore communities. Lakeshore Advantage has been in service for 20 years as a nonprofit economic development organization to ensure the long-term economic vitality of Ottawa and Allegan counties. It acts as the region’s economic GPS. The organization’s core focuses are to:
SmartZone districts capture tax increment financing (TIF) dollars and direct them toward economic development in the technology sector.
Establishing a catalyst for the future
- Grow the primary business base at all stages of development.
- Plan to ensure long-term economic health.
- Solve economic challenges.
The Holland Economic Development Corp. (HEDCOR) fund was established at the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area (CFHZ) in 2008 as part of a critical effort to fund activities that attract and retain businesses to the area. The fund was born out of a prior philanthropic effort to promote business success through the development of industrial parks in Holland.
As the need for economic development shifted from developing property to a need for more training and community development, the fund at CFHZ allowed for flexible resources to do just that. This fund provided operational support to Lakeshore Advantage for 10 years and seeded the launch of Michigan State University’s Bioeconomy Institute, the NewNorth Center for Innovation and Design, and the Holland SmartZone.
The Holland Economic Development Corp. (HEDCOR) fund was established at the Community Foundation of the Holland/Zeeland Area (CFHZ) in 2008 as part of a critical effort to fund activities that attract and retain businesses to the area.
Later, in 2019, Lakeshore Advantage and CFHZ established the “Now for the Next” fund to replace the depleted 2008 HEDCOR Fund. Now for the Next would continue to prioritize strong economic development operations along with other areas of investment opportunity, including talent development and attraction, community revitalization, education, and advanced infrastructure.
Fueling the entrepreneurial spirit
West Michigan’s Lakeshore has a rich history of entrepreneurship, including its largest employers: Gentex, Haworth, and MillerKnoll. Lakeshore Advantage has fostered that entrepreneurial legacy, first with the Lakeshore Business Garden starting in 2006 to nurture emerging tech businesses. Next, in 2008, came “Lakeshore’s Next Top Entrepreneur,” a ”Shark Tank”-style pitch competition providing modest monetary awards to college and university students to give their work a boost.
Born out of an uptick in entrepreneurial activity following the Great Recession in 2008, a collaborative effort between Lakeshore Advantage and investor and entrepreneur Rick DeVos resulted in the creation of West Michigan's inaugural business accelerator, Momentum. This 12-week initiative spanned three years, during which batches of tech startups were granted both investment and mentorship. Momentum eventually separated from Lakeshore Advantage and moved to Grand Rapids, where it later became Start Garden. Lakeshore Advantage continued offering services for product and technology startups in the form of today’s SURGE program
In 2015, Lakeshore Advantage helped to establish Holland as a satellite district of the Grand Rapids SmartZone. SmartZone districts capture tax increment financing (TIF) dollars and direct them toward economic development in the technology sector. In short, SmartZones provide technology companies, entrepreneurs, and researchers a place to cluster, collaborate, and share resources. The Holland SmartZone
was approved by the state of Michigan in 2016.
In February 2022, Lakeshore Advantage launched the SURGE Center, a business incubator and startup hub in a temporary pilot location after years of prior programming to support area entrepreneurs. Just over a year later, Lakeshore Advantage announced it would build The Next Center
, a three-story, state-of-the-art hub for innovation and business growth in downtown Holland’s SmartZone district to continue to strengthen West Michigan’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Michigan State University opened in Holland in 2009 in a 138,000-square-foot research and development building and pilot plant donated by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
Establishing a leading bioeconomy research institute
MSU’s Bioeconomy Institute
opened in Holland in 2009 in a 138,000-square-foot research and development building and pilot plant donated by pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. The institute supports the state’s emerging bioeconomy, including biomaterials, biofuels, and bio-based chemicals. The Holland site offers specialty chemical scale-up and manufacturing services, including laboratory space rental, as well as educational programming, training, and services. The site is home to researchers from private- and public-sector collaborator organizations.
Forming an Advanced Energy Storage network
In the late aughts and early 2010s, two global leaders in advanced energy storage selected Holland, Michigan, for their high-tech manufacturing facilities. In 2009, what was Johnson Controls–SAFT at the time turned an idled warehouse into a world-class lithium-ion battery plant that would later spin off to become what is now Clarios. Less than two years later, in 2011, Korean-headquartered LG Chem selected Holland for its first U.S.-based electric-vehicle battery plant. These anchor companies formed the foundation of a globally competitive economic cluster in advanced energy storage.
At the same time, Lakeshore Advantage formed the SmartCoast advanced energy storage network to establish West Michigan as a known leader in energy storage and power management technology. The region emerged as a haven of success for high-tech startups. Holland-based Jolt Energy Storage Technologies, Volta Power Systems, and Global Battery Solutions are all advanced energy storage companies that have benefited from Lakeshore Advantage’s SURGE program with mentorship, resources, and networking that allowed them to thrive and grow into established companies.
Today, the advanced energy storage sector employs 1,600 workers in Ottawa and Allegan counties and accounts for an additional 1.6 indirect jobs in the region.
Lakeshore Advantage and area partners launched a billboard and social media campaign to share their gratitude for the impact Perrigo and its employees have on the West Michigan region and urged shareholders to reject a hostile takeover bid.
Showing up with #PerrigoPride
Allegan County’s largest employer, private label pharmaceuticals company Perrigo, avoided a hostile takeover in 2015 when shareholders rejected a bid from pharmaceutical company Mylan. Lakeshore Advantage and area partners launched a billboard and social media campaign to share their gratitude for the impact Perrigo and its employees have on the West Michigan region and urged shareholders to reject the bid.
Joseph Papa, chair and CEO of Perrigo at the time, expressed his gratitude for the community, employee, and shareholder support. "As you drive by and see these billboards and you see 'Perrigo Pride,' that's very supportive. That just doesn't happen in many places."
Coming to the rescue
Lakeshore Advantage, in collaboration with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) and regional partners, awarded more than $5.4 million to nearly 500 small businesses in Allegan and Ottawa counties over multiple grant cycles in 2020 and 2021 through the Michigan Small Business Survival Grant Program. The program retained thousands of jobs in Ottawa and Allegan counties.
“The vibrancy of our Lakeshore communities is closely tied to the viability of our beloved small businesses,” says Holly Johnson, president of the Frey Foundation and chair of the Lakeshore Advantage Survival Grant Review Committee. “Financial lifelines like the Michigan Small Business Survival Grants are so important because the funding ensures local restaurants, exercise facilities, and recreational venues that serve residents and visitors alike have a chance to rebound despite the significant challenges related to COVID-19 over the past year.”
Additionally, Lakeshore Advantage served Ottawa County as the designated bucket manager for Business Stabilization Needs funding that supported four transformational projects that have improved access to education and career readiness programs, and increased the upward mobility and financial stability of un- and under-employed populations.
In times of crisis and stability, having a regional force focused on Ottawa and Allegan county employers’ ability to thrive has proved a critical asset to the well-being of West Michigan’s entire economic ecosystem. The success of West Michigan's Lakeshore communities is a testament to the power of collaboration, foresight, and community engagement. Expert guidance for local business success, the cultivation of entrepreneurship, a focus on emerging sectors, and unwavering support for local businesses have created a thriving and resilient region. Through these initiatives and ongoing efforts, the Lakeshore communities continue to secure a prosperous future for all who are fortunate to call it home.
Grace Maiullo is part of the Lakeshore Advantage team, where she’s responsible for communications and events management.