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Opinion | In St. Clair County, community leaders are working together

Even though we have made so much progress as a state, there’s still a question we hear from across Michigan, “How can we do a better job of working together?”

Jeff Bohm and Josh Chapman
Jeff Bohm is chair of the St. Clair County Commission and owner of Viking Fitness Centers. Josh Chapman is president and CEO of the YMCA of the Blue Water Area.

We think we have figured a lot of that out in St. Clair County and we welcome the chance to share it with regions within the state struggling with a lack of cohesion. This is why 14 members of our community, representing business, government and nonprofits, will attend the Mackinac Policy Conference May 30th-June 1st and appreciate the Conference’s 2023 theme, “The Power of &,” which seeks to bring factions of Michigan together around common problem solving.

Here in The Bluewater Area, that is not just catchy event marketing. We’re bringing together diverse voices to focus on accomplishing common goals.

We think the two of us serve as a prime example. We are a Gen X part-time elected official and a full-time business owner and a millennial nonprofit organization head. From the outside, we do not have much in common. But when it came time to figure out the public-partnership that turned into The Eddy Center in St. Clair – a former school turned business and community hub – we quickly got aligned. The mixed-use building now includes our region’s largest daycare center, which would have never happened if we had each looked the other way.

The Eddy also includes a senior center and community kitchen, in addition to the space for small businesses. Only together, can a community determine how to best move forward with ambitious plans for redevelopment. We believe this should be a model for repurposing unused buildings across Michigan: Gather voices from across the community, listen to their ideas and build unique to your community’s needs.

Just up the road, Port Huron took an inclusive approach with its new $12 million-plus repurposing of what had been a vacant building in that downtown. Now, it features housing, entertainment, retail and food, after receiving support from the private sector, public funds and foundation dollars. It’s a one-of-a-kind building designed with the particular community’s needs and desires in mind.

What started in 2009 as an economic development strategy, our community’s Blue Meets Green initiative is now a way of life for government, philanthropy and business. We focus on working together to define problems, getting the right expertise in the room (which is always a “safe space” for honest discussion) and forming the right partnerships. Importantly, partisan politics are barely, if ever, mentioned. The shared motto is “we do what we need to do to get things done.” Our focus is on collaboration and action. While that seems so simple, it has proven challenging for so many parts of Michigan.

We encourage others to be intentional about including diverse thinking in projects, including diversity in culture, age, geography, socio-economic status and sector of employment. Also, prioritize long-term thinking – 10 to 20 years out – including factors like housing stock and infrastructure, in decision making.

The entire community decided to prioritize making the area welcoming for young professionals, particularly those who grew up in our area. Incrementally, that shared goal has proven successful, as new economic development comes to the region, young professionals follow. We have a new example in our county – auto supplier Magna’s Electric Vehicle Structures Project, which includes nearly 1000 new jobs, many of which are going to skilled professionals who grew up nearby and are coming back to build their careers and families. The state has the potential, particularly with creative yet practical incentives to address the financial realities of the younger members of the workforce, to expand more broadly on our progress.

To see how “The Power of &” works today, with real intersections between diverse thinking in business, government and philanthropy, creates opportunities for growth and a more secure future, come see us sometime, near the intersection I-94 and I-69. We believe that this power can transform communities because, in this county, it has.

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Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact David Zeman. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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