Full Court Press: Meet the players working to bring more businesses to northern Michigan

Sure, over the years there was the occasional entrepreneur who relocated his/her family and small business to Traverse City.

But today, that trickle has become a wave: From insurance agencies to aerospace innovators, companies and professionals are streaming into northern Michigan. And it’s not by accident.

There’s a very active set of organizations working tirelessly to diversify Traverse City’s economy well beyond tourism. Meet those players and hear about their increasing efforts to bring more here.

Traverse Connect

The entity: Traverse Connect was the parent company to the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce until the two entities merged as one in December 2019. Traverse Connect describes itself as “the lead economic development organization for the Grand Traverse region,” with a mission of “advancing the economic vitality of the Grand Traverse region through the growth of family-sustaining careers.” By 2030, the aim is to transform the Grand Traverse region into a “diversified economic destination of choice powered by growth-oriented enterprises providing competitive total compensation to match our world-class quality of life.”

The ringleader: Warren Call is president and CEO of Traverse Connect. Appointed to the role in 2019, Call previously served as regional manager of private banking for Huntington National Bank, chair of the Grand Traverse County Economic Development Corporation, and chair of the Traverse City Chamber of Commerce Young Professionals program.

Recent efforts: In 2020, Traverse Connect launched Creative Coast, a new talent attraction initiative and website aimed at highlighting the Grand Traverse Region as an exceptional place for job seekers to “live, explore, and fulfill (their) careers.” The job board is maintained and curated by Traverse Connect staff, featuring only job postings that meet certain criteria. Specifically, Traverse Connect is seeking to spotlight “family-sustaining job opportunities,” with most job postings required to pay a minimum of $22 per hour (if hourly) or $45,000 per year (if salaried).

Traverse Connect also created Northern Navigators, which pairs recent Traverse City transplants with “regional ambassadors” who help guide newcomers through everything from regional recreation to real estate to schools to career opportunities.

Finally, Traverse Connect launched a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Committee, which convenes members from the local business community dedicated to leading Traverse City in “becoming a region that is attractive and enabling to people of all diversities – racial, cultural, social economic and ability.” The group will host a DEI summit on March 1 with hopes of educating local businesses on the value of DEI in the workplace.

Boomerang Catapult

The entity: Boomerang Catapult is a venture capital firm that invests in startups with the goal of driving “the creation of an ever more intellectually and culturally vibrant community of engaged citizens creating high economic value.” The organization is so named for the local concept of a “boomerang,” or someone who was raised in or northern Michigan – or who used to live here – but moved away to pursue professionals or educational opportunities. Boomerangs are drawn back to Traverse City due largely to the area’s quality of life, bringing the talent, skills, knowledge and connections they’ve gained back with them. One of Boomerang Catapult’s goals is to create local economic value by helping to lure this talent back to the region.

The ringleader: Casey Cowell, known for co-founding U.S. Robotics in 1976 and then selling to 3Com for $7.3 billion in 1997. Cowell believes in building or investing in companies that can export their products or services outside of a local area, thus driving new economic growth to that area.

“If all we do is trade within our community, the total community income and wealth will be limited to what we can produce locally,” reads the Boomerang Catapult philosophy. “On the other hand, if we export what we create to markets around the world and increase our value and demand in external markets, we can achieve greater income and wealth in our area.”

Recent efforts: Since its inception in 2016, Boomerang Catapult has invested capital in a range of different businesses, spanning industries from aerospace to healthcare to robotics. One highlight is ATLAS Space Operations, a company that specializes in cloud-based satellite management and control services.

In 2017, Cowell and Boomerang invested in ATLAS under the condition that the budding startup relocate its headquarters to Traverse City. Since then, ATLAS has raised more than $20 million in investment capital, landed contracts with NASA and the U.S. Air Force, and grown its team from 11 full-time employees to 29, five of which have relocated to Traverse City for their jobs.

Another recent success is Promethient, a company for which Boomerang Catapult provided seed investment funding in 2017. Promethient developed a technology called Thermavance that provides conductive heating or cooling in vehicle seats, furniture, garments and other products. In 2020, Polaris Inc. implemented Promethient’s Thermavance technology into the seats of its Indian and Slingshot vehicles. That success – the first major market implementation of Thermavance – has Promethient scaling its operations with the expectation of doubling its revenues in 2021.

Networks Northwest

The entity: Networks Northwest was founded in 1974 and serving 10 member counties throughout northwest Lower Michigan, including Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix, Emmet, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Manistee, Missaukee and Wexford. The organization’s mission is “to build stronger communities and enhance the quality of life in northwest Michigan,” which it pursues through a variety of programs and services.

