ENVIRONMENT: Tom Johnson a true planning pro

Just hearing all that Tom Johnson does is enough to tire a person out. From working with local governmental authorities to providing business counseling to area entrepreneurs, he’s constantly on the go. Johnson doesn’t mind the hours–he loves his work. And he’s good at it. This February, he was honored with the Outstanding Planning Professional award, bestowed by the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments.

The Antrim County Planning Commission nominated Johnson for “his outstanding work in planning, his knowledge of the area, and the good job he does on all of the projects he gets involved in,” according to Arlin Turner, chairperson of the Commission.

Johnson, who currently lives in Boyne City, does get involved in a lot of projects. As Executive Director of the NLEA, a private, non-profit organization owned by Antrim, Charlevoix, and Emmet counties, Johnson is responsible for promoting and coordinating economic development activities and issues within and between the three counties.

This means he takes on projects like coordinating strategic planning and community-wide goal setting sessions for local units of government to find out what issues are important to community members. It also means assisting local units of government set up Downtown Development Authorities for revitalization projects. Johnson has done this with Mancelona, Boyne City, East Jordan, and is working on establishing a DDA in Pellston right now.

Where many of us would simply see a vacant downtown building, Johnson sees opportunity to “create incentives for people to locate businesses there,” Johnson says. “That way a lot of new investment occurs. It’s good economic development, downtown development, and good land use.”

Industrial parks also demonstrate good land use and foster economic development. Johnson has worked with Boyne City and East Jordan to develop those, too. “You have a high tax base, year-round jobs, and they’re close to town,” according to Johnson. “There are some nice compatibilities there.”

He is also addressing affordable housing issues that arise “again and again.”

“The need has grown as the communities have grown,” he noted. “One of the negative effects of tourism (to our area) is that property values increase rapidly and displace working people.”

Last year, Johnson formed the six-county Northern Homes Community Development Corporation. Under Tom’s leadership as president, Northern Homes is developing an affordable housing project and a senior affordable housing project in the Village of Bellaire.

“We’re doing a lot of infill development and locating the housing developments near area employment. It’s good land use and helps with traffic control since people live closer to where they work,” explained Johnson.

Brownfield redevelopment is another of Johnson’s areas of expertise. He has worked with public and private organizations and agencies in Antrim, Charlevoix, and Emmet counties and in the township of Central Lake to set up Brownfield Redevelopment Authorities. These will pave the way for clean-up and redevelopment of contaminated industrial sites–another “great land use and economic development practice,” according to Johnson.

If all of this isn’t enough, Johnson recently set up a Value-Added Agricultural Program to respond to what he saw as a crisis in the farming community.

“Costs are increasing, taxes are increasing, and at the same time, the prices they’re getting on the market for their products is going down,” he said.

Johnson is also a small business counselor, certified by the Small Business Administration. He teaches business owners how to write business plans, analyze and mitigate risk, and how to secure financing and grants, when appropriate.

How does he do it all? Setting priorities with the NLEA Board of Directors, leveraging his time by developing programs and then hiring directors to run them, and fostering teamwork make it possible.

“He’s very much a facilitator,” said David White, East Jordan city administrator. “He has a very easy-going, yet determined manner. He works well with everybody toward consensus to get the job done.”

It’s also Johnson’s “broad view of things,” according to Pete Garwood, president of the NLEA Board and the Antrim County coordinator and planner, that give Johnson “the awareness of how everything interrelates; how local units of government, the county, and the state fall in; how manufacturing and agriculture fit into the economy; and how the economy integrates with the environment and natural resources.”

The award was an honor for Johnson, especially since his job is community and economic development, which is a “whole different field” than planning, said Johnson, who tries to “interweave the two and incorporate good planning practices into my work.”

Passionate about his work, Johnson says, “When you talk about the fabric of a community, we’re only one tiny thread, but we have the ability to see the whole picture. We’re just a catalyst. What’s so rewarding is when you have the privilege of becoming part of many programs that improve the quality of life for a community.”

If you would like to nominate a “Mover and Shaker” from any business sector, please fax or e-mail their name, position and a brief statement on why he or she should be profiled in The Business News. See page 4 for address information.