Operation 40K: A population growth initiative for the Great Lakes Bay Region

It’s a simply stated goal: “Operation 40K for the Great Lakes Bay Region (Saginaw, Bay, Midland and Isabella counties) is to grow this region by 40,000 by the year 2040. It is not only necessary, it's an attainable goal to bring people together, ” says Ken Horn. He’s a former state senator, and now the Executive Vice-President of Strategic Development for the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance.  
Ken Horn is the Executive Vice-President for Strategic Development for the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance.
Growing the population isn’t just a local challenge, it’s also a challenge on a statewide level. Horn was recently chosen by Governor Gretchen Whitmer to sit on the Growing Michigan Together Council. This workgroup was established to develop a long-term plan to address the growth challenges and set Michigan up for success in the 21st century. The council will play a vital role in identifying growth areas and barriers that hinder growth. 

Michigan’s population has experienced its share of ups and downs over the past few decades, influenced by economic factors. However, our state has a rich history of innovation and grit. It gave the world the auto industry, and is home to the innovations of Henry Ford and Herbert H. Dow. For Michigan, the road to long-term success is tied to its population growth. Based on the 2020 census,  there is renewed interest in actively growing Michigan’s population, and recent initiatives show promise for a strategic approach to population growth.  Michigan’s population grew slightly from 2010 to 2020 but there was an estimated decline by 2022.

Earlier legislative initiatives made by Horn, when he was in the senate, included Project 1MP (a plan to bring 1 million people to Michigan over a span of a decade) have been created out of necessity, aiming to propel Michigan into a prosperous future by expanding its population base. For Michigan to grow, Horn says we need to invest. The state has been strategic, employing tools like the Strategic Outreach and Attraction Reserve Fund (SOAR), which enabled GM to build more plants, and was a springboard for the state to enter into battery and electric vehicle production.

Horn is using concepts and efforts borrowed from Project 1MP, his Good Jobs for Michigan plan, and Growing Michigan Together, and applying them to the Great Lakes Bay Region with Operation 40K.

Ken Horn recently spoke about Operation 40K to the Midland Rotary Club.
“Every engagement is an opportunity to gain a partner in growth,” says Horn. The plan to grow our region by 40K, is to engage our entire community. Horn plans to meet with industry leaders in economic development, education, and health. He challenges them, “How can we (the Great Lakes Bay Regional Alliance) help you grow?” And Horn doesn't mean the bottom line, he's talking about people. How do we help local industry leaders grow their workforce? 

Horn notes that one of the key aspects of the population growth puzzle is keeping our talent local. Michigan is home to educational institutions that have the potential to train the next generation of innovators. The aim is to prepare our college students to work in local industries and be an integral part of the community. 'Operation 40k' focuses on growing not only our overall population by 10%, but our student numbers by 20%, recognizing that our young people are our future. In Horn’s discussions with business, industry, and education leaders, he’s asking questions about what skills might be needed. Taking that information from industry to secondary education, to higher education and sharing the path of education to career, this will help keep the talent that is education in our region, building a career and life in our region long after college. 

When discussing growth, Horn uses a 'Three-legged stool illustration,' a holistic approach that stands on three pillars: growing industry, cradle to career training, and placemaking. 

Growing Industry:  The SOAR program has helped re-establish Michigan as a manufacturing powerhouse. But we're not just restricted to automobiles; we have the potential in the space industry, Agriculture, and Hospitality/Tourism. As well as Dow's investment in the Great Lakes Bay Region serving as an attractor for top talent.

Cradle to Career: Early exposure to career paths such as career exploration in middle school, can have an enormous impact. Curriculum initiatives are teaching students skills in 3D printing and engineering, while specialized institutions like the Saginaw Career Center focus on culinary skills.

Placemaking: Creating an attractive place to live involves updating downtown areas, investing in public art, and ensuring green spaces for community interaction. 

Horn acknowledges the task is not without its challenges. Housing, transport and childcare are key workforce issues that need to be addressed. Innovations like SVSU's planned transportation hub, which will offer shuttle services to downtown areas, are steps in the right direction. The Michigan-Ontario Memorandum of Understanding  shows promise in leveraging agriculture as an area of mutual growth. Ontario is Michigan’s largest trading partner. 

Growing the population base is not just about the number of people attracted to the region. It has direct implications for community development, from increased tax revenues to better public services. Horn points out that when we attract talent, we’re not just bringing in skills and wealth, we're enriching the community as a whole.

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Read more articles by Abby Keeley-Scherzer.

Abby Keeley-Scherzer is a Mid-Michigan native, proudly raising her two daughters in Midland, with her husband, Steve. Her degrees are in business administration, cosmetology management, and sociology. Among other great qualities, Abby is an Army veteran,  pageant queen, substitute teacher, and community volunteer.