Bringing the largest manufacturer of aluminum wheels in the world to the shores of Lake Michigan was huge, but it was just part of the success story generated virtually everyday by Berrien County's lead economic development agency, Cornerstone Alliance.
Cornerstone Alliance President Rob Cleveland says that with more than $25-million in new investment in Berrien County through the course of 2018, the two year total now tops $78.3-million in capital investment since the beginning of 2017.
Based on figures through the end of November, that's a return on investment by the team at Cornerstone of $42.50 for every dollar invested in the organization.
Cleveland tells me, "We had a number of very good projects this year ranging in many industry sectors. Being able to work with Hagar Township to recruit Dicastal was a significant project for us that will pay dividends for decades." Dicastal Logistics Group, the world's largest manufacturer of aluminum wheels, was successfully recruited to Southwest Michigan to the former APL Logistics building on Coloma Road in Hagar Township back in August, providing more than 100 new jobs to the community.
Dicastal was far from the only project that Cornerstone was engaged in over the past year. Cleveland says his agency responded to 73 new business leads from all over the world. He notes, "We have several active new business projects that could add several hundred new jobs to Berrien County. Some of the projects are more likely than others and we’re working on these projects in several of the area municipalities."
Cornerstone's Business Development team worked with Gast Manufacturing in Benton Township and DeGroot in Coloma for new manufacturing and warehouse space projects throughout the year along with at least a dozen county-wide projects for industrial, commercial and community partners. Over the course of the year, Cornerstone Alliance project companies created just shy of 200 new jobs (196) throughout Berrien County in the first 11 months of the year.
They also hosted their first ever Small Business Day in the spring and welcomed more than 100 business owners to that function. Cleveland is also exceptionally proud of the partnership that helped bring the new pedestrian bridge linking St. Joseph and Benton Harbor through the Harbor Shores Resort neighborhood over the Paw Paw River.
Another major component of the Cornerstone Alliance team is The Women’s Business Center, which had a very successful year, as well. They were able to help launch 14 new businesses with many others currently in the pipeline, in various stages of business preparedness.
Cleveland is proud of the small but powerful team assembled at Cornerstone, saying, "There are so many functions that the team at Cornerstone Alliance performs throughout the days and weeks of the year. We are actively recruiting new business, helping launch new businesses and encouraging new investment in Berrien County."
It can be a daunting task, but Cleveland recognizes there is also another, less tangible aspect to his world of economic development. He tells me, "Another key aspect of economic development is to constantly be preparing the community for new business opportunities. That means always finding new land and buildings for development. We are working to develop new sites throughout the county that will be suitable for future development. This will be a focus for us in 2019 and beyond. We will always be working to develop new product in Berrien County."
The search for new land, viable sites and more is just one focal point going into the New Year at Cornerstone Alliance. Cleveland says, "You’ll see continued focus on downtown and Main Street development in Benton Harbor and St. Joseph."
Meanwhile, Cleveland recognizes that manufacturing is still a very strong suit for Michigan's Great Southwest and cites the sheer numbers of people still being sought by bellwethers in the community such as Kay Manufacturing, Eagle Technologies, JR Automation and others. The manufacturing industry is still the largest single employment sector in the region, in the high teens percentage-wise, and that supersedes virtually every other labor market in Michigan except for the Grand Rapids-Holland corridor which scores a percentage point two or higher on the employment scale.
As the Cornerstone team takes a day or two to recharge batteries, the never-ending work of such an agency is always top of mind, and Cleveland recognizes fully that they can't do the work alone. He says, "The foundation of successful economic development always starts with local governments. We have great partners throughout the community and many champions of economic development and community growth that serve as elected officials. Our community will thrive as long as we are all working together to make Berrien County a better place to live work and play."