John Eby: LaGrow keeps Contech closing in perspectivePublished 10:19am Tuesday, September 8, 2009
LaGrow is an upbeat, glass-half-full person who fortifies herself when faced with devastating developments that it is “not as bad as it could be.” She fantasizes about starting a paper that prints only “good news.”
A decade ago LaGrow was the Grand Old City’s first economic development director. Today she has her own business, LaGrow Consulting in Coloma.
Contech rose from ashes twice before, I recalled in February when the auto parts manufacturer filed for Chapter 11 federal bankruptcy court protection.
When it was SPX/Contech in March 2000, Jim Peters appeared before the Southwestern Michigan College Board of Trustees.
“It’s an honor for us to be here,” he said – and he wasn’t just being polite. “I don’t mean tonight. I mean to be here as a company in this community. Over a year ago we were trying to make a decision whether this plant could even survive.”
That was Dowagiac’s second close call with Contech, which started in the 1950s as Consolidated Die-Cast in a shop downtown. After a fire, it nearly started over in South Haven.
But community leaders pleaded with the company to stay, building a 10,000-square-foot facility north of town.
So “we’ve emerged from the ashes twice,” Peters informed the SMC board nine years ago.
“The fact (SMC) was here as a resource was a ray of light, a ray of hope. You can’t imagine how dark the tunnel was for us.”
“My instructions were to make a decision: Can we fix it or should we close it? At that time there were 217 jobs at stake,” Peters said.
Sadly, the third time the brink did more than beckon. Contech joins ICG and National Copper Products as former factories.
“It surprises me that people were so shocked” about Contech closing. “It’s been discussed for months,” LaGrow said. “Negativity will change nothing. Things aren’t going to change because of more doom and gloom. This is not the first recession, though this time it’s longer and harder than ever before. It’s extremely devastating to lose a job. I can’t imagine working someplace for a long time, then finding out you don’t anymore, but then it’s time to lift up and say, ‘What do I need to do now?’ ”
When Ameriwood announced it was going to close its doors here in 2007, city officials worked with the state to bring the plant home from Ohio.
It was a “side by side effort of Ameriwood and the city,” LaGrow said. “We picked up and went to Ohio and were as aggressive as we could be. They’ve been here a year” and rebounded to 135 employees so far.
“That’s tremendous,” she said.
Premier Tool and Due still intends to open in ICG’s former location, she said. While it’s not evident from outside, the interior has been painted and the concrete floor has been coated with a rubberized surface.
Creative Foam on Rudy Road, a foam fabricator for the auto and medical industries, as well as composite systems for the air, wind, nautical, military and racing industries, marks its 30th anniversary in Dowagiac this year.
City Council approved a tax break in January to retain 123 jobs.
After 20 years, JAC Custom Pouches outgrew its name and kangaroo logo. A better name for the second-generation, Niles brother-and-sister-led company might be JAC Industrial Sewing.
JAC made everything from cases for orchestra conductors’ batons and rugged Sunbrella canopies for patio furniture to salesman sample bags and a variety of medical products for Stryker.
The nursing home is retooling and represents 120 jobs returning to Dowagiac. Wolford Electric and Lake Michigan Molding are building in the industrial park. The Donald Lyons Health Center and multi-million-dollar emergency room expansion of Borgess-Lee Memorial Hospital also added jobs.
LaGrow, ever the optimist, was working with “six active prospects” on Dowagiac’s behalf when I rang her cell phone in her truck.
“When devastating things happen, it seems like the end of the world, but sometimes things happen for a reason,” she said.
John Eby is Daily News managing editor. E-mail him at john.eby @leaderpub.com.