Those programs include Northwest Michigan Works!, which helps job seekers find jobs, change careers, or find their callings; the Small Business Development Center, which helps businesses “launch, grow, transition, and innovate”; the Procurement Technical Assistance Center, which helps northern Michigan companies in landing government contracts; and the Global Trade Alliance of Northern Michigan, which assists local businesses in launching or enhancing global trade operations.

The ringleader: CEO Matt McCauley has been a part of the Networks Northwest team for nearly 14 years, starting as director of regional planning and community development, serving as chief operating officer and director of strategic initiatives for three years, and ultimately taking on the CEO role in January 2018.

Recent efforts: This spring, Networks Northwest will launch a brand-new initiative called Thrive North. Funded by an innovation fund grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, Thrive North will offer what McCauley calls a “one-stop shop for all the nuts and bolts of data that relate to business attraction” in the 10-county region Networks Northwest serves.

That data will include everything from which areas offer broadband service, to local community master planning initiatives, to key contacts that business professionals should reach out to if they are considering a relocation. McCauley hopes the Thrive North website will not only serve as a valuable resource for businesses or remote workers eyeing northern Michigan as a place to put down roots, but also as a way to spotlight smaller communities in the region that might not have the resources to operate their own economic development efforts.

Front Street Irregulars

The entity: Front Street Irregulars is an informal cadre of local Traverse City professionals that meets intermittently throughout the year to discuss major local initiatives. Part networking, part vision-building, part lobbying and advocacy, Front Street Irregulars strives to forge connections between local business leaders, educate members on businesses in the community, and brainstorm or support local projects or developments that might have a positive impact on the area’s quality of life and overall economic growth.

Though it started as a gathering of 22 local business leaders, Front Street Irregulars has grown to more than 100 members and has played key roles establishing the 20Fathoms tech incubator, passing the 2018 bond initiative put forth by Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS), and driving the proliferation of fiber internet in the area.

The ringleader: As an informal club, Front Street Irregulars has neither hierarchy nor paid staff. However, the roots of the group involve a pair of highly influential leaders from some of Traverse City’s other economic development drivers. The idea for Front Street Irregulars came up during a 2015 conversation between Warren Call (Traverse Connect) and Casey Cowell (Boomerang Catapult). During that talk, the two decided there needed to be a network of local influencers who could come together to build networks, brainstorm ideas, or support initiatives aimed at economic growth. Front Street Irregulars was the result.

Recent efforts: According to Call, Front Street Irregulars “hasn’t been super active” during the COVID-19 pandemic, “simply because the purpose of the group is to get together in person and that hasn’t been an option.” Most Front Street Irregulars meetings involve face-to-face networking, tours of local business operations, and other activities that are difficult to replicate virtually. However, Call says the group is far from finished and that there are already plans in place “to return to in-person events as soon as possible.”

“I anticipate great turnout once we are able to convene in person,” Call said. “People are really looking forward to reconnecting once the health situation allows.”

20Fathoms

The entity: 20Fathoms is Traverse City’s tech incubator. A nonprofit organization founded in 2018, 20Fathoms is dedicated to providing office space, co-working areas, membership coaching, networking opportunities, workshops, national recruitment services, and other resources to startups or growing businesses within the technology space. As an incubator, the role of 20Fathoms is to help new businesses grow and thrive, whether they are local businesses or out-of-town ventures just moving to the area and/or establishing satellite offices in northern Michigan.

20Fathoms also houses several programs under its organizational umbrella, including HealthSpark, aimed at building a culture of health technology innovation in Traverse City; tccodes, a local coding community that offers courses, workshops, career support, and other resources to beginning and experienced software developers alike; and tccyber, a similar learning community for cybersecurity professionals.

Regarding HealthSpark, Cleveland Clinic’s Jack Miner took the reins in May and steered the focus of the program toward solving rural healthcare challenges through digital health technology. HealthSpark will host a Digital Health Accelerator in April, with a goal of helping “early and growth stage digital health companies” navigate complex healthcare industry topics like regulations, reimbursement paths, supply chain factors, and more.

The ringleader: Lauren Bigelow took over as executive director for 20Fathoms last February, ushering in the start of a new chapter for the incubator. Bigelow, who moved to Traverse City from Ann Arbor to lead 20Fathoms, brings an eclectic background that spans archeology, clean energy startups, entrepreneurial mentorship and more.

