As the president of Lakeshore Advantage Corp., the economic development organization for Allegan and Ottawa counties, Jennifer Owens is on the frontlines of newly ramped up efforts to land major projects in Michigan. Owens is part of statewide coalitions pushing for more tax incentive tools, which could help in landing new tenants at potential industrial sites on her lakeshore turf. Owens recently discussed these efforts that exploded after Ford’s announcement to invest $11.4 billion outside of Michigan, as well as making the case to lakeshore voters about the need for a local community college.
As the leader of Lakeshore Advantage, what are your main goals for 2022?
The goals we have this year wrap around what we think are the greatest opportunities and also challenges. The first is access to talent — finding people to fill positions from entry-level production to skilled trades continues to be a challenge for our region. We will also continue our strong work on Industry 4.0 to embrace tech to fill that gap, which will be important for our manufacturers to continue to thrive.
We will also be continuing to work to prepare large industrial sites that are ready for development. We are at the point now where our industrial buildings are completely filled. We continue to see growth in manufacturing, but we don’t have many shovel-ready sites. We will be working with programs the state has in place to make sure we’re ready to attract manufacturers.
Are there any particular shovel-ready sites on the horizon?
Consumers Energy will be decommissioning its (J.H. Campbell) Port Sheldon plant and plans to have it completely decommissioned by 2025. We’re already working with Consumers Energy to make sure we can get the site ready for a new use. To have a massive piece of land like that with infrastructure already in place is kind of a unicorn. We’re sad to see the coal plant decommissioned and for that area to lose that tax base, but we’re also optimistic it could be replaced with a profitable use.
The second site we’ve been working on for two or three years now is the West Michigan Regional Airport. They’ve received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to sell a large parcel that was previously restricted, so we see that as a great opportunity for redevelopment as well.
Can you talk about the recent initiatives of Economic Development Leaders for Michigan and Winning Michigan Jobs, and why those coalitions were formed?
A crisis really forms stronger partnerships. Economic Development Leaders for Michigan was formed right in the heart of the pandemic where myself and other economic development leaders knew we needed to come together and share our challenges as a group with the Legislature.
We continue to see a disinvestment in economic development and a pushback on any tools and resources, but hopefully it’s the beginning of a sea shift as we look at how to talk to lawmakers about these issues. There was a realization that we needed to unify together so our state leaders realize the importance of investing in economic development so we can compete with other states and countries.
What is a positive economic development trend you expect to see next year?
Next year could be transformative. I’ve never in my career seen so many resources available from federal, state and local units of government, so it really is time for us to prepare and do innovative, transformative things we wouldn’t be able to do before.
We’re also continuing to work on entrepreneurship, and we’re working on formally opening up a business incubator in 2022. We’ve been planning it for two years, but will finalize in 2022 a short-term space and will be planning construction of a space in downtown Holland in the future.
What is a major obstacle facing economic development in Ottawa and Allegan counties?
Access and affordability of higher education. In our region right now, we do not have an in-district community college. What we’re seeing is to get higher-paying jobs above the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) threshold, you need education above the high school level, which we’re lacking. We’ve been working with Grand Rapids Community College and are looking at a millage in Holland, Zeeland and West Ottawa. We’ve taken a step back to educate the greater public that we don’t have an in-district community college.