A Growing Economy in a Rural Setting
Newaygo County Economic Development OfficeBy Leon Bracey
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With its ideal location, Newaygo County, Michigan has made economic inroads and offers a high quality of life for its residents, which the Newaygo County Economic Development Office (NCEDO) refers to as “Rural Sophistication.” The NCEDO has played an instrumental role in bringing businesses and jobs to the county over the years.
Located just 40 miles from the city of Grand Rapids and 30 miles from the shores of Lake Michigan, Newaygo County gives people the opportunity to live in a small town or rural setting, but close enough to the natural beauty of West Michigan. Due to the favorable combination of soil, climate, and weather patterns brought on by Lake Michigan, Newaygo County has long been a center for agriculture and food processing. The area is noted for having a diverse array of crops that total over $100 million in sales per year.
The town of Fremont, meanwhile, is the birthplace of baby food processor Gerber Products, a company that took early advantage of the region’s bountiful crops. Newaygo County is also roughly midway between Chicago and Detroit – both three hours away each – making the county an ideal destination for distribution.
Andy Lofgren, Executive Director of the NCEDO, spoke to Business in Focus about why Newaygo County has become such an attractive destination.
“We have a convenient location that gives people the opportunity to have a nice lifestyle,” Lofgren says. “We have been a long time destination for second homes and vacation cottages. But Newaygo County offers people the opportunity to work where people vacation – our natural resources are second to none.”
NCEDO is a private, non-profit organization that was established to provide economic development services to Newaygo County residents. The economic development office ensures that county residents are able to find gainful employment in the community to earn a living wage and support their families. The organization is a culmination of cooperative efforts between the cities in the county including Newaygo, White Cloud, Grant and Fremont as well as Newaygo County, in addition to the Fremont Area Community Foundation, the Newaygo County Regional Educational Service Agency (NCRESA), and private sector organizations. This partnership came together out of the 1994 Newaygo County Strategic Plan. The creation of NCEDO successfully accomplishes the Strategic Plan’s goal of establishing a countywide economic development corporation.
While tourism is a major draw, agriculture and small manufacturing have a strong presence in Newaygo County as well. Most notable is Gerber Products, which was founded by Daniel Frank Gerber, the owner of a canning company in the town of Fremont. Gerber already had experience with canning fruits and vegetables, and expanded into baby food processing after the birth of his daughter Sally in 1927. After a recommendation from a pediatrician, Gerber’s wife began feeding their daughter strained vegetables and fruits. Seeing a business opportunity, Gerber began making baby food and by 1928, he had developed products for the market including beef vegetable soup and strained peas, prunes, carrots, and spinach. Only six months later, Gerber’s baby foods were distributed nationwide. Gerber eventually became a household name in the baby food industry and now controls 83 percent of the baby food market in the United States. Today, the company is a subsidiary of Nestlé and offers more than 190 products in 80 other countries. In 1967, Gerber expanded into the life insurance industry and has become one of the top direct-response marketing insurance companies and a leading provider of juvenile life insurance. Gerber Life Insurance Company has more than $33 billion of life insurance in force with over 2.9 million policies throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, and Canada.
“Rural counties are popular for these services, thanks to broadband access and back office operations, so we have seen growth in that industry,” Lofgren says.
Indeed, Newaygo County has become one of the most technologically advanced rural areas in the country thanks to a fiber optic cable telecommunication network that supports data, video, and voice communication capabilities that are available to all residents in the county. The network connects schools, municipal buildings, libraries, the hospital, private non-profit agencies, and area businesses, making accessible universal Internet connectivity, technology labs, two-way interactive video classrooms, and telecommunications services. The NCEDO has extensive technology partnerships that provide training and technical support and maintain the fiber optic network.
The NCEDO was also instrumental in the approval of an Agricultural Processing Renaissance Zone (APRZ) for Gerber/Nestlé. APRZs were created in Michigan to promote agricultural processing operations in the state and to enhance the agricultural industry overall. Companies must contain an agricultural processing facility and can be located anywhere in Michigan. As a result of this incentive package, Gerber/Nestlé has agreed to maintain a minimum of 1,100 jobs, create 200 new jobs, and invest a minimum of $75 million at their facility in Fremont over a 15-year period.
NCEDO works with state and local officials to provide an aggressive approach for tax, financial, and technology assistance for employers in Newaygo County and companies looking for expansion opportunities in the area. Over the years, the NCEDO has worked with many companies on tax abatements that have led to new investment and job growth.
As in many parts of Michigan, there are notable companies that have ties to the automotive industry. Magna Mirror Systems is a subsidiary of Magna Steyr, a leading engineering and manufacturing partner for automakers throughout the world. The company offers original equipment manufacturing solutions for a wide range of services with highly flexible development and assembly strategies. The company’s Newaygo County facility manufactures side mirrors for automobiles. Founded in 1994, Magna Mirror Systems has greatly expanded since its founding and now serves as a global supplier to the automotive industry and one of the largest producers of automotive mirror and vision systems. Products include complete exterior and interior mirror systems, actuators, EC glass, and door handle systems.
Dura Automotive Systems, a designer and manufacturer of automotive components, also has extensive facilities in the county, including manufacturing floor shifters, column levers, transfer case shifters and MTX shifters for automobiles.
Lofgren credits the NCEDO for helping to expand the economy in the county and for increasing its focus on agriculture, food processing and light manufacturing. Newaygo County has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state, and median household income has increased by 17 percent since 2000, nearly twice the state growth rate.
“People think that the business climate in Michigan isn’t as friendly as other places, but we’ve done a lot to level playing field in terms of access and infrastructure,” Lofgren explains. “We are very focused on regional economic development and on working with the state governor.”
Another area the NCEDO is focusing on is talent development and retention. “Attracting and keeping people to work here is very important and we were very successful during the recession,” Lofgren recalls. “Now these companies are surviving so we are working with these people and the community colleges to develop certificate programs to teach the skills that are needed to work in these facilities and attract talent. With so many Baby Boomers retiring, if these companies are not adding jobs, they will need replacements, so training and education are the keys to that.”
Newaygo County has been committed to providing a skilled and well-trained work force, evident in the career and community development services it offers and in its CareerTech Center, which offers programs providing students and dislocated workers with on-the-job and classroom training. The NCEDO also works closely with educational and training institutions throughout the county that provide resources from K-12 to postsecondary institutions, including Muskegon Community College and Baker College. The team also works with Michigan Works West Central, Michigan Economic Development Corporation and other partners to provide training and resources for incumbent and dislocated workers.
To be sure, Newaygo County also offers a number of attractions for local residents, taking advantage of the area’s natural beauty and agricultural heritage. From state fairs, to farmers markets, to the numerous vacation homes that line the Muskegon River, there is plenty to see and do in Newaygo County.
Newaygo County has become a desirable place that offers a great lifestyle for people seeking high quality of life in a rural setting. Mr. Lofgren cites the manufacturing heritage of the State of Michigan and how the NCEDO has been instrumental in drawing businesses to invest in the county. “Michigan is well-positioned as a comeback state,” he says. “If I could buy stock, I’d invest in Michigan. I think it’s great that we’re good at making things and growing things thanks to our land-based economic development. That’s what gives us a competitive advantage over other places – our land, labor, and capital. Land is not mobile. If you need labor and water for your business, we are here.”