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Battle Creek merger kept Kellogg popping

Battle Creek is unequivocally the "Cereal City." But relations between the city and Kellogg Co. -- its largest employer -- haven’t always been as sweet as a bowl of Froot Loops.

In the early 1980s, Kellogg threatened to pack up its cereal boxes and leave town unless the city and Battle Creek Township merged. didn’t merge. Kellogg said the two units needed to combine to form a more cost-efficient local government. The company said being located in a single community of 55,000 residents, rather than a city of 35,000 people and an adjoining township of 20,000, would help Kellogg and Battle Creek attract new workers.

Voters approved the merger in 1982 after a divisive campaign. Opponents of the measure called it "corporate blackmail" by a company that was practically synonymous with Battle Creek since 1906. For decades, the company’s marketing slogan was "Kellogg’s of Battle Creek."

But the city-township merger, as painful as it was at the time, has paid off handsomely in the form of new jobs and investment by Kellogg.

"Kellogg gave the community a choice. It said it could no longer be competitive under the current structure. The community answered the call," said Jim Hettinger, who was president, at the time, of Battle Creek Unlimited, a local economic development agency.

At the time of the merger election, Kellogg had about 700 employees in Battle Creek. Today it employs 2,000 people, many of whom work at the company’s downtown headquarters, which opened in 1986.

In 1997, Kellogg opened its $75 million W.K. Kellogg Institute for Food and Nutrition Research, which has since undergone a $54 million expansion. Kellogg also purchased Chicago-based Keebler Foods Co. in 2001 for $4.56 billion. In February, Kellogg announced it was purchasing Procter & Gamble’s Pringle’s business for $2.7 billion.

"They’ve brought all the Keebler people here. Hopefully they’ll do the same with the Pringle’s people," said Hettinger, who’s a senior adviser to Battle Creek Unlimited.

Battle Creek’s cereal heritage, which also includes Post Foods and Ralston Foods, has helped the city transform itself into a food science and research center.

The Global Food Protection Institute was created in 2009 with partial funding from the Kellogg Foundation. It operates a training institute for food inspectors from around the world and runs a business incubator for start-up companies in the areas of public health and food safety.

"We have a global food processing system," Hettinger said. "It’s wise to assure a safe food supply."

Much of this new activity is taking place in the once moribund downtown area, which is undergoing a planned, long-term $85 million restoration.

Kellogg Co. and the Kellogg Foundation are financing much of the revitalization effort, which is restoring some snap, crackle and pop to the city’s image.

Rick Haglund has had a distinguished career covering Michigan business, economics and government at newspapers throughout the state. Most recently, at Booth Newspapers he wrote a statewide business column and was one of only three such columnists in Michigan. He also covered the auto industry and Michigan’s economy extensively.

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