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February 12, 2013

Leelanau board to talk new jobs strategy

Commissioners look to improve economic development plan

SUTTONS BAY — John Hoagland loves Leelanau County.

He cherishes the county's beauty and great people, both of which make Leelanau popular for retirees and vacationers.

But Hoagland sees a great need for more full-time, year-round jobs for county residents. Many of the county's jobs are seasonal and if there are more good-paying, year-round jobs, it will boost the county's quality of life, stabilize school enrollments and further solidify the tax base, he said.

"We need more full-time jobs so it's a little bit more stable for everyone," said Hoagland, president of Leelanau County's Economic Development Board and owner of Cherry Capital Foods. "We've got a pretty wealthy community, but we have pockets of under-served."

The Leelanau County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to meet today at 1:30 p.m. at the county government center to discuss a complete revamp of Leelanau County's economic development strategy. County Administrator Chet Janik said it's time to take action with the county's Economic Development Board; it is, he contends, "more reactive versus proactive" and "fairly stagnant" when it comes to stimulating job growth.

"Everyone, from the EDB, to the county, to most residents, would like to see proper growth in Leelanau County," Janik said. "Keeping jobs and young people here is important. We are looking at what is the role of private sector versus government, should there be (an EDB) and if so, what are its mission, goals and objectives.

"My perspective is they are struggling with their goals," Janik said. "We've had meetings when there hasn't even been a quorum."

The county's most recent unemployment figures, as of December, stood at 8 percent. That is 19th lowest out of 83 counties.

Janik wants the EDB and the county board to outline a specific, measurable, Economic Development Strategic Plan by June 1 to serve as a blueprint for job growth. Some ideas Janik floated to the county board and EDB include:

Enhancing an already solid agricultural base;Developing opportunities for "clean applied technology," which refers to companies that do not have a negative impact on county or township infrastructure or a negative impact on the environment;Finding compatibility between existing economic development drivers such as tourism and other employment sectors;Pursuing partnerships with the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.

Janik said the county feasibly could adopt new tax policies to lure appropriate businesses, improve broadband infrastructure in community centers and review critical infrastructure systems to make sure they are adequate to attract businesses. Another prospect includes creating clusters of agricultural processing facilities to attract research money and new jobs.

The county currently partners with Traverse Bay Economic Development officials. That partnership will be examined as well, Janik said.

Linda L. Peppler is a practicing accountant in Leelanau County and sits on the EDC. She also sees a need to diversify the county's economic base.

"We are so dependent on tourism and the summer," Peppler said. "What can you do year-round?"

County Commissioner Melinda Lautner said today's meeting will help determine if the county wants to continue with an EDB. She also wants to revisit getting the Sugarloaf ski resort operational again and thinks there are immediate steps the county can take to lure more businesses.

"I think our zoning restrictions stand in the way and our inspections department stands in the way," Lautner said. "There are too many regulations. We are not a business-friendly county.

"In the past, we've only talked about soft industry — a business looking like a home hidden in the woods," Lautner said. "That's fine, but I certainly wouldn't close the door on any option to bring manufacturing in. You just don't go out and manufacture in the way you did 20 or 30 years ago. No one wants to hurt the environment, but there are so many more ways to (protect) the environment and still have a decent manufacturing base."

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