Battle Creek

BCU event explores the changing ways of economic development

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

Big reveals at this year’s Economic Outlook presented Tuesday by Battle Creek Unlimited included new projects and investments in the city’s downtown district, plans for the demolition of a building that used to house a Kmart store, and a focus on affordable and workforce housing.

All of this will happen through a changing economic development model based on a new reality outlined by keynote speaker Janet Ady, President and CEO of Ady Advantage, a Madison, Wisconsin-based economic development consulting firm.

Ady says the traditional three-legged stool of economic development included retention and expansion, recruitment, and start-up businesses. That stool, she says, now includes a focus that integrates talent and placemaking. 

“Economic development organizations need to intentionally structure their programs around talent development and placemaking, as well as traditional business development,” Ady says.

This came as no surprise to Joe Sobieralski, President and CEO of BCU, who says this is what his organization has been focusing on since he assumed leadership of BCU in 2016.

“The moral of the story is, ‘Hey folks, Battle Creek is known for the (Fort Custer Industrial Park), but economic development has changed because people get to choose where they want to live now and companies are going to where the people want to be.”

While preparing to become the desired location for companies of all sizes, he says BCU is putting all of the pieces in place including increased downtown living options, more restaurant and entertainment options, and an emphasis on addressing blight issues. All of this, Sobieralski says will lead to a more vibrant community.

Many of the housing options, vibrancy, and placemaking he talks about is centered in the city’s downtown core. But, Sobieralski says he doesn’t want people to think that BCU is going to shift away from its focus on industrial and manufacturing opportunities, in addition to its efforts downtown.

“We’re beginning here as a starting place. We know there are other areas of need in the community,” Sobieralski says, adding that this is part of a targeted strategy he calls “inch deep and a mile wide.”

“We’ve strategically bought properties downtown and given grants through our (Request for Proposal Process) for restaurants and breweries because we’re trying to bring key components to our community.”

These key components are a part of BCU’s overall strategy to entice the talent base that companies are looking for when they locate in a particular community.

The biggest barriers to talent and recruitment, Ady says, are a lack of options when it comes to housing, transportation, childcare, and broadband access. A community with drug-related issues also find recruitment more difficult. She says it’s critical to have economic development ecosystems.

“Economic development organizations must coordinate an ecosystem of strategies to grow and diversify their economies,” Ady says.

The success of these ecosystems is based on greater community engagement; agreement on shared goals; and the ability to align organizations and resources to achieve those shared goals, according to Ady.

The ecosystem has to have all of the pieces intertwined and interwoven for a more complete economic development plan, Sobieralski says.

“Janet mentioned during her presentation that times have changed and you can’t continue to chase after smokestacks as a way to get companies to locate to your community,” he says. “You can’t simply go out and identify a company and chase them down.”

The leading question among site selection professionals is where the associates who will work for a particular company are going to come from, Sobieralski says.

“Advances in technology and Artificial Intelligence are providing really sophisticated approaches that companies that are engaging site selection consultants can use where you can enter a zip code and gives you basically a demographic of that person and what they’re interested in, like golf, arts, and culture, or even the types of sports they might be interested in,” he says.

“Companies are now taking into consideration things like education, housing, transportation and the vibrancy of a community. It’s all part of an ecosystem. When someone says their engine is firing on all cylinders, you have to have it firing on all cylinders.”

BCU board members and staff have already been having conversations with other stakeholders in the community representing areas such as education, housing, and workforce development, many of whom were among the more than 250 people who attended the Economic Outlook presentation at Kellogg Arena. But, Ady says economic development organizations like BCU don’t always have to be the “doers.” 

“Economic development organizations have a stake in placemaking and 'place managing.' but it may be as a convener rather than a ‘doer,” Ady says. “They can bring perspective and relationships across organizations to help create or improve a sense of place.”

The slideshow from the full presentation can be found here.

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.
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