Grassroots efforts bring economic development to county

Man can't live on bread alone, and the U.P. can't live on tourism alone. Mackinac County is one example, which has pretty much relied on tourism to provide jobs for local residents. As a result, the unemployment rate throughout the county has been stubbornly high for decades and it's difficult for young people in the area to find good jobs to support their families.
For years the Mackinac County Board of Commissioners has resisted the creation and funding of an economic development organization for the county, while for most counties in the state it's a no-brainer. While tourism continues to be a driving force in the county, there are few sustainable businesses that can attract and retain young people.     
That's beginning to change, but it had to be started with a group of unpaid volunteers.
"When I came in 2010, one of my goals was to start an economic development authority, because I thought if we didn't do something to attract economic development we would be dying on the vine," says Mackinac County Commissioner Diane Patrick.
There has been resistance to establishing any type of county-funded organization that can help work with existing businesses and attract new ones. Patrick thinks part of that has to do with lack of support from retirees in the area who can rely on a pension from state and county jobs where they worked for 30-40 years.
"If you've got a retirement check coming in every month, you're not so concerned about economic development, but the majority of people are struggling," says Patrick. "The other group wants to stay here and raise a family; the only way they can do it is to find or start their own businesses."
Over the years there were notable attempts to establish an economic development position, including appointing a board member to serve in an economic development capacity. Patrick says the county commissioner/economic development position just didn't work out.
"It was pretty hard to do that," she says. "I don't believe there was clear focus, direction, or whatever. They're basically opposite functions. A county administrator has to be policy oriented, the EDC guy has to paint with broad strokes and ask, what do people want?"
In 2007 the county's planning commission recommended the establishment of an economic development corporation. Still, there was reluctance to fund an EDC, which would include paying at least one person wages and benefits and establishing an office in the county. Pressure mounted to do something about the lack of economic development in the area.

A few years later, with no action, community members approached Anne Ottaway about forming an economic development organization that could operate independent of the county board. Ottaway, who has been in business herself and is a past marketing consultant, agreed to help form the nonprofit Mackinac Economic Alliance and become its first director.
"In 2012, after the commissioners voted against creating an economic development office to serve Mackinac County, I set about forming Mackinac Economic Alliance as a public-private 501(c)(3) organization," says Ottaway.
During the first year of operation, she didn't take a salary, but that didn't thwart her or the newly formed group's enthusiasm to get the ball rolling.
"We had our first meeting in November of 2012," recalls Ottaway. "In 2013 we hit the ground running."
The first order of business would be one for the win column. Ottaway and the newly-formed MEA focused on redevelopment of blighted properties in the area, particularly an old hospital site in St. Ignace. They worked with the county to establish the Mackinac County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority. As a result, they were able to save the county several thousand dollars in demolition costs to remove contaminated material and to demolish the old hospital building. Now, Beacon Specialized Services will be opening an adult foster care facility at the old hospital site, marking a move in the right direction for the county.
"I wanted to establish some really important priorities that applied to this community," says Ottaway. "There has been an over-reliance on tourism for economic prosperity--we were looking for a way to move the needle in a much more sustainable and long-term way,"
2015, with Ottaway now taking a $15,000 annual salary, the MEA raised $40,000 from the business community and obtained a $40,000 match from the USDA for a loan program for new and existing businesses. The same year the group secured a $160,000 Safe Routes to School grant, which will help allow kids to safely walk or ride their bicycles to school.
In addition, they've been working with Graymont, a mining company that is just now establishing operations in the county. With the MEA's involvement they were able to negotiate perks for the county, including a $100,000 development fund for the next five years.
The MEA's early successes have helped the group garner local political support. In 2015 the MEA received $50,000 from the county and will receive $85,000 for 2016. The funding hasn't come easy. The county board of commissioners initially voted to only give the MEA $60,000, falling short of what Ottaway and the MEA thought was needed. The group attended a hearing and convinced the board to increase funding to its current level, which will come largely from the sale of foreclosed properties. The board voted 4-1 for the increase, with one dissenting vote by commissioner Jim Hill, who was quoted by the St. Ignace News as calling it a "bailout" for the group.
Ottaway says it's not a bailout but rather funding needed to adequately fund her position, hire an assistant, and maintain an office. Though receiving some funding now from the county board, the MEA will still need to rely on public support for much of its operations. The group, which was patterned after other nonprofit economic development alliances in other Michigan counties, has a steeper hill to climb than other alliances, because Mackinac County doesn't have large companies that can offer financial support to the MEA. It's kind of like getting that first job when you don't have job experience to fill up a resume.
However, the businesses that the MEA has assisted in the short time they've been in existence are pleased they have an economic development organization to reach out to. For example, in a letter received by MEA Assistant Director Caroline Crecelius, CEO Ken Ratzlaff of Beacon Specialized Services had this to say: "The MEA has been invaluable in assisting the county's Brownfield Redevelopment Authority and in particular my own Beacon redevelopment project."
In a similar vein, Anand Gangadharan, president of Novi Energy wrote a supportive letter to MEA chairman Dean Reid: "We have had many challenges on our path to developing a power plant infrastructure in the region, however, we have an important ally in the Mackinac Economic Alliance... a professional economical development organization is vital to facilitating this effort."
Ottaway asserts they've proven themselves to be a viable economic development organization over the last three years and hopes more businesses will support their efforts.
"I think it's a slow process," says Patrick. "But every time you open the door for a new business or existing business, you open the door for more employment."
Neil Moran is a freelance writer/copywriter living in Sault Ste. Marie.
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