Cindy LaGrow, Eileen Toney

Cass jobs picture ‘code red’

Published 3:38pm Thursday, June 7, 2012

EDWARDSBURG — “Build it and they will come” better fits baseball diamonds than Cass County industrial parks.
Calling Cass County’s jobs climate “code red,” moderator Mark Jamrog of the Tea Party laid out a recession-resistant, agriculture-based strategy to turn around manufacturing ranking third behind retail and construction.
More than 50 people attended the second in a series of presentations at Edwardsburg American Legion Post 365 Tuesday night designed to improve county awareness and participation.
Its top two employers are the Dowagiac and Edwardsburg school systems. Population trends show 2 percent growth between 2000 and 2010, but lost 30 percent ages 30 and 44. “If that happens one more cycle, we will implode,” Jamrog said. “Ages 55 to 64 grew the most. Sheriff’s sales were up 300 percent.”
Jamrog proposed coordinated recruiting of light component part makers that employ 250 to 500 people for companies within 300 miles of the caliber of John Deere, Case International and Caterpillar.
Cass County’s lack of investment in economic development caught up with it in the last decade. The volunteer Economic Development Corp. organized in 1977 turned in January to Dowagiac’s consultant, Cindy LaGrow of Coloma.
“We’re getting back on the map,” said LaGrow. She has been shoring up partnerships with groups such as Southwest Michigan First which, despite its name, operates statewide.
The Web site hadn’t been updated since 2001. “That’s the first place site selectors go,” LaGrow said. “My next focus was working with our companies. I’ve been to 40. It’s difficult for manufacturers to find capital to invest in technology. There’s a great opportunity for business retention, expansion and attraction. We have a painting company that just relocated from Indiana into Cassopolis,” though Michigan almost lost it because its permit process took seven months compared to 10 days in Indiana.
“We are working very hard with site consultants,” said LaGrow, who two Fridays ago was in Detroit meeting with four and “highlighting our industrial parks. We built them, but people didn’t come. We have everything a manufacturer needs to come here. Four weeks ago we had a site consultant from the east side of the country here in the county. In my 10 years working in Cass, I’ve seen it five times in the City of Dowagiac. Never outside. We have submitted requests for proposals for new manufacturing facilities 12 times in six months. We’re moving forward, which gives me hope. We want to maintain our bedroom communities, but they need places to work. Sixty-eight percent of our workforce drives outside the county to work. With the price of gas, people cannot afford that.”
Not only is this an “agricultural Mecca,” LaGrow said, but “last year, one company saved $700,000 shipping by rail. I hope to have an agricultural expo center and to attract a food processor. Michigan still has a very negative image in the country as a union state and not pro-business. We’re not that way” with a regional unionization rate of 6 percent.
LaGrow was instrumental in recruiting Pamida and Baymont to Dowagiac.
“We need to be a team” to put together the economic development puzzle.
Eileen Toney, the oldest of six children whose family moved to Dowagiac from South Bend, Ind., chairs the EDC and directs development for Southwestern Michigan College after working for Chemical Bank for 17 years.
“Economic development is not smokestacks, pollution and crime,” Toney said, “it’s society’s ability to produce goods and services. All we have is up. We can’t drop any further. We have industrial parks in Dowagiac, Cassopolis and Edwardsburg with vacancies and grass growing. All of the population increase was in the Ontwa-Milton Township area, which is Edwardsburg Public Schools.”
The series continues July 10 with Sheriff Joe Underwood.

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