Economic Gardening Strategy Saves and Grows Michigan Jobs

Guest Commentary: Economic gardening strategy saves and grows Michigan jobs

By Michael Finney

Detroit Free Press Guest Writer

A celebration earlier this month in the Upper Peninsula was barely heard south of the Mackinac Bridge.

For those in economic development in Michigan, this reality only illustrates the massive change to our state since last year that is now showing enormous impact without necessarily generating any great fanfare. With Gov. Rick Snyder’s economic gardening strategy at work, Michigan businesses can now grow, and add or save jobs, every day regardless of their size or sector, by leveraging state resources that foster private sector solutions.

This story began Aug. 12, when a long profitable community mainstay, Manistique Papers, was told its longtime banking relationship would end and production was shut down. After 91 years of operation, one of North America’s premier producers of 100% recycled fiber content was on the brink of permanent closure.

Its major lender, RBS Citizens, informed the company it would end its working relationship even though MPI had never missed a loan payment. The news would mean bankruptcy in a matter of days and the closing of Schoolcraft County’s largest private employer. Sophisticated papermaking machinery would be auctioned off and shipped to all corners of the globe. And more than 150 employees, earning some $60,000 annually, would lose their jobs and livelihoods.

Two months earlier, Gov. Snyder unveiled Pure Michigan Business Connect with the promise of a new state and business sector collaboration that would bring greater capacity and flexibility to better address the business needs of our state.

For some Michigan businesses, this would mean new contracting and sales opportunities with major enterprises like Consumers Energy, DTE and Meijer. For others, it could mean highly energized and low-cost export assistance. New technology start-ups could gain management and marketing consulting to match their offerings. It would also mean that a key across-the-board business need — access to capital — could be brought to bear in a matter of days.

On Aug. 18, the governor visited Manistique as MPI faced a forced bankruptcy hearing. He promised that the state would help the community revive this vital UP employer. With a day to spare, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and Manistique-based mBank joined forces to structure a loan package that would enable MPI to start up again.

Nine months later, the cheering so few of us heard was the sound of MPI’s future being secured. It was the celebration of the company’s purchase by a private equity firm, the Watermill Group. Now named MPI Acquisition LLC, the mill is on a path of sustainable operations far into the future, has hired back 125 of the fired employees, and, after retirements and successful job searches by the others, no one remains on layoff status. The company expects to grow its workforce to 140 by the end of this year. The state’s exposure was reduced by half with a $2.5-million repayment to MEDC.

This is the sound of economic gardening in Michigan today. It is not so different from the sounds we hear from most other kinds of gardening — which is to say it isn’t really audible. The results we get from our efforts will vary from one plot to another. Every once in a while, it makes sense to stop and celebrate as the good folks of Manistique did last month.

Michael Finney is president and CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

This article was originally published by Detroit Free Press.

May 31, 2012