Raising More Boats

“A rising tide lifts all boats” is a phrase made famous by President John F. Kennedy borrowed from a chamber of commerce in his native New England – an aphorism that suggests pretty much everyone benefits from a growing economy.

It’s also a saying often panned as sound economic policy. Certainly there are parts of Michigan – our own region included – that have fared better than others in the state’s measured yet muted economic rebound. While capital flows and deals get done in some areas, there’s little question that the rising tide is leaving some boats aground – still mired in a shallow recovery.

That’s among the reasons the Traverse City Area Chamber and its Traverse Bay Economic Development Corporation (EDC) last year took on the formidable but important task of becoming certified by the state to administer a Regional Revolving Loan Fund program throughout the 10-county region. It helped unlock $2.5 million in federal funding for local businesses to pursue low-interest financing for business upgrades that create jobs for low- to middle-income residents and/or eliminate blight in areas historically underserved by state and federal programs. These resources are now available for businesses from Manistee to Petoskey, and from Benzie to Wexford

It’s an effort that involves a share of state and federal “bureaucratese,” to be sure. But it’s also a means to provide critical business capital in areas that need it the most. Thriving downtowns and hot investment properties often have more than a few investors and financing options. Businesses in some of the more remote or rural areas of northwest Michigan typically don’t have that luxury. They can find it much more difficult to secure business capital, even though they need it as much – or more – to stay competitive. For some of our business partners, these resources are the difference between their companies being able to take the next step, or being faced with trimming their operations or possibly even shutting their doors. It’s that critical.

It underscores the significance of the EDC recently closing its first Regional Revolving Loan in Wexford County for the Harrietta Hills Trout Farm. The $210,000 loan – endorsed by county officials – will help the business move toward what it projects as an eventual $1 million expansion plan at two facilities in northern Michigan.

Harrietta Hills owner and general manager Dan Vogler turned to the Chamber and other groups including Northern Michigan Angels for investment capital because of the lack of traditional financing options for his rural business. It took some extra time and red tape, but Vogler hopes other businesses will follow his lead.

“It’s a challenging process – it’s not quick or easy,” Vogler said. “But there’s a tremendous opportunity for people to follow our example … if people don’t take advantage of these resources, they won’t be utilized.”

That’s now two business loans from the Regional Revolving Loan Fund closed by the Chamber in recent months. They total $700,000 in working capital being circulated throughout northern Michigan from a pot of federal dollars that sat largely dormant before the Chamber took the initiative to put it to work in communities experiencing more ebb than flow in the economic tide. Combined with four other Access to Capital programs, the Chamber’s business financing exceeds $1.7 million and is helping more than 30 area businesses get started, launch new products, save money on energy bills, add more than 100 new full-time employees and additional seasonal workers, and more.

Going forward, the Chamber will continue to evolve as a regional economic development organization utilizing private and public resources to pursue our time honored goal of building business and growing community. Part of that challenge is to bring more businesses and community partners from those underserved areas into the mix to create an effective economic development strategy ­ – armed with sufficient resources – to help lift all the boats around this basin we call home.


Laura Galbraith is the Senior Vice President of Finance for the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. Contact her by email at galbraith@tcchamber.org More information on Chamber business financing is available at www.tcchamber.org.