Chamber Alliance sets agenda

ALPENA — There are certain things the state can do to encourage developers to build in rural parts of the state.

It could sweeten tax credits for developers who choose rural areas, invest more heavily in employable talent, or help provide funding for needed infrastructure, from high-speed internet to housing.

One of the ways officials at the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce has worked to stimulate the economy in Northeast Michigan and further the needs of local businesses is through its involvement with the Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance.

The Chamber Alliance — comprised of nine chambers of commerce representing 14 counties and nearly 8,000 members of northern Michigan’s business community — recently released its agenda for 2019 and 2020: The group seeks to increase economic development by focusing on rural business development, attracting talent to rural areas, housing development for small cities and rural areas, and improving access to quality child care.

Jackie Krawczak, president and CEO of the Alpena chamber, said those four topics are the most important issues facing the health of the overall economy and business communities in northern Michigan.

“These are the topics that come up again and again with our members as issues they are struggling with,” she said in an email to The News. “And what we find is that, often, when solutions are proposed to deal with these issues, they are a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, even though rural northern Michigan is much different than other parts of the state.”

State Rep. Sue Allor, R-Wolverine, who represents Northeast Michigan, said she understands the challenges small, rural communities face when trying to advance development. She said many of the ideas the Chamber Alliance has set as goals are worthy of attention in Lansing, but tackling the issues small communities face will take more than just action at the state level.

“I’m always in support of bringing more resources and services to Northeast Michigan, and these things can be accomplished though community action, partnering with businesses and various agencies, and sound policy at the local and state level,” Allor said. “I look forward to joining with my colleagues and leaders in the area to discuss how we can best achieve these goals.”

The Alpena chamber became a member of the alliance in 2008. Over the past decade, Krawczak said the alliance has grown in its effectiveness.

“We are quite proud of how far we have come,” she said in the email. “We have weighed in on some important topics, helping to influence decisions.”

Six of the nine chambers –Alpena, Benzie, Traverse City, Petoskey, Charlevoix and the Lake Superior Community Partnership in Marquette County — have spent a combined $78,753 on lobbying since 2004, according to disclosure records available through the Michigan Secretary of State. It appeared the other chambers –Cadillac, Gaylord and Mainstee –were not registered lobbyists.

The alliance has weighed in on the school start date, equitable funding for schools, and bringing greater attention and awareness to northern Michigan.

One example of how the Chamber Alliance weighed in to keep jobs in the region was its opposition to a bill introduced last year that would have given bidder preference on state contracts to the Detroit Salt Co., whose mine is in Detroit but whose business is based in Canada. The alliance joined chambers around in the state in stopping the bill from passing.

“We have dozens of jobs in the alliance footprint that exist because of the salt distribution up here,” Krawczak said. “That salt does not come from the Detroit salt mine. If the bill had been passed, it would have created an unfair advantage for one company over another and likely would have cost northern lower Michigan several good jobs.”

State Sen. Jim Stamas, R-Midland, who represents Northeast Michigan, said he has worked with the Chamber Alliance for years. Over that time, the alliance has lobbied for many things he believes have helped the northern region of the state, he said.

Stamas said getting the needed legislation crafted and passed takes time and is always ongoing. Like Allor, Stamas said making significant change requires buy-in from many at the state and local level.

Stamas said he would like to see increased availability of high-speed internet in rural areas, setting school start dates after Labor Day, and improving infrastructure beyond roads.

“It is always a continuous process to build upon what we have already done,” he said. “Working with the alliance, which provides representation from a diverse group of issues from across the north, helps us gauge what is needed to help them. We always talk about groups working together and I think they are a good example of it. The different perspectives they are able to provide us really helps. There is always more to do work to do.”

Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpeanews.com. Crystal Nelson can be reached at 989-358-5687 or cnelson@thealpenanews.com.