GRAND RAPIDS — Randy Thelen believes West Michigan needs to move away from its “best-kept secret” identity to a position of confidence if it wants to keep its momentum in attracting employers and talent.
As well, the region should collectively foster a climate of economic inclusion to break down long standing barriers to opportunity for people of color, according to Thelen, president and CEO of Grand Rapids-based economic development organization The Right Place Inc.
Such efforts are two of the four pillars of The Right Place’s recently announced three-year strategic plan, which sets goals for 4,000 new or retained jobs, $550 million in capital investments and $100 million in community investments by 2025.
“We know through research and through firsthand interactions that our communities of color and diverse populations have not enjoyed the same economic gains as others, so we’ve got to find ways to remedy that,” Thelen said.
The Right Place oversees economic development activity in eight West Michigan counties: Ionia, Kent, Montcalm, Mason, Mecosta, Newaygo, Lake and Oceana. The new strategic plan, developed in partnership with global consulting firm Ernst & Young, will benchmark the city of Grand Rapids against 19 other U.S. cities on key metrics such as employment, population and GDP growth.
In addition to inclusivity and elevating greater Grand Rapids for national visibility, the plan will rely on intentional economic growth and approaching investments with a regional lens.
During an event last week presenting the new strategic plan, The Right Place executives detailed ongoing efforts involving each of the four pillars.
Rob Llanes, senior vice president of business development, said growing inclusivity involves increasing supply chain diversity.
“We have so few minority- and women-owned businesses,” Llanes said. “So when we’re engaging in the community on retention, we have those in mind in terms of helping our business community diversify their supply chain. It reduces risk if any one component were to go down, and it also gives a foot in the door for a new company looking to get business and stay sustainable over time.”
Thelen noted that this will be an ongoing struggle as greater Grand Rapids falls below state and national averages for minority business ownership. The Right Place will track inclusion targets through measures such as population growth, women and minorities in management roles, and the share of minority-owned businesses.
The Right Place Senior Vice President of Community Development Tim Mroz said doubling down on placemaking investments such as public parks or trails will be key “in communities where we might not have made those in the past.”
Senior Vice President of Talent and Diversity TaRita Johnson says bringing diversity to companies starts with recruiting and creating a “genuine and authentic” environment.
“You’re saying, ‘We’re trying to work on this.’ … Another way is to make sure they have a culture that supports them,” Johnson said.
The Right Place’s inclusion strategy also comes as neighboring Ottawa County has faced public backlash over the new “Ottawa Impact” county board majority that upon taking office eliminated the county’s diversity, equity and inclusion office, among other initiatives, as well as changed the county motto from “Where you belong” to “Where freedom rings.”
Thelen said while this might hinder outsiders’ perception of the region, The Right Place is working on the ground with minority-led organizations to grow job opportunities.
“The coverage, news and drama around some of (Ottawa Impact’s) positions certainly has made an impact and damaged the perception (of the region),” Thelen said. “Our focus here is where we see the bigger gap: How do we focus on helping employers better understand how to engage with a broader pool of candidates? Fundamentally, when you look at employment and income levels, there’s too big of a gap. We’ve got to be hyper-intentional as a region to tackle that problem.”
Elevating the region
Meanwhile, Thelen said that greater Grand Rapids has work to do if it wants to elevate its national profile. Some of the 19 cities that The Right Place will benchmark against include Salt Lake City, Columbus, Ohio, Raleigh, N.C., Indianapolis and Knoxville, Tenn.
“How do we elevate the greater Grand Rapids profile? How do we go from best-kept secret to being one of those marquee regions where people naturally want to stay and move to?” Thelen said. “We have to tell our story; we just have to be more visible. The modest Midwest mindset is not a competitive approach.”
The Right Place will track progress on this target through regional rankings and recognitions, digital engagement, earned media mentions and prosperity event registrants.
When engaging with hundreds of public and private-sector leaders during the formation of the strategic plan, “countless participants … suggested the lack of perception and awareness for Greater Grand Rapids impacts its ability to attract talent and investment,” according to the strategic plan. “By leading the way in projecting the region’s success to targeted audiences around the country, (The Right Place) can play a pivotal role in cementing Greater Grand Rapids as the destination of choice for investors, innovators, businesses, and the talent they need.”