Updating the Great in Michigan’s Great Southwest

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.” Jerry Price pretty well summed up the overarching concept of the Michigan’s Great Southwest Strategic Leadership Council with that message today as the powerful group delivered a round table status update and outlook regarding the huge array of messages they’ve been working on over the past three years or better.

Co-Chaired by Whirlpool Chairman & CEO Jeff Fettig and Lakeland Health President & CEO Dr. Loren Hamel, the unique body of work has spanned a broad conversation and strategic collaboration with a vision that says, “Michigan’s Great Southwest is a vibrant and prosperous region to live, learn, work, invest, grow, play and retire for everyone.”

A cross section of some 30 community leaders eventually increased to triple that number a year later and now encompasses more than 115 people from all sectors of the community working to sing from the same songbook in every regard to help deal with critical issues that spawned the fledgling organization in the first place.

Fettig said in today’s media roundtable that the state of the county was looking rough based on a couple of key metrics that showed declining population and fading total employment. The population had slipped by some 3.7-percent while total employment was off by more than 4.6-percent. Not exactly the robust picture economic developers want to showcase to prospective businesses and industries interested in relocating here.

The 13-year decline between 2002 and 2015 drove considerable debate over what needed to be done and how to do it on multiple fronts.

Whirlpool’s Jeff Noel says that the group took the vision statement of the group and found nearly 1,000 key messages which they condensed down to 45 and essentially broke into seven key categories including:

  • Economic Development
  • Best Governance Practices
  • Education
  • Quality of Life
  • Transportation
  • Messaging
  • Leadership

Noel says, “Who wouldn’t want to locate in a community where you’ve go two public schools in the top ten percent of the nation? Who wouldn’t want to locate in a community where you’ve got 100,000 students representing 18 colleges and universities all within an hour’s drive of right here in Michigan’s Great Southwest? Who wouldn’t want to come to a community where we know that we’ve got college students that represent over 100 countries within our university system right in this location?” Noel says, “When you think about it, we’ve got advanced degrees, we have people out participating in robotics, and that’s just one example of explaining to people why they should want to locate right here in this community.”

The multiple chairs of various committees in the Michigan’s Great Southwest initiative were all on hand today to discuss the vision, progress made to date, and the outlook for the next 15 to 20 years on the project. They included:

  • Jeff Fettig, CEO of Whirlpool
  • Dr. Loren Hamel, CEO of Lakeland Health
  • Norma Tirado of Lakeland Health
  • Mike Garey, Mayor of the City of St. Joseph
  • Ann Cardon, Superintendent of St. Joseph Public Schools
  • Brian Bennett, Pastor of the Overflow Church and Mosaic
  • Jacqui Winship, from the Strategic Leadership Council
  • Barbara Sistrunk from the Strategic Leadership Council
  • Jeff Noel from Whirlpool
  • John Egelhaaf, Executive Director of the SW Michigan Planning Commission
  • Phil Maki from the Southshore Companies
  • Pat Brandstatter from Kruger Plastic Products of Bridgman
  • Jerry Price, Director of the Berrien County Access Network at United Way of SWM

The 90-minute roundtable covered a ton of ground, much as the council has been doing for the past several years, thanks to leaders from more than 100 not-for-profit organizations, local governments, businesses, schools and community organizations. The community driven focus is on a process which leads to better cooperation which will, in turn:

  • Attract new investments
  • Grow the population
  • Create new and better jobs
  • Enable a healthier life for everyone
  • Provide great education for the success of everyone

Four core focus areas emerged as the work of the council has proceeded including:

  • Unsurpassed quality of life for all…
  • Best practice governance…
  • World class education and talent development…
  • Business and jobs growth.

As Dr. Loren Hamel has succinctly put it, “Our work is to create a culture of collaboration and coordination around those things that matter most to us and our children and their children. Our aligned and collective commitment will allow our community to grow and thrive.”

As the myriad players convened on various occasions they worked to envision what life in Michigan’s Great Southwest would be like, figuring that they can look forward to several major improvements by the year 2024 including:

  • Improved living, working and recreation conditions…
  • An increased tax base…
  • Reduced disparity in income and education…
  • A broad base of strong, active community leaders…
  • Better value of government services for the taxpayer dollars…
  • And a world where everyone enters kindergarten prepared emotionally, developmentally, and intellectually. Where everyone graduates from high school on time and prepared for college or skills certification, work and life. Where everyone completes college or other post-secondary training; gets and keeps a family; garners sustaining employment and fully engages in community life.  And…where everyone has the opportunity to achieve family-sustaining employment, even if derailed along the way.

The group has also arrived at measurable achievements they hope to have under their belts by 2024 including:

  • An increased population of at least 1,250 new people…
  • Arrival at 95-percent full-employment rate…
  • Per capita incomes greater than the national averages…
  • Countywide poverty rates less than the national averages…
  • Growing property values at around 3-percent annually…
  • Consistent, strong educational attainment scores across school districts…
  • Parental involvment up by 15-percent…
  • and Berrien County student test scores in the top 10-percent in Michigan.

Tangible good has emerged on multiple fronts from the council, including substantially increased collaboration and cooperation between the key economic development groups in Berrien County including the county’s own team, the team at Cornerstone Alliance and the team from the Southwest Michigan Economic Growth Alliance in Niles. Another major step forward is the increased cooperation between a large contingent of local units of government through shared best practices and beyond.

A major concern from day one for every sector of the council has been the lack of a cohesive, single source transportation plan for the entire county. The good news on that front, according to Pat Brandstatter of the Quality of Life group, and who is leading the public transportation charge, is a $40,000 grant that has been parlayed into a $200,000 program which is slated to get underway next week to study a single county wide system. He says it will take minimally 9-months to get the study done, but he promises they will be “as transparent and authentic as we can be in order to keep everyone engaged.”

Brandstatter says they’ve made progress over the past three years and they now have everyone talking together and they hope to have “a document and actionable plan to move forward,” as a result of the study.

Everyone concurred today that transportation issues are intertwined through all of the sectors under study from education to skilled jobs access and even recreation. Dr. Hamel noted that far too many people find it tough to hang onto a good job if they don’t have access to quality transportation to get them to and from work in a timely manner. As he put it, “Transportation is very key to both jobs and growth throughout the region.”

The council has covered most bases very well, right down to cultivating a sustainable talent pipeline through their Leadership Accelerator program which entails a 9-month, intensive, interactive leadership development program targeting area leaders in a bid to capitalize on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grow and impact Michigan’s Great Southwest.

You and I will likely continue to hear a lot more about the ongoing work if this dynamic initiative, because, as Jeff Noel said today, “We have put together message points on all sorts of things proving why you should want to grow here, play here, retire here and more.” He says that working with the economic development collaborative teams, “A brochure was put together that put these key messages inviting all area companies to reach out to the suppliers they do business with, inviting them to consider bringing their business into this community by using the same consistent messages.”

He concluded, “If you get the facts together to tell the story and you do it consistently, over, and over, and over again…and you invite people to take advantage of those tools…great things will happen.”

Great things are happening…and it’s only just begun for the Michigan’s Great Southwest Strategic Leadership Council. Stay tuned.