Strong spirit of collaboration propels Port Huron's success

Thanks to collaboration from across the community, Karen Palka is able to keep growing her nonprofit organization supporting young women.
Karen Palka is just one example of the cooperative spirit taking shape in Port Huron. Her nonprofit organization, A Beautiful Me, provides tools, resources, workshops, and events to foster women of all ages.

She believes collaboration is key to success in and around Port Huron and St. Clair County.

"When you collaborate, it's not just thinking about yourself," she says.

The organization provides interactive, in-service training for women that do not have the tools, or resources, to succeed, or those that have financial or economic limitations.

Interactive workshops help girls build a strong self-esteem.The workshops offer four-part sessions, and include "Be-YOU-tiful Workshop Series," "Mother/Daughter Workshop Retreat—Building Self Esteem," and others.

Palka says there may be a few challenges to collaborating, but that once those challenges are tackled, much more progress can be made.

"The biggest challenge has been these silos—you have the separate groups: non-profits, and corporations; but the different silos need to merge together, and approach it differently."

Palka's first connections were with the school district and with radio stations WGRT 102.3, and sister stations Hope FM and Power 88.

"I saw the need to provide self-worth to our young people, and our young ladies. That was our market anyways," says Palka.

She says that when collaboration happens, it is supposed to be about sharing resources, and not about the money.

"People think it's all financial, or transactional. It is resources, advice, connecting with people; and once people get passed the financial part, you can utilize time, resources and people better. And that is super cool to me."

A Beautiful Me was the recipient of the Community Foundation of St. Clair County's Women's Initiative Challenge Event—300 A Beautiful Me offers several programs for girls to help build sellf-esteem and teach important life skills.Women Who Care, which shines a light on local women making an impact. Participants could pay $100 and name their favorite charity.

"Because of that grant, we are hoping to start an endowment and learn—how do we use it?" says Palka. "I am excited about having a place to leave legacy gifts, and we are not sure how we are going to use it. But I love Port Huron, I can't say enough."

One of the newest projects that Palka and A Beautiful Me has been working on is the retail brick-and-mortar store, "The Closet," which teaches business and philanthropy skills to young ladies while letting them shop affordable prices and learn confidence.

"We all have ideas," Palka says of community members. "That is where collaboration works."

CEO of the Economic Development Alliance of St. Clair County Dan Casey says that entrepreneurs are very focused on their businesses and that they just need support from a stable environment.

"During these past few years, we've improved our downtowns, created sustainable jobs, and an education system that is more focused on career readiness. But, more importantly, we've learned how to work together and the value of supporting each other and our individual corporate missions." - Dan Casey, CEO, Economic Development Alliance of St. Clair County

"I think we've developed a support system that enables them to flourish," he says of the collaboration. "We still have a long way to go in this area, and we're in a down cycle for people that want to start businesses because there are so many available jobs out there. But when the economy softens, we'll be better positioned with incubators, co-working facilities, programs and funding to support those that want to venture out on their own."

But he does not doubt that the collaboration is there. Casey says the current atmosphere of collaboration started in 2010 when a company developed a countywide strategic plan.

"From that point forward," he says. "Many organizations from the public, private and non-profit sectors have been working together to position the county for success."

Acheson Ventures helps build projects across Port Huron, like donating the land for and improving the riverwalkCasey says that the EDA has worked with other entities to improve everything from tourism to education.

"During these past few years, we've improved our downtowns, created sustainable jobs, and an education system that is more focused on career readiness. But, more importantly, we've learned how to work together and the value of supporting each other and our individual corporate missions."

He says the key to making it easy to collaborate is to keep politics out of the room. Everyone has improvements to make.

"The idea is that a stronger and more balanced economy is better for every community, every business, and everyone that lives and works in the county. Of course, communities still have their goals, needs and wants. But we try to balance that with an overall context about improving the macro-environment."

Currently, the EDA is focusing on new housing initiatives and growing the county's population. They see the need for better paying jobs, but the labor market is tight and a lot of people are not always aware of local employment opportunities.

"So we are doing more to promote the idea of working and living locally, and we're using web tools and social media to connect people to local jobs," says Casey. "So I'm pretty excited about the possibilities."

A mix of housing choices is another area where the EDA hopes to improve on. "We could use more condos, workforce Acheson Ventures helps build projects across Port Huron, like improving the riverwalkhousing and starter homes."

He says the challenge lies in creating new subdivisions, because "the market dynamics are working against us – we're at a high point for construction costs and the labor market is driving up wages, which is a good thing. However, it is raising the cost to build a single-family home and that is cutting out the young family or millennial that wants to get into their first mortgage."

One of the most exciting aspects of collaboration in the county that Casey is excited about now is computer programing, skilled trades, and other jobs and trades.

"I'm also excited about what has been happening with First Robotics and computer programming, including coding. These are jobs of the future and we need to create more opportunities for young people to experience technology and explore careers in these growing fields."

The James C. Acheson Foundation has also been an integral part of not only development and partnerships in Port Huron and the county, but also, its storied history.

Thomas Edison protégé Dr. Edward G. Acheson started Acheson Colloids Company in 1908, with his son Howard A. Acheson taking over and naming the company Acheson Colloids and eventually Acheson Industries, Inc.

Dr. James A. Acheson, current board chairman of the foundation, ran the family company for 20 years before establishing private, Acheson Ventures, LLC.

"More folks are truly willing to work together, and we are getting a lot done. Port Huron is incredible, and is a truly giving community." - Donna Niester, president, CEO Acheson Ventures

The vision of Acheson Ventures, LLC, "strives to enhance the Southside of Port Huron through work, home, play and health endeavors," according to current CEO and President Donna Niester.

"Jim wanted to be able to make larger gifts through the foundation," says Niester.

That includes collaborating with several area entities, but mostly the Community Foundation of St. Clair, with which they have shared a close partnership with for decades.

Howard Acheson was one of the "founding fathers" of the Community Foundation in the early 1950s.

The Achesons also provided administrative funding to the Community Foundation so they could install a president (Currently Randy Maiers), and both foundations continue to work together to disperse funds and gifts to the community.

Some of those larger gifts include donating the land for the Blue Water River Walk in Port Huron, a one-mile stretch of the coast that has been transformed and refurbished.

Also, as part of Michigan's Cool Cities Initiative started in the early 2000s by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, and on behalf of both foundations, Acheson Ventures, LLC was instrumental in purchasing the building for what is now Art Studio 1219.

Port Huron is one of the few cities on that original list still considered a ‘Cool City' by the state.

"The Acheson Foundation uses the Community Foundation of St. Clair as a convener," says Niester. "When we want to tackle a topic, the Community Foundation can call respective leaders or community members to the table."

One of those community members is also the Port Huron area school district.

"We have worked on a lot of childhood development and educational projects," says Niester. "If they were able to pass a bond, we would give them $1 million to rebuild the two high school auditoriums, and they did."

She says the Community Foundation acts as a liaison with the district with other needs, as well.

"Community backers are looking for the common good—and it's a group effort."

Niester believes that county-wide, more people and businesses are interested in collaboration, and that the older mentality of working for self-success instead of as a whole, is gone.

"More folks are truly willing to work together," she says. "And we are getting a lot done. Port Huron is incredible, and is a truly giving community."

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