KALAMAZOO — Former GOP House Speaker Lee Chatfield’s weeklong run as CEO of Southwest Michigan First spurred a wave of backlash from the community that has damaged the economic development organization’s reputation, officials say.
“I am really hopeful that this is an opportunity for us to listen, really learn and grow, and hopefully provide more opportunities for Kalamazoo as well as the whole seven-county region, and have more robust conversations about what this region needs,” Southwest Michigan First Interim CEO Carla Sones told MiBiz. “We’re at a pivotal time.”
Moreover, Chatfield’s departure raises new questions about the future of a downtown convention center that former Southwest Michigan First officials and some local business owners have pushed for years — and which Chatfield had said was his main priority when taking over the organization.
For now, though, Southwest Michigan First is regrouping after accepting Chatfield’s resignation on Feb. 22. It will restart the search for a new CEO, which began earlier this year when former CEO Ron Kitchens took a new position in Alabama. The organization has said publicly that the process going forward will be “open, transparent and inclusive of those who depend upon us to improve economic development opportunities for all we serve.”
“We’ve heard disappointment about the search process from board members that were not on the search committee,” Sones said. “It’s very clear to them that the search process fell below what was expected and although they did follow the governance bylaws in the search, it’s time to look at those bylaws and make sure those are analyzed.”
Downtown event center
Chatfield has said he was approached by Southwest Michigan First officials about the CEO position when the legislative session ended in December 2020. Before leaving Lansing after serving three terms, Chatfield helped usher in enabling legislation to potentially finance an event center in Kalamazoo and four other counties.
Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners Chairperson Tracy Hall and other sources have suggested that the event center legislation was the main reason Southwest Michigan First chose Chatfield.
“He doesn’t have much past job experience in economic development. Not to take away what he did in the state Legislature, but when I put these pieces together in my mind, it seems like that’s why he was brought to Southwest Michigan First — to build the arena — and he will have to build a lot of partners to do that,” Hall said recently.
With the legislation, Kalamazoo can use the new funding tool to build an event center under certain requirements, including approval from the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners. House Bill 4816 was sponsored by former state Rep. Brandt Iden, R-Oshtemo Township, who spearheaded the effort specifically to help build an event center in downtown Kalamazoo.
Sones confirmed that some Southwest Michigan First board members likely had conversations with Chatfield about the proposed event center and financing act legislation, and it could have been how they initially connected.
She declined to comment further on plans moving forward for the event center, saying that the organization is focused on learning, rebuilding and finding a new CEO.
Southwest Michigan First Board Chair Aaron Zeigler did not return multiple emails and voicemails from MiBiz inquiring about the board’s hiring process that led to its appointing Chatfield as CEO.
Southwest Michigan First has conceptually proposed a plan twice to the Kalamazoo County Board over the years, ranging in cost from $80 million to $110 million with the capacity to hold 6,800-9,000 people. No formal plans have ever been presented to the county or city of Kalamazoo. That’s partly because funding tools haven’t been available, but it’s also unclear whether there is interest in the community for the venue downtown.
“The concept has been on and off the table for the past 20 years,” said Kalamazoo Deputy City Manager Jeff Chamberlain. “There has also been plans for additional housing and retail spaces being built nearby, too.”
Chamberlain attributes the event center concept sputtering to a variety of reasons, including struggles with financing and how the real estate is divided across several owners.
The area is essentially four vacant blocks surrounding the intersection of Eleanor and Cooley streets, which comprise several parcels. One is owned by Kalamazoo County and is currently used as surface parking. Part of the site is owned by Western Michigan University and is mostly vacant. Two other parcels in the area are owned by companies tied to PlazaCorp, a Kalamazoo real estate development company.
“Having four vacant blocks in your downtown is not the ideal use for that land, so something eventually needs to happen in those four city blocks,” Chamberlain said. “Over the years there has been different ideas for those properties and I think it’s just a combination of having the right partners and developers and financing that works and is feasible and beneficial to everyone involved.”
The fallout from Chatfield’s appointment was swift and centered on his positions toward LGBTQ equality while he was a lawmaker. Chatfield opposed expanding the state’s civil rights law for the LGBTQ community unless it included religious exemptions. He first ran for office in 2014 by criticizing his Republican primary opponent for supporting LGBTQ civil rights.
Within days of his start at Southwest Michigan First, the city of Kalamazoo, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and the Kalamazoo Promise ended their memberships with the organization. An agenda item is on the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners March 2 meeting to end the county’s annual $75,000 contributions to the organization. Several other institutions and prominent business owners publicly denounced the organization for the hire, including OutFront Kalamazoo and Larry Bell, founder and chairman of Bell’s Brewery Inc.
Chatfield’s hiring brought other issues to light at Southwest Michigan First, including the lack of racial diversity on its board, which Sones said has also been a topic of conversation within the organization.
“It’s been difficult to find board members at the C-level of an organization that represents a minority population,” Sones said. “That’s not just something our board struggles with, but it’s also time to reflect on why that problem is happening and how we support a pipeline for talent and opportunities for not just people of color but people of all kinds of diverse backgrounds.”
Sones said she will recommend that the board form a CEO search committee that is representative of the community, and to make sure the process involves the full board, staff and community. Southwest Michigan First also announced it will create an executive-level position focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion as well as a board committee.
Sones said several of the organization’s staff have undergone diversity, equity and inclusion training sessions before, but they are not required.
Kalamazoo Community Foundation Communications Officer Jordan Duckens told MiBiz via email that the transition in leadership should not end the discussion around equity and inclusion.
“The Kalamazoo Community Foundation extended ourself to Southwest Michigan First to share resources and learning around the benefit of prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion for the benefit of prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion for the benefit of all people in our region,” Duckens said.