Turning a corner: How two economic organizations coexist in Benton Harbor

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — The building at 38 W. Main Street, along the outskirts of the Benton Harbor Arts District, is home to two organizations that have become household names among Southwest Michigan businesses.

While Cornerstone Alliance and Cornerstone Chamber of Commerce have similar names and the same mailing address, their differences are unknown to many in the community.

“I can’t tell you how many times we’re asked that,” said Cornerstone Alliance President Rob Cleveland. “Even after this story comes out, I guarantee we’ll still have people asking that question.”

In fact, Cleveland and Chris Heugel, president of the Cornerstone Chamber of Commerce, have been asked about their organizations’ differences so much, they had a flier printed for those new to the area.

Cornerstone Alliance was created in the hopes of drawing new businesses to the region, while the Chamber of Commerce focuses its efforts on keeping those businesses in the community.

Cornerstone Alliance is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that gets a charitable deduction. The Chamber of Commerce is a 501(c)(6) nonprofit that has the ability to lobby at the state capitol. A slight difference, but a key one due to the federal government’s oversight on nonprofits.

One is funded through investors, while the other is a membership-driven organization.

“We support our business community through advocacy, networking events, providing member benefits –and watching legislation is a key thing,” Heugel said. “There’s always something to keep track of in Lansing. It’s our job to notify our members – which is about 700 businesses that have 36,000 employees. We always have to have our finger on the pulse.”

As Berrien County’s lead economic development agency, Cleveland and his contingent are tasked with new business attraction, entrepreneurship and business expansion.

“We tend to be the intermediary between the businesses and the municipalities,” Cleveland said. “Whether that’s working through a tax abatement or other potential incentives.”

While the heads of both organizations share a building and work, literally, feet apart, both Cornerstones rarely work together on the same projects. But that doesn’t mean they don’t collaborate in some way or another on a daily basis.

There have been a few instances where businesses reach out to one organization, who are then referred to the other.

Other times, when Cornerstone Alliance finishes its efforts in bringing a business to the region, the Chamber of Commerce picks up where the other left off.

How they began

The Chamber was established in 1954. The Alliance, which on paper started in December 1987, officially came to be in January 1988 – through its filing as a nonprofit.

Both were also created under different names.

The Chamber was originally known as the Twin Cities Area Chamber of Commerce. Cornerstone Alliance’s forerunner was the Community Economic Development Corp, also known as the CEDC.

According to Pat Moody, who spent nearly 20 years as executive vice president at the Chamber, the CEDC was born out of a need from Whirlpool Corp.

At the time of the CEDC’s inception, Whirlpool Corp. was in the process of recruiting “top-flight talent” from various schools and saw a need for more attractions to draw these fabled workers to the area.

“Whirlpool essentially came to the community and said, ‘we will give you $1 million a year for the next five years if the community will match it,’” Moody said. “That funding was used to create an economic development device to kickstart the effort.”

Still known as the CEDC, the economic development organization soon needed office space and got in touch with the Twin Cities Area Chamber of Commerce.

From there, the two organizations shared floor space at the Vincent Place until the lease expired. By that point, both Cornerstones made a short move to its current location at 38 W. Main St., which had been empty for 15 or 20 years.

Two or three years after initially moving in together at the Vincent Place, the two entities decided they didn’t need two receptionists or two chief financial officers. By the time WSJM’s radio personality joined the Chamber, Moody said both organizations worked more in line with one another, rather than separately.

“Of course we had a separate set of books, but when I first got there, the Chamber didn’t even have its own Board of Directors,” Moody said. That was soon changed, as they were separate nonprofits.

Somewhere along the way, the Chamber of Commerce name faded and they were essentially referred to as Cornerstone Alliance as well. However, Moody said that became a problem for some who were confused when the organizations’ reception desk only answered the phone for Cornerstone Alliance.

Through that confusion, Moody said, the Chamber eventually retained its formal name.

Familiar faces

In addition to Moody’s involvement, both organizations produced some well-known names over the years. This included the likes of Jeff Noel, Al Pscholka, Jaime Balkin and Wendy Dant Chesser.

Balkin, a former spokeswoman for Cornerstone Alliance, began working there in 1995. She would stay there for almost 18 years before leaving. She is now the director of marketing for Wightman & Associates Inc.

“In the beginning there were a lot of physical development projects that had to take place to pave the way for true economic development such as new business recruitment,” Balkin said.

These projects ran from updating City Center Park in downtown Benton Harbor to jumpstarting the Edgewater development project, which ultimately made way for Harbor Shores.

Balkin said there were also times when the organization took on roles that were not economic development related at all, such as work force development, business education partnerships and addressing housing needs.

“Having said that, every step of the way, there were always efforts to recruit new business into the area and create jobs for the residents of the community,” Balkin said.

Noel played a big part in both organizations, as he served as Cornerstone Alliance’s longest-running president in its 25-year history. From 1993 to 2004, Noel was the one who brought Moody and Pscholka into the mix. During his reign, those who worked for both organizations had to answer to him.

A search firm brought Noel to the Twin Cities, where he and his wife were then convinced to make the move after spending time with the main pitchman – Merlin Hanson.

“When I came to Cornerstone it was a marketing and planning organization,” Noel said in a phone interview. “I was a believer in developing, putting sticks in the ground and working with the community. But when we brought Pat Moody and Al Pscholka into the organizations, there was an interdependency between the Chamber and the economic development group. Yes, there are distinct differences, but in the end there was a lot of overlap.

“You need them both. One can’t do it without the other.”

A unique trend

It didn’t take long for either Heugel or Cleveland to discover their respective organizations.

Heugel served on the Chamber’s Board of Directors for a number of years before taking over permanently. When he moved to St. Joseph in 2000 – where he would go on to open a few hotels – Heugel sought out the Chamber in an effort to network with a community he was unfamiliar with.

Cleveland first heard of Cornerstone Alliance through his time with Indiana Michigan Power, which is one of the major investors of the economic development organization.

Both men agree their organizations are in a unique situation.

However, Cleveland said he believes it could become a common trend for a Chamber of Commerce and its visitor’s bureau or economic development organization to split off independently. He said one of the values that comes with keeping things separate is the lobbying aspect the Chamber possesses.

Regardless the similarities and differences, both are there for the community.

“I’m indifferent to whether you know the differences,” Cleveland said. “What’s important is if you’ve got a question or a business concern and you can call this office. No matter who you get a hold of when you call here, we’re going to steer you in the right direction.”

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 Jan. 28, 2017)

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