An ‘Ambitious New Chapter’: Northern Lakes Economic Alliance shifts development goals

by Craig Manning

Pitch night competitions; a new culture of entrepreneurial innovation; high-speed broadband internet service in rural northern Michigan.

These are just a few of the economic development highlights currently playing out across Emmet, Antrim, Cheboygan and Charlevoix counties.

For David Emmel, who came aboard as the president of the Northern Lakes Economic Alliance (NLEA) in October of last year, the first nine months on the job have been defined by COVID-19. For its three-county service area of Antrim, Charlevoix and Cheboygan counties, the NLEA’s mission is “to help communities and entrepreneurs retain and create quality jobs.”

Since March 2020, the organization’s main focus has shifted from its traditional manufacturing and industrial focus to establishing connections with new segments of the business community.

The shift in focus was helped, says Emmel, by the state and federal funding in the form of various grants through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and NLEA’s partner organization, Networks Northwest.

“The small business grants, the survival grants, the restart grants, the sustainability grants …. (those have) really pulled us in more heavily to the area of small and medium-sized businesses,” he said.

Those connections could prove valuable going forward, as the NLEA starts to look at its next phase of economic development work. NLEA is in talks to bring back its pitch night competitions (all of which were cancelled in 2020) and is strategizing on how “to really flush out where innovation is happening” within the region.

Emmel thinks a stronger link with a wider spectrum of local businesses will aid NLEA as it embarks upon this ambitious new chapter.

Pitch nights and entrepreneurial innovation

In the past, the NLEA’s Northern Michigan Pitch Night series has included a pair of annual county-wide pitch nights in Antrim and Cheboygan, as well as a “grand event” where the top three winners from each county go head-to-head to compete for additional funding.

After taking a year off, the Northern Michigan Pitch Night series will look a bit different this year. While Emmel says the NLEA is still “in the early exploration and planning stages” for 2021’s pitch contests, he shares that the ultimate hope is “to move to a model with a little more frequency than once a year” and to broaden the types of businesses that are competing as part of the competition.

“One of the primary objectives of the pitch night, historically, was to kind of ‘repopulate Main Street,’ so to speak,” Emmel said, referring to the types of small, locally owned Main Street businesses that typically occupy a small-town downtown area – from retail stores and restaurants to small service establishments.

At first, the competition was about filling empty storefronts, Emmel said.

“But now, for example, in the village of East Jordan or in the city of Cheboygan – where a couple years ago there were a number of empty storefronts – today there are no empty storefronts,” he said.

The shift, he says, has to do with a shift to place-based economic development.

“So, going forward, we’re going to start to shift a little bit of our focus, in terms of pitch competitions, into innovation,” he said.

A common misconception is that innovation only happens in urban areas. But a 2020 Pennsylvania State University study indicated that innovation is happening in rural areas and local communities as either hidden or undocumented.

Emmel’s hope for the future of the NLEA is that the organization will be able to play a bigger role in surfacing some of the hidden innovators in northern Michigan’s more rural areas.

“It’s a fun challenge to try to flush that stuff out,” Emmel said of local innovation. “As an example, we have incredible agriculture in our coastal counties, and agriculture has a culture of innovation. Folks who work in the ag industry – whether that’s in livestock, whether that’s in production crops, whether that’s in specialty crops, fruits, vegetables, things like that – they have a culture of problem-solving. We’re really trying to flush that out and commercialize that innovation into new business starts, or expansions of existing businesses.”

Manufacturing

Another northern Michigan sector currently harboring a potentially huge untapped well of innovation? Manufacturing.

“Once you get into larger companies, there’s innovation occurring, but it’s captive,” Emmel said of local manufacturers.

He pointed to patent searches, which indicate the amount of intellectual property identified and generated in northern Michigan.

“A lot of times, there’s innovation that happens, but companies say, ‘I don’t need a patent, I don’t want to go through that,’ or ‘I’m not really interested in protecting my intellectual property,’” he said. “So we know that intellectual property is out there and innovation is occurring. We just have to figure out the best way to tap into it.”

Broadband access

As the NLEA casts around for innovation in its three-county region and beyond, the other potentially game-changing economic development trend playing out in the area is the expansion of broadband access. At its recent 2021 annual showcase, NLEA named Truestream – the fiber-to-the-home network that Great Lakes Energy has been building since 2018 – as its project of the year.

Great Lakes Energy’s goal is to bring the option of fiber internet and gigabit speeds to the 26 counties it serves throughout Michigan. As of April, the Trustream project consisted of 2,400 miles of mainline fiber and had 7,800 customers connected. Connections to the network are active in the Petoskey/Harbor Springs area, in Boyne City and in Deer Lake, and are underway in East Jordan, Barnard and Central Lake. Construction or project “exploration” are in progress in other parts of the region.

Emmel is looking forward to what the availability of fiber internet might mean for economic development in and around the NLEA’s service area. In particular, he says that given the ongoing development of Industry 4.0 – the term coined for the so-called “fourth industrial revolution,” wherein many manufacturing and industrial practices will be automated and interconnected by way of smart technologies – industries in rural areas risk falling behind if they don’t have the fast internet service of their more urban competitors or collaborators.

“As Industry 4.0 is starting to roll out, and supply chains and value chains are becoming much more integrated and connected, those businesses located in rural communities are starting to really struggle with access to adequate broadband to meet the connectivity needs,” Emmel said. “If we don’t address those things in northern Michigan, our manufacturers are really going to be at a competitive disadvantage in competing within that industry.”

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