Supporters back economic district plan

ESCANABA – Local supporters of an economic development district in the Central Upper Peninsula are excited about legislation underway to achieve that goal. A Senate hearing on the proposals took place at Escanaba City Hall Thursday.

Among those in attendance were Escanaba City Manager Jim O’Toole and Marquette City Manager Bill Vajda who have been spearheading the campaign. They were all smiles as they shook each others’ hands after the three-hour hearing where nothing but support was voiced.

“I firmly believe that the collaboration between the various units of government in Delta County and Marquette County… will align our region with the state’s economic development strategy,” stated O’Toole in his testimony before the Senate Economic Development Committee.

He added that the proposed partnership will “aid in promoting a vibrant manufacturing, medical, forest products, mining, power and transportation base.”

Two Senate bills, introduced by Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba), propose to amend the law to develop a sixth economic development district in the state that would be tailored to Delta and Marquette counties.

Currently, there are five “Next Michigan Development Districts” in metropolitan areas downstate that have formed corporations to encourage economic growth with the assistance of state funding and tax incentives.

According to O’Toole, the local partnership would have the business base of its combined population, workforce, resources and transportation services to seek economic development opportunities from the state.

“While Delta and Marquette counties are some of the U.P.’s largest – serving over 50 percent of the Upper Peninsula’s population – I believe it is time that the families, businesses, schools, and residents are rewarded by creating a level playing field which will generate jobs, increase economic activity, increase output for this state, increase educational opportunities, and become even more sustainable for future generations,” O’Toole stated.

The city of Escanaba has much to contribute towards the potential economic development district, he added.

“With over 600 businesses located within the Escanaba city limits, I am proud to say that even through the worst economic times, the hard-working people of Escanaba have proven their resilience, fortitude, and prowess which I firmly believe has demonstrated significant economic strides and notoriety,” he stated.

Marquette City Manager Vajda described Thursday’s Senate hearing as an “unprecedented moment.”

“What we’re seeing today is corporate representatives and municipal representatives coming together to stop going backwards and moving forward… for our own economic growth and the state’s economic growth,” Vajda told the Senate committee.

Vajda added, by going beyond individual economic development “committees,” an economic development “district” can provide the framework for communities to work together to take advantage of state programs.

By municipalities pulling their weight together, the district can determine common needs, set priorities, and plan what’s best for the region, creating a “very strong symbiosis,” he said.

Casperson offered background on the Senate bills. He said Marquette and Escanaba city officials began working on the possibility of an economic strategy in the two counties.

Local officials and Michigan Economic Development Corporation representatives talked to legislators to form proposals for a strong partnership of communities working together rather than separately, explained Casperson.

“I’m proud to be here and be a part of it,” Casperson told the Senate committee. “We can work together where it’s important for our region.”

Rep. John Kivela (D-Marquette) said he and Rep. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) introduced similar bills in the House.

“We’ve never had this type of cooperation between counties,” stated Kivela, adding it’s a “wonderful opportunity” for the region to share airports, railways and waterways for the purpose of economic growth.

Gladstone City Manager Darla Falcon described an economic development district in the U.P. as “one of the best investments the state could make.”

The district could foster an environment for long-term success for the Central U.P. and the entire peninsula, she added.

Bay College President Laura Coleman described the proposed partnership between the two counties as “historic,” “monumental,” and “exciting.” In addition to economic development, she expects the venture to also bring educational and social growth to the region.

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Jenny Lancour, (906) 786-2021, ext. 143,