TRAVERSE CITY — No one wants to throw a party where nobody shows up.
Fortunately this wasn’t the case for the Leelanau County Business Grant program, where some 70 county-based businesses this month submitted applications totaling more than $400,000 for grant money from the dissolution of the county’s Economic Development Corp.
Of course there isn’t nearly enough money to fulfill all the ideas and, honestly, giving away free money isn’t the most effective nor sustainable economic development strategy. But the sheer volume of response makes one obvious point — area business folks are looking to their local governments and other regional economic development partners for help in growing the region’s business sector. These organizations need to step up to the plate.
The Traverse City Area Chamber’s recent membership event — a highly successful initiative that generated close to 300 new members — was directed by a savvy, energetic entrepreneur who’s worked for more than two decades in hundreds of communities around the country. He’s worked in flourishing areas where you can feel the community buzz as soon as you arrive and depressed places struggling with double-digit unemployment, vacant buildings and low community morale.
There’s always one constant, he said, between the haves and the have-nots: a thriving business sector. Places with a strong business base have career opportunities for their young people, the resources to maintain their infrastructure, the institutions to emphasize arts and cultural offerings and the political clout and will to get things done.
At the other end of the spectrum are regions with companies that are leaving and local economies are stagnant or in decline. There are limited employment opportunities and local governments struggle to meet even basic needs. Arts and cultural offerings are low priorities and there’s little if any political wherewithal to turn things around.
So where do we want to be in Northern Michigan? The answer seems obvious, but for whatever the reasons some folks remain reluctant to get on board. While some still question their local community’s role and responsibilities to promote and foster economic development, our region is competing with places all over the country and beyond where growth and prosperity are on the upswing.
And there’s no need to create new government departments and programs to make it happen. These place-to-be areas are working as partners within existing economic development structures and organizations, investing pennies on the eventual dollar to create communities that attract growth and are ready embrace it.
Our region has a leg up on many other thriving areas with our spectacular natural resources, the 4-season climate and a relatively low cost of living. But as our consultant reminded us, you can be in the most beautiful place on earth and it won’t thrive without job opportunities, a growing tax base and a strong business identity.
So let’s all come to the party of regional economic development. It will be a gathering no one wants to leave.
Doug Luciani is President & CEO of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org