EDC provides update on county’s economic climate, what’s in store: Efforts to attract, retain local businesses among goals
MANISTIQUE – Despite a tumultuous few years, Schoolcraft County has been steadfast – mostly due to those working tirelessly in the background to help the area thrive once again. Among the many residents, organizations, and businesses making contributions to the city is the Schoolcraft County Economic Development Corporation.
Schoolcraft County EDC Director Alan Barr presented an update on the work of the EDC board and himself to the Schoolcraft County Board of Commissioners last week. He began by discussing the paper mill – which has been closed since 2015. The mill and accompanying property were purchased during a foreclosure sale in November by Zellar Excavating and Sons, Inc.
“We’re continuing to support the efforts to get the paper mill reopened and producing paper and adding jobs back to the community,” Barr said. “We’re working with the Zellar family, the operating company that’s been formed by the investors to actually make paper once it’s up and running, the MEDC (Michigan Economic Development Corporation), the governor’s office, Rep. (John) Kivela’s office, Sen. (Tom) Casperson’s office, the city of Manistique, and a couple of large banks, and some other folks to help get the mill restarted.”
Barr added that most of the time invested in restarting the mill has been on the financial end of it, as it is a “complex banking issue”.
“I still expect that at some point, we’ll hear good news,” he said. “I think it’s better than an average chance that we’ll have that, but it’s just slower than anybody would like.”
Barr then switched topics to the Feeding America Mobile Food Pantry Program – which brings food trucks that distribute to anyone in need in the area.
“Typically, they bring about 15,000 pounds, and they’ve been dealing with just over 200 families,” he said, noting that the organization recently reached out to him and others in the area to spread the word about the service. “The last food truck fed over 390 families, and Feeding America has agreed, because of that, to up the poundage on their trucks, for our community, from 15,000 to 20,000 pounds.”
Barr added that being a Schoolcraft County resident is the only requirement to obtain food from the Feeding America truck.
“The good news is more families are being fed – there’s more food being brought in to feed them,” he said. “I think that’s a great thing for the community.”
As far as future expansion of area business is concerned, Barr said a lumber company has been approached to possibly set up a location.
“It would be nice, once again, to be able to buy lumber for projects and our contractors wouldn’t have to go out of town to spend money on wood and that sort of thing,” he said. “That’s taking a little bit of time as well on the financing side, but I expect some good news around that before too long.”
In addition, Barr said the EDC has lent any support it could to the new Renze Ford dealership location, which is currently under construction. The EDC has also been working with some local and regional businesses to potentially bring a metal and metal bending and anodizing company to the area. Anodizing is an electrochemical process that converts metal surfaces into a thicker, more durable finish.
“(This) would create not only jobs, but bring work in from other communities – particularly the Wisconsin area, where a lot of this work is currently done,” Barr said. “We could become a U.P. center for those kinds of activities, and that would be a pretty cool thing for us to have.”
Barr added that such a facility would likely be in or near the city’s industrial park.
“We’ve got businesses in there that would be users of those processes, and so it might happen there,” he said. “I think we’ve got some interest – it’s a matter of, do we have enough interest? Would it generate enough business … to make that a go?”
The former Camp Manistique prison, which was purchased last year by Zellar Excavating and Sons, Inc., has also been a focus of the EDC.
“I’ve been helping the school system and the Zellars work out an agreement where the school wants to put in their alternative education facility there and put in a career/ technical education center there,” Barr explained. “I would expect a lease to be drawn up soon … and that to be in place by this fall.
I think that’s an advantage then, that once you have some businesses using that facility, other businesses may understand how it can be builtout for them to use it,” he added.
Another part of the EDC focus has been business retention and support – which Barr said he makes part of his routine as director. Along with the MEDC, Barr visits local businesses to gauge their needs.
“(We’ll) find out what they’re doing, what sort of support they need, what sort of resources that we can bring,” he said. “We’re currently working with an agricultural business to help on their marketing and distribution.”
EDC has also partnered with CUPPAD (Central Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Regional Commission) to produce a target market analysis. This analysis will include stock of area housing, projected growth, and businesses that would be desirable to the area.
“Then it tells us, as much as they can, what sort of housing stock that we need, and how much, to support those kind of growth habits,” Barr said. “That may help us with some other development ideas that we have going.”
In addition to the analysis, the EDC is also working with CUPPAD to conduct a broadband study.
“It’s no surprise or question to anybody in the room and around the area that we don’t have, always, the best, nor the fastest, internet connections, depending on where you live,” Barr said. “It would be great for business, it would be great for residents, and it would be great for the medical community if we had faster internet, and more internet, around the county.”
The broadband study will cover the six-county Central U.P. area, and will examine where and what kind of coverage is currently offered, where coverage is needed, and at what cost further coverage could be supplied.
A disc golf course, sometimes also referred to as frisbee golf, is another endeavor being explored by local residents, groups, and EDC.
“It would be an entertainment venue for, particularly younger people,” explained Barr. “There are a lot of them in the U.P., and it could be used as an economic engine – they draw a lot of tourists now.”
According to Barr, the EDC has also been assisting with the possibility of a “large, lakeshore development”.
“There’s some lakeshore property that the owner would like to see developed, sold,” he said. “There are some developers that have some interest. They’re waiting to see if the target market analysis indicates there may be a need, but there’s some serious interest. So might, at some point, see a new restaurant, a new hotel – those kinds of amenities that might, again, draw more people to visit our local community.”
Upon stepping into the position as EDC director, Barr said he had been tasked with expanding the EDC board, which, at the time, only had five members.
“We’ve built it up now to 14 members – there’s a lot of business members that are on it,” he explained. “The health department has representation on it. We’ve adding two non-voting members from the school – two students – on it … they’re adding the student voice to the economic conversation.”
The successful addition of the student board members even prompted another local board to request student representation.
“Instead of us all talking about these students and that generation, we can be talking with them and they can help us understand what they think and what they can use and need, and what might bring them back when they graduate from school,” Barr said.
Barr also pointed out that he has also been involved with the larger U.P. economic development groups.
“All of these groups are taking a U.P.-wide look at our living conditions, our quality of life, our economy – issues that affect all of those, and how to improve on all those things,” he explained. “For the first time in a long, long time, we have a very active voice in each one of these organizations.”
The EDC director wrapped up his discussion by noting that he also spends time attending training and workshops to enhance his knowledge.
“It’s my contention that every resident, every business, every organization in the county is a customer,” Barr said. “The more I know, and the more relationships I build, the more I can serve everybody to the best of my ability and to the best of the EDC’s ability.”
For more information about the Schoolcraft County EDC, visit www.schoolcraftcountyedc.com/
From The Manistique Pioneer-Tribune, dated April 21, 2016