BY KATHY GIBBONS
ACME — The mood skewed upbeat as area businesses and services staffed displays to greet and meet with about 1,000 people who turned out for the annual Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce Business Expo at the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa.
“If you look at the year in general, we’ve seen a little bit more new construction,” said Rex Ambs, an owner of GeoFurnace Heating & Cooling. “People are hunkering down as far as they’re going to stay in their homes, so we’re seeing some repairs, replacement.
“In general for us, we’ve had a pretty good year.”
Jeff Dufort, account executive for Traverse City’s Progress Printers, also spoke of a brighter 2012.
“Business is up,” he said. “Our digital printing is booming.”
Customers may not be ordering the larger quantities they used to, but they’re targeting their marketing so it’s more effective.
“They’re being smarter with their money,” he said.
Chamber Chief Operating Officer Laura Oblinger picked up similar sentiments across the exhibit hall floor.
“It’s very positive, high energy,” she said. “The exhibitors are identifying that they have solid traffic flow and that the people who are coming into their booths are, as we hope, people they feel they could be doing business with.
“That is always a key performance indicator for us ... people coming through who are viable business representatives.”
The day kicked off with a sold-out Economic Outlook Breakfast attended by more than 500 local business and government representatives. Speakers delivered a message that combined optimism with a snapshot of the region’s economic challenges.
Chamber President Doug Luciani was part of a three-person speaker panel and said the area “never had a better year for tourism than this year.”
But tourism isn’t the be-all, end-all. Luciani and fellow panelists said the Grand Traverse region is troubled by the same “structural mismatch” that surfaced statewide: jobs for skilled mid-level workers remain empty, thanks to a lack of well-trained candidates, even as unemployment hovers at near 8 percent in northwestern Lower Michigan. The fact that wages here tend to be about 78 percent of the state average doesn’t help, Luciani said.
Meanwhile, the state continues to turn out 55,000 graduates with four-year college degrees annually, while only about 28,000 jobs are available.
But Luciani said such challenges should be viewed as opportunities.
“Anytime there’s structural mismatch and risk, there’s opportunities for great gain,” he said. “Businesses that make intelligent investments at this time ... have the opportunity to really knock it out of the park.”