On Your Mark, Get Set … Compete! Launch of EDO will help businesses plant, scale and grow

Did you know that cities compete for business?

And did you know that the competition is often fierce? For an example, look no further than the frenzied competition among the nation’s biggest cities to land Amazon’s HQ2.

Or do you just think, “The Traverse City area is a beautiful and wonderful place. If companies don’t relocate here, that’s their problem, not ours. More room for us.” Without judgment or blame, I’m pretty sure I know the answer to all three questions: No, no and yes.

The truth is, not many locals spend much time thinking about economic development because as long as I’ve lived here, tourism has been king – and with good reason. This is an amazing place. There are many, many great reasons people from all over the world flock here.

But times have changed and, as wonderful as we are, tourism by itself isn’t enough anymore to create the kind of local broad-based economic environment that we need to grow and thrive.

My friend Casey Cowell has an interesting way of explaining why. He says when a tourist buys a t-shirt, dines in one of our restaurants or stays in one of our hotels, that’s obviously an immediate cash flow producing transaction, which is great. Tourism has historically been the economic lifeblood of our region and we’re fortunate to have it.

The problem is that tourists leave and take their money with them. What’s needed are more year-round “value creators,” as Casey calls them: businesses that steadily generate goods, services and/or intellectual property and export them elsewhere. Combine more of those companies with our already vibrant tourism and agricultural sectors and our little slice of heaven will flourish like never before.

You might ask, “OK, so whose job is it to attract outside business and capital investment?”

The answer for a long time was primarily our excellent Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and our equally excellent Grand Traverse Economic Development Corporation. Then, a few months ago, following two years of hard work and planning by dozens of leaders, the public and private sectors agreed it was time to form the region’s first and yet-to-be-named regional Economic Development Organization, or EDO, to coordinate local economic development activities. It should be operational later this year.

What will this EDO do?

Well, the clearest description I’ve heard is it will do for the region what Traverse City Tourism (formerly the Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau) does for tourism: marketing and branding us to the outside world as a fantastic place to do business. It will also serve as a resource and a single point of contact for businesses and entrepreneurs that want to locate here and for local businesses that want to scale and grow.

I realize that doesn’t sound terribly exciting. That’s probably why many people aren’t even aware this is underway. But trust me – this is big. Some of the most successful and attractive communities in the state – Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids and Marquette to name a few – have benefited greatly from well-run EDOs.

Now it’s our turn. There’s an old saying: You can’t win if you don’t play the game. With an EDO, we’ll finally be in the game. As a business owner, I can tell you from personal experience how important that is.

When Hagerty was looking to create a secondary office in the Central or Mountain Time zones, it became immediately clear that certain cities were ready for capital investment while others were not. We ultimately settled on Golden, Colorado, because they had the mechanisms in place to help us. From financing, to real estate, to connecting us to the right people, Golden made a difficult decision much easier. We appreciated that.

That’s the role our EDO will play for our region. Now, hopefully, other important pieces can start falling into place, like the proposed extension of one of the city’s tax increment financing plans. This extension is a critical step for Traverse and businesses need the city to step up and get this done.

All of us should thank those who have been part of forming the new EDO. The best years are in front of us.
Onward and upward!

McKeel Hagerty is the CEO of Hagerty, a specialty provider of classic vehicle insurance headquartered in Traverse City, Mich.