Southwest Michigan First: 'Miracle Grow' for Companies, Says CEO Ron Kitchens

Oct 17, 2016

Southwest Michigan First CEO Ron Kitchens assesses the region's economic health on WestSouthwest.
Credit Earlene McMichael / WMUK

It was a time of plant closings and corporate downsizing when Southwest Michigan First formed in 1999 in Kalamazoo. SWMF CEO Ron Kitchens says the 14 business leaders who dreamed up the group wanted it to keep existing employers here and, draw new ones to the region. The organization has been successful in doing that, Kitchens tells WMUK's Earlene McMichael on today's WestSouthwest public-affairs show. In the last five years alone, Southwest Michigan has seen a net gain of about 37,000 jobs, and he says his group's efforts are one of the contributing factors in job growth.

"We were formed under the belief that the greatest force for change is a job," Kitchens says.

Southwest Michigan First was one of the first privately-funded economic development organizations in the country, according to Kitchens. Initially, its service area was a few counties, Kalamazoo County among them. Today, its reach extends to seven counties. Half of its funding is contributions from about 150 companies, foundations and individuals, Kitchens says. The rest is earned income from fees charged for leadership development programs, and consulting work done for businesses, municipalities and organizations, particularly ones focused on economic development. 

Each year, Kitchens says Southwest Michigan First staff interacts with close to 350 companies outside of Michigan in hopes of luring them here. Then it makes another 800 contacts with existing companies in the region to help grow jobs. Once near the bottom tier among 14 similarly situated regions nationally in terms of job creation, Southwest Michigan currently ranks third, according to Kitchens.  

In recent years, leadership development programming has been added to SWMF's mission. For about six years, Kitchens says Southwest Michigan First has offered Catalyst University in Kalamazoo, a day and a half of training with "thought leaders." The next conference is Jan. 26, 2017. Southwest Michigan First has a number of other training and mentoring programs as well, including some held in other cities. Annually, roughly 6,000 people go through its various programs, Kitchens says. It also has leadership-oriented podcasts and blogs.

"We are Miracle Grow for companies, individuals and communities," Kitchens says.

Much of what Southwest Michigan First does is conducted behind-the-scenes, ranging from recruiting companies and assisting in site location to helping "change the environment for tax structures," Kitchens says. 

Kitchens says Southwest Michigan First has partnered on many of the area's major projects, such as Midlink Business Park in Kalamazoo, Kalamazoo Valley Community College's M-TEC Center, the Western Michigan University Business Technology and Research Park, and the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center on WMU's Parkview campus, to name a few.

WestSouthwest airs today (10/17) at 9:30 a.m., with a rebroadcast at 3:30 p.m.