The ones that got away in economic development

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN — Many wonder how things might be different had they gone to another school or taken that other job.

The same goes for the people who work at economic development organizations.

Southwest Michigan has picked up in tourism in recent years and is considered to be one of the up-and-coming areas to relocate or start a business.

Greg Vaughn, chief operating officer and vice president of business development at Cornerstone Alliance, has been bringing businesses to the region for about 20 years and knows how difficult the process can be.

There was at least one specific occasion that stood out to everyone at Cornerstone. When Vaughn and his colleagues were attempting to convince an out-of-state company to move to the area, something happened that was out of their control.

Vaughn recalled how Southwest Michigan was one of a few communities in contention for the out-of-state business. (Because Cornerstone works with a lot of businesses in confidentiality, the names of potential businesses were left out of this Herald-Palladium article.)

“We got some good feedback from them,” Vaughn said. “They flew in from South Bend. They indicated they were interested.”

Somehow, the company’s representatives changed their mind when Cornerstone followed up on the visit a few days later.

On their way out of town, the company’s representatives stopped at a restaurant for food. One started asking a waitress about the community, and unfortunately for Cornerstone, the waitress was negative about it.

“We found out the people who represented the company did not like the vibe they got from the waitress they talked to,” Vaughn said. “Our community was eliminated from contention.”

However, not all of the community-related occurrences ended badly when Cornerstone was trying to court a potential company.

Vaughn said one time a distribution company was looking to open another location and some of its officials stopped in Southwest Michigan.

“It was a good opportunity and they left interested,” Vaughn said. “They stopped at a local establishment and the CEO of the company locked their keys in the car. They called us, and we called the Benton Harbor Police Department, which sent an officer out to unlock the car.”

Afterward, the CEO told the officer he appreciated the help and the officer replied it was no problem, considering they had shown interest in the community.

“It wasn’t long after that they made the move to set up here,” Vaughn said. “That CEO said it was an important factor. It helped him decide that the satellite operation was perfect and they set up in the St. Joseph area. We don’t like to give names, even though they’re here.”

Enticing businesses

On the initial visit, Vaughn said they seldom find out what other communities are in contention. They try to do some research, but normally don’t know what company they’re pitching to until the second or third visit.

“Sometimes they’ll share with us, but the first visit is secretive,” Vaughn said. “They don’t share much with us, but we share a lot with them.”

With all the stories of success and failure, Vaughn said there tends to be a low percentage of businesses that sign on with Southwest Michigan.

It’s a big investment to move a company or open up a secondary location. To do this, companies use site selectors and consultants to find the best locations.

Despite these odds, it’s not unusual for Cornerstone Alliance to work on a lead for two years. Vaughn said companies can come in for a day and things gets quiet for a while.

“We’ve worked on projects for a couple of years and they decide to not expand at all,” Vaughn said. “When we compete for these companies, we go against Texas, Ohio and North Carolina. There’s even a lot of competition within the state.”

A win’s a win

Vaughn also recalled another time Cornerstone Alliance worked with a company that was looking at Benton Township as a potential home for a production facility.

The folks at Cornerstone spent many hours with them to a point that the company wanted to come to a location.

The site you that was presented was great, but the company’s officials decided to go bigger. Their project outgrew the available space, but Vaughn said Cornerstone was unable to find a bigger location.

“That ended things here, but we found a place for them in Kalamazoo and referred them to our partners there,” Vaughn said. “It was a loss for Berrien County, but a win for the state of Michigan.”

A lot of companies look for 200,000-square-foot buildings, which is hard to find in Berrien, Van Buren and Cass County. This has forced Cornerstone to certifying sites for development.

This included the 255 acres along Yore Avenue in Benton Township that was certified as a shovel-ready site – the first property with this designation in Berrien County.

Even now, Vaughn said Cornerstone has been working with a company out west for several months.

“We’ve been courting them for quite some time,” he said. “We’ve done everything they asked us to do, and its come down to suppliers. We’ve looked for those suppliers and found some sources. While the trucking costs are too high, we haven’t lost that chance. It can be a challenge.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Nov. 7, 2016)

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