TraverseConnect to expand its mission

TraverseConnect President and CEO Warren Call speaks during the 2019 annual luncheon of Venture North Funding & Development in June.

TRAVERSE CITY — TraverseConnect plans to expand its mission. The organization is moving toward becoming a more powerful force for economic growth across the region.

“This is all happening right now,” said TraverseConnect President and CEO Warren Call.

Speaking at Thursday’s annual luncheon of Venture North Funding & Development, attended by more than 170 people, Call said the need for a more active regional organization has been discussed at length.

Jessica Sullivan, Grand Traverse Economic Development Corporation board chairman, told the group that the EDC and other local business leaders went back and forth about how to best form a more well-rounded resource for region business development. Rather than create a new organization, she said, it was decided in September 2018 to repurpose TraverseConnect.

“First and foremost we want to be the quarterback” for economic development, said Call.

TraverseConnect hopes to coordinate development efforts and serve as a point of contact for issues relating to economic development. Details are still being worked out, Call told the crowd, but the aim is to provide service-oriented leadership, not dictate any particular action. He said more details should be available by fall.

Sullivan said TraverseConnect’s expanded mission initially will be rolled out in Grand Traverse County. Starting with a core geographic area and later expanding to a larger region, she said, is a proven course of action local officials decided on after studying similar efforts across the state.

A main focus of the expanded mission will be to widen the diversity of economic drivers in northwest Lower Michigan.

“Health care and tourism represent half of our economic output,” Call said.

Those pillars of the local economy remain strong. But diversification across other sectors could help attract more investment to the area, he said, because financial institutions hesitate to invest too heavily in any community that lacks sufficient industry diversity.

TraverseConnect will concentrate on providing business financial support, said Call.

Venture North, a unit of TraverseConnect, will enable the larger organization to bring financial concerns into any development conversation early on. Typically, he said, economic development efforts progress into the planning stages before financing options are explored.

Venture North, which administers a variety of revolving loan funds, is a sub-unit of TraverseConnect. That integration will bring financial concerns into the formula much earlier. Access to capital is crucial for business expansion and retention, Call said.

“That’s a differentiator for our region,” said Call.

Venture North since its inception has deployed $5.4 million in capital, allowing businesses to leverage $13.5 million in additional funding. Venture North has assisted 525 clients, disbursed 94 loans and enabled the creation of 319 jobs.

At the annual luncheon, Venture North received a pair of cash donations to further its mission of injecting business loans into the region. The Consumers Energy Foundation, which already has donated $90,000 to Venture North over the last three years, presented it with a $50,000 check. DTE Energy presented Venture North with a $60,000 check.

Nic Welty, co-owner of 9 Bean Rows in Suttons Bay, told the crowd about his experience with a business loan from Venture North.

“That is the struggle of a small business — not having enough financing,” he said. “Having the right funding can make you much more efficient. The impact is tremendous.”

Jody Hayden, co-owner of Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate in Empire, said the business received a pair of loans through Venture North totaling $100,000 that enabled it to save money by importing larger quantities of chocolate directly from cacao growers in Ecuador.

“I’m still really committed to going to the source for our product,” she said.

Venture North currently serves clients across a 10-county region that stretches from Emmet to Missaukee to Manistee to Leelanau.

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