Opportunity in Northern Michigan

Osceola County, MI

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Osceola County is in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, approximately sixty-five miles from Grand Rapids. It is an area which is very accessible through US-10 and US-131 and boasts a low cost of living and doing business. It has a desirable unemployment rate of 5.2 percent, with growth in industrial parks poised to decrease that number further. We spoke with Community & Economic Development Coordinator Dan Massy about the potential of the county.
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In April of 1989, the Osceola County Board of Commissioners established an economic development partnership. It was a group of nearly eighty citizens working on a steering committee with eight subcommittees. The partnership was formed to improve the economic development climate in this county of almost 24,000 residents. At this time, the unemployment rate was at 10.3 percent, and by the time it finished its study in 1991, that rate had jumped to 17.4 percent. Unemployment currently stands at 5.2 percent, which is a testament to the work accomplished by the Osceola County Economic Development Office (OCEDO).

“Ironically at the time, the county was growing at twelve percent – one of the fastest-growing counties in the state. As a result, the USDA identified Osceola as a retirement destination county. While many of the new residents were retirees, some of the new residents needed jobs,” explains Dan.

One of the recommendations that came out of the two-year study was to develop an economic development office. It took a couple of years to complete the non-profit paperwork, file everything with the state, and hire the right people. The first economic developer was hired in 1995. Originally the county’s economic development organization was a public-private partnership involving Michigan State University Extension, county government, and donations. In 2013, it became strictly a county program and is now part of Osceola County’s community development office.
The county is strategically located halfway between Grand Rapids and Traverse City at the crossroads of US-10 and US-131. “What’s significant here is that US-10 is a major east-west route and US-131 is the predominant north/south route. As a result, if you go ahead and build something, you can get what you need to an automaker or other market pretty quickly: 200 miles to Detroit and 250 miles to Chicago with just-in-time (JIT) delivery – which is crucial,” says Dan.

Thirty-three percent of employees in the county are employed in manufacturing. That is twice the number in Michigan as a whole and three times the national rate. The companies in the county are relatively small: fifty percent have less than ten employees, forty percent have ten to one hundred employees, and ten percent have more than one hundred employees.

The main manufacturing sector consists of Tier1 and Tier2 companies that make automotive components. Ventra Evart LLC has over seven hundred employees building interior and exterior plastic car parts. The second largest manufacturing sector caters to food processing. General Mills produces Yoplait Yogurt here along with a new line of organic yogurts. It has approximately 440 employees, and by volume, it is the largest yogurt plant in the country.

A trained and educated workforce is, of course, a vital element of any county’s success. Osceola County is thirteen miles from Ferris State University in Big Rapids, which offers typical academic degrees. “But, they also assist manufacturers in developing and maintaining a highly skilled workforce. Customized assistance can be provided to meet training needs in manufacturing, design engineering, sciences and are also very much into plastics and welding materials. It’s something that a lot of communities do not have, but we have it here,” explains Dan.

Within a fifty-mile radius, there are also two other universities and a college. The state has provided skilled trades training funds which are quite an advantage to communities like Osceola. Local manufacturers that have a need for short-term, high-demand training can apply to the state. The state has the funding to ensure that the employer can fill these jobs and workers can get the skills they need.

“We’ve always done well with that. There are eighty-three counties in Michigan. In 2014, we had the thirteenth-highest amount of money drawn from the training funds allocated by the state – pretty impressive for a rural community. It probably stems from the fact that we are thirty-three percent manufacturing,” says Dan.

Agriculture-related business is also a significant aspect of the county’s development initiatives. When compared to the rest of the state for total value of agricultural products sold, Osceola is forty-fourth out of the eighty-three counties. For hay production, however, the county is ninth, and for dairy production, it is fifteenth.

Being in a rural setting typically equates to a lower cost of living. The median housing price in Michigan is $120,200, but in Osceola County that drops to $89,000. Wages are also lower than the Michigan average, and this directly affects the costs associated with doing business. Additionally, taxes are typically lower in a rural community. As a manufacturer, this all comes together in an appealing package when there is a decision to move a business or start a new one.

“We have two industrial parks that are ready for business. One is in the village of Marion, while the other is in the city of Evart. Industrial facilities’ tax abatements are available in both parks for fifty percent, which makes for a nice draw,” says Dan.

Marion Industrial Park is a thirteen-acre industrial park, with lots of 2.2 to 2.5 acres that can be combined to create larger sites. Full utilities are available, and there is a rail spur that can be brought into the park. The Evart Air-Industrial Park encompasses forty-seven acres with full utilities and is unique in that the lots are right off a lighted runway that measures 75 by 3,800 feet.

“The Evart industrial park has lots available at no cost if the company meets certain criteria. It has to be the right type of business; the number of jobs created has an influence as well. A presentation is done in front of a board to determine eligibility,” says Dan. The Evart park is zoned ‘general industrial’ and is one of the State’s seven Certified Business Parks located in Northern Michigan.

Osceola County is one of eighteen “Connected Communities” in the State of Michigan. In order to achieve “Connected Community” status the county worked with the non-profit group Connect Michigan to increase broadband “Access, Adoption, and Use.”

“That was a big thing for us. We went out and sought somebody to help us work through this. Without this technology, some of our small manufacturers would not be able to deal with companies like the Big Three automakers as they would not even be able to bid on work without broadband capabilities,” explains Dan.

There is more that entices businesses to come here. Quality of life is something that Osceola County prides itself on. It is the only county in Michigan where two Rails-to-Trails cross. Old railroad lines are torn up and turned into trails, and some are even paved. People ride bikes, walk, or rollerblade in the summer, and in the winter, it is common to see snowmobiling or cross country skiing. Because the two trails cross, users can go north, south, east, or west.

“Our county is twenty-four miles by twenty-four miles. Not only do we have two trails that cross, but these trails run the complete length of the county.”

There is so much potential for outdoor activity. The county has three lakes and several rivers, including the Muskegon River which is Michigan’s second longest. The Middle Branch River has some of Michigan’s best waters to fly fish for wild trout.

“You know you live in a good place when, on a weekend, you watch everyone from downstate bringing their boats and campers up north to where you get to call home 365 days a year,” touts Dan.

One further benefit of calling Osceola home is the Spectrum Health, Reed City Hospital that employs around 435 people in the community. Not every rural community has a full-service medical facility. It has an emergency department, cancer centre, family practice, rehabilitation, and outpatient services.

The future looks bright for Osceola County. It has the low cost of business and location that manufacturers are looking for, and there is a wealth of space for further development. The county is a desirable location for businesses and families alike.

May 26, 2017, 10:55 AM EDT

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