CADILLAC – Eyes tend to get murky when officials start talking about organizations with boring and indescribable names, especially when those names are turned into acronyms that even less denote their local mission and accomplishments.
Despite its generic sounding name, the Alliance for Economic Success has a very specific mission for a very specific part of northern Michigan – one that has achieved real results for residents, visitors and businesses in the area over the course of for the past three years.
On a PowerPoint presentation highlighting the impact of AES since the founding of the organization, there is a statement that summarizes their goals.
“Fostering Collaboration to Build Prosperity in Rural Northern Michigan … AES provides the leadership to identify local priorities on which to build collaborations in order to enthusiastically promote community capital capacity building necessary for the development of sustainable and prosperous communities. We use our passion, diversity and humility to support these initiatives and provide honest and ethical practices in achieving our goals. “
That’s a lot of buzzwords and public relations jargon, but you start to get a feel for the real impact of the organization a few slides later when cold, hard data is presented.
In 2020, AES helped bring just over $ 1 million in grants and COVID relief dollars to 73 businesses and organizations in Wexford and Missaukee counties. Organizations that benefited from these grants included the American Legion Cadillac Post, After 26 Depot Cafe, Reedy’s Restaurant, Buckley Roadhouse, Boon Country Store, Duane’s Family Restaurant, and Three Oh Eight bar, among others.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Since its formation, the group has also led a number of studies examining various facets of the local economy, including the housing shortage, retail opportunities and strengths of Cadillac West and the Street Corridor. Mitchell. Along the way, the developers looked at these studies and used them to justify building several new businesses, including Cadillac Lofts, Jimmy John’s sandwich shop, and Long Road Distillers.
AES also helped the Wexford Civic Arena secure a grant from MNR to pay for a new heating and cooling system at the facility.
All of this work and more was done by AES part-time using a measly $ 50,000 per year in donations.
Three years ago, the AES Chapter in Wexford and Missaukee Counties was formed and funded by a group of industry leaders and community actors including Baker College, Wolverine Power Cooperative, Cadillac Casting, Munson Healthcare , Consumers Energy, Cadillac Downtown Fund, Cadillac Industrial Fund, VanDrie Home Furnishings, Rec Boat Holdings, Cadillac Chamber of Commerce and Chemical / TCF Bank.
Jeremy Winkle, owner of VanDrie Home Furnishings, said everyone involved in forming the group agreed there was a need for a more focused and unified approach to regional economic development, rather than everyone, including the municipalities of the region, fighting among themselves for limited resources and opportunities.
âIt seemed like we were all tripping over each other and worried about our own ground,â Winkle said.
When considering what type of organization to form, Winkle said he looked at the Alliance for Economic Success, which had been formed in Manistee County several years earlier. Baker College of Cadillac President Kelly Smith sat on the AES board of directors in Manistee and knew a lot about how it worked.
After the formation of the local, Manistee AES director Lisa Leedy began working in Wexford and Missaukee counties, and was the vision behind the Mitchell Street Corridor and Cadillac West Corridor studies.
But the AES is not limited to carrying out studies; When the COVID pandemic hit, the organization changed course to help businesses that have been affected by the lockdown, social distancing warrants and other restrictions.
Winkle said AES has guided business owners through the process of applying for financial assistance. They also participated in bi-weekly conference calls with community groups and officials to get a feel for who needed help most as the pandemic progressed. When it came time to distribute COVID relief aid, AES helped the Michigan Economic Development Corporation decide which local entities should receive funding.
AES ‘ability to scale quickly and apply its efforts to existing circumstances is crucial, Winkle said.
âIt’s situational,â Winkle said. âYou are always prioritizing and tracking the need. It’s a very collaborative process.
Winkle said their goal over the past three years has been to prove the value of AES in the hopes that municipalities will eventually join us and provide a more stable source of funding, especially now that the majority of their donations are made. have dried up.
They have decided to follow a long-term funding and operating model currently used by the Northern Lakes Economic Alliance, under which Michigan State University Extension provides the staff they need to run the organization, with funding provided in largely by municipalities such as towns, counties and communes.
âThis is the model they’re working on, and we figured out why reinventing the wheel? Said Winkle.
Under this agreement, MSUE will provide 20% of the funding and the community 60%. The remaining 20% ââof the funding will be covered by an annual donation of $ 25,000 for rent from Baker College of Cadillac to allow MSUE to use one of its existing facilities.
Last week, Winkle and other AES board members approached the town of Cadillac and asked for their help in continuing to run the organization.
With city council agreeing to be part of the organization, Winkle said they hoped Wexford and Missaukee counties would soon follow suit. He said they had had discussions with officials from both counties and would soon be speaking with officials from some of the larger townships in the region.
MSUE will be tasked with hiring a new AES director in the coming weeks, as Leedy recently resigned to take a position elsewhere. They hope to have a new director in place by next month.
Winkle said the future direction of the organization will depend to a large extent on the circumstances in which they find themselves.
For example, while it is possible that additional studies will be carried out on areas of economic importance, including housing, employment and child care, it is also possible that they will focus their immediate efforts on d ” other efforts such as leveraging what remains of federal funding from the CARES Act while it is still disbursed by the state.
Winkle said another major endeavor for the organization in the coming years will be educating businesses, nonprofits and developers about the programs and funding sources they can already take advantage of. An example would be programs that incent companies to help new employees build or secure housing, Winkle said.
One of the great advantages of having stable funding is being funded full time, whereas previously it was a part time entity. Winkle said this should translate into an even bigger impact on the community.
As to their vague identities, Winkle said they would like to rename the organization at some point to clarify its mission and how it relates specifically to Wexford and Missaukee counties, although he said that does not. would probably not include a name change, because AES did. started to develop recognition and respectability around the state.