Growing the Economy in Our Own Backyard (or Garage)

There are many ways to grow a region’s economy. Venture North is one critical piece of the economic development puzzle. But there is no one silver bullet. All of these need to work together to develop and advance our economy.

All of us aim to see more well-paying jobs created in Northern Michigan, including those in our burgeoning technology sectors. That’s a good thing of course. In that sense, we’re not unlike most communities throughout the Midwest, the East and West Coasts, southern states, the Pacific Northwest, the Desert Southwest, the Great Plains, Europe, Asia …you get the picture.

Since Perry Hannah and even before, the “secret sauce” to growing our local economy has been to look within – to work with people and businesses already carving out a living in our unique region. If an existing business wants to expand a product line or develop new services, or if someone has an idea for starting his or her own company, it is beneficial to put the time and resources into helping them succeed and grow, just as it is to try and lure in outside businesses attracted by our region’s strengths.

Venture North is in the thick of the “and” strategy for growth.  We applaud efforts to attract new business AND we will work tirelessly to help existing businesses and entrepreneurs in the region be successful. Like the children’s song that goes, “Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver and the other’s gold.”
It’s why we help people like Brandon Williams, a U.S. Navy veteran who served four years on the flight deck of the USS Kitty Hawk in the Persian Gulf before securing a mechanical engineering degree from Northern Michigan University. Williams and his wife moved to Traverse City, and he started a small tech company called DreamLab Industries in a corner of his garage to help innovators take their ideas from concept to fruition through the use of 3-D printing technology.

“I had tons of ideas for products,” Williams said. “The business really picked up – I couldn’t keep up.”

He also couldn’t keep up with the capital needs to grow a small business. So he turned to Venture North for a $16,250 Sub-Micro Loan to help him finance three new pieces of 3-D printing equipment, pay off some existing equipment and ramp up his marketing efforts. It wasn’t a large loan by Venture North’s standards – but it meant the world to Williams and his dream.

“It changed our lives,” Williams said. “It’s going to get us where we need to go….it’s been the best resource I’ve come across since I’ve been in business.”

Later this month Williams will travel to NASA headquarters outside of Washington D.C. to discuss a contract for one of his ideas with the famed U.S. space agency. If things go according to plan, Williams will be able to create a flurry of employment at his small company – adding 10, 20, possibly 30 new, good-paying jobs in the community. “We need some brains in here,” he laughs. “I’m looking for people that are a lot smarter than me.”

There are no guarantees, of course. But there’s a tremendous upside for a small risk and investment that amounts to relative pennies compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars states and regions are spending to attract “high-tech” jobs – efforts that also come with no sure-fire results.

There are plenty of Venture North stories similar to Mr. Williams’ – more than 70 and counting, in fact. We’ve loaned as little as $2,500 and as much as $500,000, helping clients that range from teenagers with bright ideas to some of the region’s best-known brands such as Cherry Republic and Britten. We’ve assisted farming operations, wineries, medical offices, food trucks, restaurants, broadcasters, educators, professional counselors, automotive companies, energy exploration firms, well drillers, retailers, specialty shops – the list goes on and on. These opportunities have helped generate close to 300 direct new jobs, creating incremental but significant results for our regional economy.

Venture North’s recent certification as a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) will only help accelerate those efforts by bringing new partners and expanded sources of capital to the organization. We’ll be utilizing those resources to continue to focus in our region’s backyard.

Laura Galbraith is the Executive Director of Venture North Funding & Development, a partner organization of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. Contact her at