When COVID-19 struck Michigan and forced the governor to close the doors of most businesses and other operations statewide, not everyone stopped going to work.
Besides first responders and other essential workers, folks at Consumers Energy and The Right Place undertook the herculean task of coordinating relief efforts in West Michigan. From restocking protective gear for health-care workers to helping factories become temporary producers of medical equipment, these two organizations collaborated to answer the call in a time of crisis.
“We are doing what we were created to do — help our companies through difficult times,” says Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place, the economic development entity serving greater Grand Rapids. “We were formed 35 years ago when the Michigan unemployment rate was 17%. We had a strategic plan then, and we have a strong plan now. We are tracking business requests for SBA loans and answering questions about the stimulus package. We are explaining the new unemployment insurance rules. We are helping as many businesses as possible stay in business.”
Through it all, Consumers Energy — one of the largest energy providers in the nation — has joined The Right Place on the front lines. “When the pandemic hit Michigan, we quickly pivoted to touch base with state and local economic developers,” says Valerie Christofferson, economic development director for Consumers Energy. “In this case, that meant coordinating with The Right Place. We are making sure all customers are aware of programs available to help them. How can we help them with their bill? How can we get needed resources to them quickly? Our CEO Patti Poppe and her husband personally donated $1 million to help small businesses in the company’s hometown of Jackson where they also live. We’re pursuing all options to help businesses in Michigan survive this crisis.”
Christofferson says Consumers Energy offers flexibility for businesses. “If an extension is needed for a company to fulfill its obligation to meet an incentive requirement, they have that option,” she says. “They may need more time to fulfill a requirement. We can also help them reduce energy use and costs. We know it will take time to return back to normal, but we’re here to help every customer get back to that point and grow forward.”
Klohs says the change in strategy has not been that drastic because “80% of our work is in business retention and expansion. BRE has always been our core competence. We don’t want to lose the manufacturing capability to source needed supplies locally once this crisis is over. We’re developing new supply chains on the fly. Over the last 20 years, the hallmark of this area has always been manufacturing, and thank goodness for that.”
Human ingenuity to solve everyday problems is another hallmark of West Michigan, and both Consumers Energy and The Right Place are invested heavily in the innovation sector. Case in point: Seamless, a firm that supports startup ecosystems in Grand Rapids. Mike Morin, co-director of Seamless, says entrepreneurship and innovation will help lead West Michigan out of this crisis and into recovery.
“We realized early on that many things ripe for innovation were not on the West Coast, but were here — things like energy, food supply, mobility, etc.,” says Morin. “May Mobility is a phenomenal example of that.” May Mobility is a Michigan-based startup that is operating autonomous shuttle services in Grand Rapids, Detroit and Providence, Rhode Island. It has raised $50 million in Series B capital led by Toyota Motor Corp.
“The strength of Grand Rapids is in applied technology,” says Morin. “We take new technologies and get them employed in new environments. We have a large amount of people working in the design field. The focus here is on deeply understanding consumer needs and trends. That has been our strength for over 50 years.”
So has equipping the workforce who will perform these and other jobs. A classic example is the SmartArt program in Grand Rapids Public Schools. Students Making Art with a Renewable Theme is the brainchild of Consumers Energy certified energy manager Lori Burrell. Consumers Energy wanted students to be more mindful of renewable energy, and so the company teamed with GRPS to create an art competition that showcases alternative power.
The results have exceeded even their best hopes, says Maggie Malone, director of the Fine Arts Department for GRPS. “It started in 2013 with maybe 20 art pieces from our high school students,” she says. “Today, we have as many as 70 entries, and it’s growing every year. Student awareness of renewable energy has grown; the program is working.”
West Michigan will fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic with this kind of ingenuity, say the leaders of Consumers Energy and The Right Place. “We often refer to our triple bottom line — people, planet and prosperity,” says Christofferson. “Our commitment to clean energy is unwavering, and we have a robust plan. We are a rich natural resource state; we take that to heart when delivering world-class performance through hometown service.”
Klohs adds that West Michigan will thrive when the pandemic is over. “I really believe that West Michigan is one of the best locations in the nation for business,” she says. “With our diverse talent base, innovative culture, quality of life and quality of place, a business can know that when you locate here, we will take care of you. Some communities talk the talk, but we walk the talk.”
This Investment Profile was prepared under the auspices of Consumers Energy. For more information, contact Valerie Christofferson at 616-648-2777 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On the web, go to www.ConsumersEnergy.com/econdev.