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MLIVE: Southwest Michigan First contracted to do economic development for St. Joseph County

1/5/12

KALAMAZOO — Southwest Michigan First has been contracted to provide economic development services in St. Joseph County.

The regional economic development organization signed a pact Tuesday with the St. Joseph County Economic Development Corp., effective Feb. 1.

“They made a decision as a county,” said Ron Kitchens, CEO of Southwest Michigan First. “They wanted to amplify their economic development efforts and they approached us about building stronger partnerships. … Now we'll be a fully integrated partnership.”

Southwest Michigan First is looking to open offices in Three Rivers and Sturgis in order to better serve St. Joseph County.

The St. Joseph County Economic Development Corp. has an office in Centreville and has been led by CEO Cathy Knapp, who is currently the sole employee of the economic development corporation. She started with the organization in 2004 as a project manager and was named executive director in 2006. She is expected to continue with the organization as part of SWMF.

The work of the Centreville office is likely to be done at the other two locations, which are business centers from the county. Kitchens said additional staff is being hired to join Knapp.

“It's a great move for our organization,” said St. Joseph County EDC board member David Allen, who is vice president of Midwest Energy Cooperative in Cassopolis. “It increases our capacity to get things going.”

Kitchens said his organization has worked for years on an as-needed basis to help business recruitment and development efforts in St. Joseph County. He said the county as a great business environment, with potential to look into northern Indiana for business opportunities. Among the counties large employers are American Axle & Manufacturing and Armstrong International.

In an effort to boost its effectiveness throughout the region, