GRAND RAPIDS — Randy Thelen describes the COVID-19 pandemic as an “inflection point” that can shift the course of economic development in West Michigan.
Thelen, who was selected last month as the new president and CEO of The Right Place Inc., says the challenges of 2020 will likely create more competition among cities, and generate opportunity for a wider umbrella that includes equity as a key priority in economic development.
“Every region in the world is wrestling with what’s next,” said Thelen, who’s planning his move back to Michigan from Denver, where he’s currently senior vice president of Downtown Denver Partnership Inc., the city’s economic development agency. “The markets that can come together and move forward together are going to be winning markets and be able to leapfrog some of the competition.”
During previous recessions, Thelen said Denver “doubled down, invested in itself,” which allowed it to “accelerate out of recession and bypass that competition.” He’s leaving a “hyper growth market” in the Mile High City that’s attracted investments particularly from large tech firms such as Google, Twitter and Facebook.
“Virtually any tech company you can imagine has put up a sizable outpost in Denver,” Thelen said. “It’s a healthy reminder that the product of a region matters, and talent and placemaking drives business decisions. There’s been a lot of good movement in that area in West Michigan in the last 10-15 years. We’ve got to continue that.”
Thelen’s joining The Right Place is a homecoming of sorts. After leading Lakeshore Advantage for almost a decade before leaving in early 2014, Thelen spent nearly four years as senior vice president of economic development at the Greater Omaha Chamber. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Thelen held economic development positions in Monroe County and with the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
While at Lakeshore Advantage, Thelen helped the Holland/Zeeland area lure in major corporate investments even during the depths of the Great Recession, including lithium-ion battery manufacturing plants from LG Chem Michigan and Johnson Controls.
Thelen said West Michigan’s culture of public-private partnerships was among his professional interests for returning here.
“The ability to come back and apply the trade and craft in a market I consider home is a pretty powerful combination,” he said.
He’s bringing his experience from Denver and lessons learned about a market that “gets in a groove and becomes a place everyone wants to move to.” He cited investments over the past 15-20 years in downtown Grand Rapids and more recently in downtown Holland and Muskegon.
“All of those things make for a quality place and a quality of life people are attracted to,” Thelen said.
Grand Rapids Community College President Bill Pink, who’s on The Right Place board of directors and served on the CEO search committee, said finalists from around the country showed an interest in Grand Rapids, and noted President and CEO Birgit Klohs’ influence in the sector.
“Aside from the great work (Randy) did in West Michigan at Lakeshore Advantage, he then got out in Omaha and Denver and did really good work in those markets and economic development organizations,” Pink told MiBiz. But Thelen’s prior West Michigan base can allow him to “hit the ground running a bit better than some others. That’s an added value to this whole deal.”
Equity in economic development
Top among Thelen’s priorities after joining The Right Place on March 1 is a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion in economic development.
“We’ve had the pandemic and this economic recession, but we’ve also had this nationwide conversation on diversity and equity that is continuing now,” Thelen said. “There has to be greater recognition with all of the economic growth that has occurred that not everyone has participated. We have got to do better and figure out ways to connect more members of the community to job opportunities, career paths and economic prosperity.”
Pink said he was “impressed” by Thelen’s raising diversity, equity and inclusion during the interview process.
The Right Place helped launch the New Community Transformation Fund LP venture capital fund in 2019, which set a $25 million goal to invest in companies nationwide owned by racial and ethnic minorities. As of early December, the fund reported raising more than $5.5 million.
Pink believes the Transformation Fund will ultimately serve as a “blueprint” for other communities seeking to ensure equity in economic development.
The fund will hopefully position The Right Place to say: “Here’s what we need to focus on: quality jobs for everyone, entrepreneurship where it makes sense for people, and for companies to be built up,” Pink said. “It will be exciting for anyone coming into that CEO spot and seeing those conversations have happened. Those conversations are important, but let’s talk about what action we take.”
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