Programs nurture economic growth in Flint area

A Flint Vehicle City arch is shown in front of the downtown Flint skyline.
Efforts are underway to build the economic strength of Mott’s home community.

When it comes to the economic health of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s home community of Genesee County, Michigan, Janice Karcher is keeping an eye on the bottom line.

“The county’s future depends on helping local businesses succeed; bringing new entrepreneurs and employers to the area; growing available jobs; and supporting investments in critical sectors, like education, health care and retail,” says Karcher, vice president of economic development at the Genesee Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“Ultimately, it’s about creating good, sustainable economic results for the entire Flint community.”

Nurturing those results is part of Karcher’s charge at the chamber, where she helps to coordinate several Mott-funded initiatives focused on strengthening the area’s economy. The Foundation’s support for such chamber programs has totaled more than $7.8 million since 1987, with current grants made to the Genesee Area Focus Fund, the chamber’s nonprofit fundraising arm.

Genesee County’s economy has struggled for years, sparked largely by the loss of local jobs from the automotive sector. As with many communities around the country, the Flint area’s financial situation was further battered by the nation’s recent recession.

One of the chamber’s current efforts to get Genesee County back on the right economic track is the Energy, Environment and Economy Innovation Network.

Formally launched in 2011, the network includes more than 100 member businesses and organizations from Genesee and neighboring Lapeer and Shiawassee counties. Its goal: help employers reduce operating costs while incorporating environmentally friendly — or “green” — products and services into their business models and connecting local workers with green job opportunities.

That work began informally in 2009 when the chamber helped a group of area leaders explore possible sustainable energy initiatives for the community. Karcher said they soon began recognizing other opportunities to work together on environment-related issues while linking to broader economic and workforce efforts.

One partnership that emerged pairs Mid-Michigan Solar, a Flint-based company that installs commercial and residential solar-powered energy systems, with the Genesee-Shiawassee Michigan Works Career Alliance, a state-funded agency devoted to workforce development.

The two are co-developing job training programs that will help underemployed workers in Flint prepare for careers in the solar energy industry.

Howard Croft, president and CEO of Mid-Michigan Solar, says the program will provide his company and others with access to a growing pool of skilled workers; help connect the participating trainees to the labor market; and offer positive environmental and economic impacts.

“It also gives small businesses some marketing and networking tools that might otherwise be out of our reach,” he said. “That’s opening doors and leveraging resources, which will help us — meaning both businesses and the community — to grow.”

Karcher agrees, pointing to the partnership between Mid-Michigan Solar and Career Alliance as an example of how the network “is helping organizations and businesses connect more organically. They see their shared interests and needs, and then take the conversation to the next level.”

Another chamber effort is expected to grow the region’s economic strength by capitalizing on its unique position as a transportation hub.

In 2010, lawmakers enacted legislation providing for the creation of five Next Michigan Development Corporations in areas with major transport facilities, such as airports and freeways. These regional entities, equipped with state and federal support, can offer tax incentives as a way to attract new businesses that ship freight in Michigan and beyond.

In February 2011, chamber staff began working with officials from Genesee and nearby Lapeer, Shiawassee and St. Clair counties to seek designation as a NMDC. The area’s transportation resources include the state’s third busiest airport; several interstate freeways, railway systems and water ports; and bridges that connect the U.S. to Canada.

“To qualify as a NMDC, a region needs to offer businesses immediate access to at least one major mode for shipping freight,” Karcher says. “We’re lucky enough to offer them all.”

State officials approved the local application in February, making it one of four to be launched in Michigan. Three others are focused in the regions around metro Detroit, Lansing and Traverse City.

Karcher notes that, in addition to existing shipping resources, the local application’s success hinged on support from the public and private sectors.

“We initially hoped to engage about 20 area municipalities in the project,” she says. “Thirty-five have signed on, making this the largest community-driven economic partnership ever undertaken in Michigan. It’s very exciting.”

Next steps include working across the region to identify economic priorities and opportunities; formalize the tax incentive qualifications and guidelines; and develop a platform for marketing the NMDC to businesses.

David Hollister, senior vice president of strategic initiatives at the Prima Civitas Foundation, is among those working on the local NMDC project. Launched in 2006 with Mott support, the East Lansing-based Prima Civitas helps Michigan residents and leaders explore, understand and realize a new economic vision for the state.

Hollister says initiatives like those undertaken by the Genesee Regional Chamber are central to sparking new growth and vitality in the Flint community and beyond.

“In order for communities to thrive, the regions in which they exist have to be successful,” he said. “The chamber’s projects take that approach and, by helping to build the economic strength of mid-Michigan, they will help to ensure Flint’s own future. That is very exciting to see.”