The GR invasion: West Michigan companies see gold in northern hills

TRAVERSE CITY – If there were a checkpoint on U.S. 131, at that imaginary line separating southern from northern Michigan, the guards would just be waving the Grand Rapids companies right through.

After all, firms from that West Michigan metropolis seem to be the naturalized citizens of the Grand Traverse region-no figurative passport is required.

Some Grand Rapids companies, like the contract furnishings firm Interphase or the technical services firm URS, have been here for decades, in one form or another, and a number of newcomers have just arrived, merging smoothly into the region's business scene. They have at least one thing in common: They want to ride the wave of northern Michigan's growth.

"I see it as a great opportunity and it is a fantastic market," said Mitchell Watt, a managing partner at URS, an international engineering, construction and design firm. "At the same time, there is a lot of untapped business up there that we aren't a part of yet."

He said URS has started to nail some of that new business down.

Grand Rapids firms are hardly strangers to the region. Their execs and employees usually have had second homes or vacationed in the area for years. They know northern Michigan and they like it. In some cases, employees have even made the long commute from Traverse City to work in their Grand Rapids offices.

It was that very familiarity that led Rockford Construction to establish an office in Traverse City in 2003 when it began looking for new opportunities, said Michael VanGessel, Rockford's president.

Rockford hasn't developed as many of its large, trademark retail projects as it would like, but VanGessel said that may take a little time. In the meantime, it is trying to be a good citizen and stay close to its customers.

"We started doing business up there, and we enjoyed it. But we realized that we did need to make a commitment to that community. It is different. It's not western Michigan and it's not eastern Michigan.

"To do that, you have to put a stake down and work at it at a different level. You are not just coming in and out doing projects. You're there as a resident. You are there as business."

Rockford Construction now has a five-person office. Its projects have included the Bay Park Plaza building and a number of other multi-housing and office projects.

Greenridge Realty came to Traverse City a year ago, in part because it expects its west Michigan customers to migrate northward to vacation and retirement homes.

"Greenridge has made a strategic decision, as a lot of companies have, to move north," said Doug Meteyer, manager of the firm's Traverse office. "They want to get positioned ahead of that wave. It's just a natural for people on that side of the state to be flowing north with their recreational dollars."

Meteyer, former owner of Spectra Real Estate, merged his company into Greenridge and began running the operation for the Grand Rapids firm.

Greenridge now handles real estate sales for Grand Traverse Resort, taking over its sales office at M-72 and U.S. 31. It is soon heading into a second, new office inside the resort's Tower. That no doubt will give the company a good vantage point for its future growth.

"You can look for Greenridge to expand up the Lake Michigan shoreline," he said.

Pioneer Construction, a 300-employee, full-service contracting firm, took the plunge 10 years ago. Over the last four years, it has generated $15 million in business in the region, said Paul Bergsma, the company's director of business development.

"We feel the growth in the Traverse City area will include true economic building elements such as medical and health care, as well as industries drawn by the natural appeal of the region," he said.

Pioneer has mostly focused on high-end condo projects, such as the Peninsula Bay Resort Condominiums so far, Bergsma said. But pioneer's priorities include more commercial and medical projects over the long term.

Pioneer's interest in Traverse City is no mystery. The Michigan market, in general, has been soft, and new growth in northern Michigan can counterbalance the weakness elsewhere.

"In some respects, it is because of Michigan's economic condition that we are actively seeking to expand services beyond our traditional Western Michigan region," he said.

He believes Traverse City could soon match Grand Rapids' pace of growth over the last few years. The Traverse area now represents about five percent of the company's workload, he said.

URS is also optimistic about growth in Northern Michigan. It opened its Traverse City office in 1999 and it quickly grew to about 10 employees. When URS closed down its Petoskey office three years ago, the Traverse facility picked up the slack.

"We had a couple of our staff who were commuting from the Traverse City area to Grand Rapids to work," Watt said. "We said that's not really fair to them. Let's open a small office up there. This way we can service a new market."

It has worked on road projects for real estate developers, along with a variety of environmental and water resource projects, including the Boardman River dams project. Watts estimates that the Traverse office could eventually have a staff of 30 to 40 people.

"Eventually we want to expand the architectural practice up there," he said.

Few companies have bet more on the region's growth than Interphase. This Haworth dealer began operations here 24 years ago, and now sells contract furnishings to the health-care, office, education and other markets

"Traverse City has always been a great market for us," said Randy DeBoer, Interphase's president. "We had great success, good growth."

He is bullish about the future, too. If businesses continue to proliferate outside the major metro areas, it could be an even better market for the company.

"With technology the way it is today, and with communication and transportation easier, I think the door is open for a lot of companies to look at a beautiful area like Traverse City and say, 'We can live hear and we can do business here.' I think that is allowing some businesses to grow there faster than they have done in the past." BN