2013-01-31 / Front Page

Economic Effort Seeking Partners

Mackinac County Development
By Paul Gingras

A new grassroots initiative to spur economic development in Mackinac County has been brought to the county commission for consideration.

“The wheels are already turning,” said Anne Ottaway, executive director of the newly formed Mackinac Economic Alliance. Incorporated mid-November 2012, the group advocates economic development through initiatives to provide jobs, education, and vision for area development, explained Ms. Ottaway and Alliance Chairman John Kling in an address to the Mackinac County commission Tuesday, January 21. The presentation was to serve as the first step in what the group hopes to be a key partnership with the county government.

The Mackinac Economic Alliance (MEA) includes representatives from the public and private sectors of Mackinac County and aspires to model its efforts on professional development efforts, Mr. Kling explained.

Their early outreach projects have generated positive feedback from academic and vocational schools seeking to operate in the area. The group is also pushing for projects to make area development cheaper and easier, such as establishing a county-authorized Brownfield Development Authority. Such an authority can provide tax incentives for redeveloping properties, which reduces the financial burdens on new businesses.

“Anything we can do to bolster our economic base in Mackinac County is a plus,” said Ken Drenth of the MEA advisory board.

In February 2012, Mr. Drenth participated in a county planning commission effort to gather data regarding population, family income, and other matters affecting the local economic base. The results showed steep declines in key areas.

“Anything we can do to turn that around is a positive for everybody,” he told The St. Ignace News.

The county commission and planning commission have mulled the problem in recent years of a lack of professional leadership to guide economic development efforts in the county.

The Alliance is also working with Holly Rohrer, director of the Eastern Upper Peninsula College Access Network (EUPCAN), which promotes higher education for area residents. Ms. Ottaway counts EUPCAN as an emerging success story, owing to its ability to help students obtain scholarships and prepare for college testing.

The MEA has applied for nonprofit status, making donations to support its efforts tax deductible. To further fund its initiatives, the group employs Ms. Ottaway’s background in grant writing, and the Alliance is canvassing the area for donations to support its development projects, Mr. Kling said.

Sprung from undertakings like Cultivating Entrepreneurial Development at Our Roots (CEDARS), the MEA “is taking it one step further,” Ms. Ottaway said.

Her skills and credentials are key to the MEA’s mission, Mr. Kling said.

Ms. Ottaway’s educational and professional background includes 10 years working on international economic development projects in rural areas. It is experience she is bringing to bear in Mackinac County through outreach presentations, grant writing, and other projects.

Essentially, the MEA is her brainchild, Mr. Kling explained.

An area resident since 2005, Ms. Ottaway found herself involved in the needs and activities of local businesses and public organizations, such as the Mackinac Bridge Authority, which called on her to serve as event planner for the 50th Anniversary Mackinac Bridge Celebration. She also helped govern the Great Lakes Boat Building School in Cedarville as a member of the board of directors.

“I found myself getting passionate about economic growth in this county, and the possibilities,” she explained. “There seemed to be a great appetite to see what we could do.”

The Alliance has met several times since fall to create interest in economic development across the county, she added.

The board of directors includes Chairman John Kling, Vice-chairman Mary Swiderski, who is also a county commissioner, director and secretary Anne Ottaway, treasurer Gary Reid, Jason Bohn, Mary Dufina, Deb Evashevski, David Goldthorpe, Dick Sterk, and Wesley Maurer, Jr. Its advisory board includes Ken Drenth, Diane Patrick, Cheryl Schlehuber, and Dean Reid.

The MEA plans to draw new employers to the area and find ways to meet the needs of existing employers, such as Mackinac Straits Health System. The group seeks to match buyers and sellers and has contacted several employers to discover the credentials and skills they need, Ms. Ottaway said.

Gladwin-based Liberty Truck Driving School is interested in coming to the community, Mr. Kling said.

The Alliance has served to connect Liberty Truck Driving School, Michigan Works!, and EUPCAN to provide three-week training programs for students seeking Class A Commercial Driving Licenses (CDLs). Liberty has a 97% placement rate, Ms. Ottaway said.

Kirby Johnson, owner of Gladwinbased Liberty Truck Driving School, said he has been in contact with Ms. Ottaway.

“We’ve talked quite a bit. We’re in the planning stages now,” he said.

“The job market for trucking is very good,” he told The St. Ignace News. “We’d like to offer two or three classes in a given season, such as spring or summer, but it could be more than that. There are a lot of companies looking to hire.”

Mr. Johnson has been in contact with Scott Marshall, recreation director at Little Bear, who has been positive about using the space for classes, he said.

“We can certainly start classes.” It’s just a matter of when, Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Marshall and Mr. Johnson are working on scheduling classes around established events now, he added.

As part EUPCANs effort to provide options for area students, Ms. Rohrer has gathered data for the Alliance on the Liberty Truck Driving School project.

“We have students in our population that don’t necessarily want to pursue two-or-four-year degrees,” she explained. Initiatives of this kind can offer other options.”

The potential to create a local Brownfield Authority drew the interest of county board members, including chairman Jim Hill, who asked for specific sites where a local Brownfield Authority could help revitalize properties.

The old hospital building on Burdette Street in St. Ignace tops the list, and dealing with the building is a high priority for the county, noted county board member Calvin McPhee.

Mr. Kling concurred, saying there are many more potential redevelopment sites throughout the county.

If the county board decides to set up a Brownfield Authority, “the MEA will step up to help. There are a lot of opportunities,” he said.

Brownfield Authority status has helped create viable businesses in Petoskey, Cadillac, and Traverse City, Mr. Kling said.

Diane Patrick, a member of the county board and the Alliance, urged commissioners to consider the Brownfield Authority project at the regular county board meeting Thursday, January 24.

As a result, the board agreed to host Brownfield Authority expert Mac McClelland of Traverse-city based Otwell Mawby, an environmental engineering firm instrumental in establishing Brownfield Authorities in northern Lower Michigan. The presentation, expected in late February, will cover local examples of potential redevelopment sites, including the old hospital, Ms. Ottaway said.

Commissioner David Sudol noted that The Grand Traverse County Brownfield Redevelopment Authority has played a major role in redeveloping the site of the Hotel Indigo in Traverse City.

Ms. Ottaway plans to offer grant writing services to area townships and chambers of commerce. Area authorities often don’t know how to identify potential grants to fund their projects, and there are options available, she explained.

Owing to the loss of the personal property tax, area townships will need a financial boost, Mr. Drenth added.

The personal property tax, recently phased out by the state, is a tax on equipment held by businesses. The funding is used to fund local government operations.

Gary Reid, MEA member and supervisor for Clark Township, said he has high hopes for the Alliance.

“I would hope we take advantage of our natural resources for the services sector and…light manufacturing.” The MEA can help “look at ways we are strategic, whether there are exporting opportunities to our friends to the north, or what have you.”

“I have a lot of faith and confidence in our executive director,” he added.

Still in its early stages, the MEA is reaching out to the private sector for donations to back up its services.

“I’m excited about the MEA’s potential,” Ms. Ottaway said. “The economy is improving, and timing is everything.”

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