Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
COVID-19 is presenting new options to employees in terms of where they choose to live and work. Now leaders with Battle Creek Unlimited
are hoping to capitalize on this opportunity by making a $500,000 pool of funds available to individuals who chose Battle Creek from among their options.
The funds are being distributed through the TRAIN (Talent Retention, Attraction, and Inclusion Incentive), a pilot program established by BCU. About 40 percent of those funds have been earmarked for underrepresented demographics, including women, persons of color, and the LGBTQ+ community, says Joe Sobieralski, president and CEO of BCU.
“COVID-19 has radically changed the workplace,” Sobieralski says. “Many employees now have the flexibility and curiosity to relocate. People are leaving larger cities. We want to capture and retain that talent.”
The funding is available for new or existing employees who move into areas within the city of Battle Creek’s corporate limits. It also provides a path to homeownership for eligible existing employees. The grant program provides up to $12,000 toward down payments on a home, rent, and moving expenses.
Sobieralski says the funding amounts are awarded depending on the salary of an individual who decides to relocate to the city. As an example, he says, “If a company wants to hire someone moving from Indiana and their salary range is between $40,000 and $50,000, they will qualify for up to $8,000 which could go towards a down payment on a house or rental assistance for 24 months.”
The second tier would be for individuals making between $55,001 to $79,199. They would qualify for grants of up to $10,000. The third tier is for salaries of $80,000 and above which would qualify for up to a $12,000 TRAIN grant.
Sobieralski says those in the higher salary tier would likely purchase bigger homes or rent larger properties and would need more funds to offset the higher costs associated with those expenditures.
Sobieralski says there is a special award category for gig workers, entrepreneurs, and contract professionals. A total of four recipients will be eligible for this award which is capped at $12,000 per individual.
Half of the amount of each award is funded by BCU with the remainder coming from employers that are participating in the TRAIN initiative. So, BCU would contribute $4,000 and an employer would contribute that same amount for an $8,000 grant award. BCU is picking up the total grant funds for gig workers, entrepreneurs, and contract professionals.
Status quo won’t lead to success
When conversations about the TRAIN initiative began in May and June, Sobieralski says he recognized the importance of having conversations with stakeholders in the community that represented underserved demographics.
“We talked with groups in the community to make sure we were not disenfranchising anyone when we rolled this out,” he says. “We also talked with employers and potential employees.
“We talked to the Southwest Michigan Urban League and employers’ groups and community members who are deeply entrenched in their work. Our outreach was pretty broad. In setting aside the funding we were making sure that it wasn’t going to get gobbled up by one segment or one company. We wanted to make sure there were opportunities to set funds aside so that everyone has the opportunity to take advantage of this program.”
Charlie Fulbright, past president of Battle Creek Pride, which advocates for equity for members of the LGBTQ + community, says he was surprised and grateful that Sobieralski reached out to him for his input.
“I was excited that an organization like BCU thought of the LGBTQ community because we feel like we’re often overlooked when it comes to monies and growth in our community,” Fulbright says. “Battle Creek has a lot of potential with all of the minority groups that exist here.”
In identifying BC Pride as an organization that needed to be included in the conversation, Sobieralski says, “We didn’t want to throw a program out there that our local LGBTQ community wasn’t aware of. We wanted to make sure we were hitting all of the pieces we were trying to hit and the various groups we are trying to affect and impact. This is not just about attraction, but also retention and inclusion.”
While many companies adopt a strong approach to diversity simply because it is the right thing to do, they often also reap multiple economic benefits from nurturing an inclusive and diverse workforce, according to an article published by the World Economic Forum
“Diversity and inclusion bring additional skills, ideas, and perspectives,” the article says. “Open, inclusive, and diverse societies directly benefit economic growth, research shows. Therefore, discrimination on the basis of, say, sexual orientation or gender identity can adversely impact long-term economic prospects.
“The positive impact of diversity on business is multifaceted. For example, LGBT+ inclusive companies that seek to attract and retain talent can see an increase in levels of innovation, and the ability to build customer loyalty and brand strength.”
In addition, the article says that LGBT+ inclusion is a common denominator among leading cities with a strong global economic footprint.
“One reason for this is that individuals who work in open, diverse, and inclusive environments are usually able to perform better because each individual is able to bring their authentic self to the workplace. Only when people are comfortable in their workplace does their organization get the best possible results from its workforce. Most organizations operate with a range of stakeholders, including clients, alliance companies, and shareholders, all of whom are themselves diverse. Organizations must reflect the diversity of the ecosystem within which they operate to maximize their relationship with every stakeholder.”
Fulbright says the intentional efforts exhibited by BCU with its TRAIN program show the community and those on the outside of the city looking in that Battle Creek is welcoming to all.
“Especially for outsiders, it will show the many groups and populations that exist in Battle Creek, and what Battle Creek has to offer, and how we’re open to everybody and people from all walks of life,” Fulbright says. “I think that’s a huge factor in trying to grow Battle Creek, but also grow all of the communities in Battle Creek like the Latinx and Burmese. There’s so much that Battle Creek has to offer and I think what BCU is doing is a huge piece to showcase that.”
The funds in TRAIN are “great,” he says, “but collaboration and a commitment is a huge thing. You can say it all day, but if you’re not doing that, it’s pointless. Dedication to that commitment has to be a part of it.”
The end goal for BCU with TRAIN is a long-term economic benefit that won’t happen without a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, Sobieralski says. In June, BCU published a letter that speaks to its commitment to Equity, Inclusion and Policy Change
“We’re definitely making diversity, equity, and inclusion the fabric of this program,” he says. “We made that commitment back in June with that statement. Part of the commitment to the community in that program is looking at policies and doing what we can to look at things differently.
“If we as an economic development organization can help a company with their equity and inclusion efforts, we are just that more valuable to them.”