Recent efforts: 2020 was a big year for 20Fathoms. In addition to Bigelow’s arrival, the incubator’s highlights included:

  • Moving from its initial 5,700-square-foot digs in downtown Traverse City to a significantly larger 10,000-square-foot space in Traverse City’s Bayview Professional Centre.
  • Making several major hires, including Erich Wuhrman as the first-ever director of talent acquisitions. Wuhrman works with member businesses to provide talent recruitment support.
  • Launching a tech job board targeting the Traverse City area, as well as a monthly newsletter called TC Tech News and a new Women in Tech Meetup program.
  • Collaborating with Boomerang Catapult and Traverse Connect on an initiative that provides support and resources for local remote workers.

 

Grand Traverse Economic Development Corp.

The entity: The Grand Traverse Economic Development Corporation (GTEDC) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to growing, retaining, and expanding businesses in the Grand Traverse region. GTEDC is an 11-member board, appointed by the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners and made up of a mix of private sector and public sector representatives. Once appointed, the board is intended to serve as “the voice of economic issues within the region.”

The ringleader: The current board chairman for the GTEDC is Jessica Sullivan, who also serves as vice president of strategic ventures and shareholder relations for Hagerty, one of Traverse City’s largest employers. Other members of the board include Kevin Endres, owner and broker with local commercial real estate agency Three West; Dennis Arouca, a board member for the Grand Traverse Manufacturing Council and Northern Michigan Angels; Kevin Klein, the director of Cherry Capital Airport; and others.

Recent highlights: According to Sullivan, COVID-19 made 2020 an unprecedented year for the GTEDC.

“Many of our city and county board representatives had to pivot due to the pandemic and shift their focus to navigating the uncharted waters,” she said. “Therefore, our board only met a couple of times to receive pandemic updates and to inquire about ways we could offer support.”

GTEDC efforts throughout the year included offering letters of support for local business initiatives and participating in the Community Development Coalition, established in 2019 by the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation.

“The Coalition is working together to utilize and share accountable measurable economic, societal, and environmental outcomes to drive positive change in some of our region’s greatest challenges and opportunities,” Sullivan said of the effort.

Other notables

Northern Michigan Angels is a local angel investing organization whose volunteer members work together to support economic development in the private sector. Most members are former business founders, owners, or executives who are seeking to put their expertise and capital to use in helping the next generation of entrepreneurs. The group invests in “scalable entrepreneurial companies whose potential success will have an impact on the quality of life in Michigan.” Unlike traditional managed venture funds, which typically invest in ventures as a unit, Northern Michigan Angels gives more autonomy to its individual members. The group collaborates to screen and vet potential investment opportunities, but each member ultimately makes their own decision in whether or not to invest in a business.

The Grand Traverse Science and Technology Innovation Center (STIC) is a new project spearheaded by Grand Traverse Economic Development (GTED), the commercial investment entity of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. In 2019, GTED acquired the former site of Pugsley Correctional Facility, a Kingsley-based prison that the Michigan Department of Corrections shuttered in 2016.  Over three phases and multiple years, GTED intends to transform the 180-acre property into a tech campus that will house businesses, manufacturing, shipping and logistics, educational facilities and workforce housing. The former Camp Pugsley site was one of four finalists to become the new command and control center for the Michigan Aerospace Manufacturers Association (MAMA). However, MAMA announced in late January that the former Kincheloe Air Force Base in the Upper Peninsula has been selected for the center. That decision means the former Pugsley Correctional Facility won’t be a part of MAMA’s new Michigan Launch Initiative, a project intended to build infrastructure in Michigan for launching satellites into low-earth orbit.

Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) is Traverse City’s community college. NMC enrolls more than 3,700 students per years and offers several unique programs, such as the renowned Great Lakes Maritime Academy, the NMC University Center, and its popular Associate Degree in Nursing program. In recent years, Michigan Technological University has taken an interest in Traverse City, establishing several memorandums of understanding with NMC that pave the way for collaboration with the college and create pathways for NMC students to transfer to Michigan Tech. NMC is also lobbying for legislation that would enable community colleges to offer four-year nursing degrees.

TCNewTech was founded in 2015 by local entrepreneur Russell Schindler, CEO of the environmental sampling startup SampleServe. Often compared to the television show “Shark Tank,” TCNewTech hosts monthly pitch night competitions where up to five presenters have an opportunity to pitch their business or technology ideas to a live (or, in the times of COVID-19, virtual) audience. The audience then votes for the best pitch to decide which presenter will receive a cash prize. TCNewTech also offers opportunities for audience members to announce job openings at their businesses, to share information about forthcoming events, and more. Typical in-person TCNewTech events also offer an informal social hour for discussion and networking.

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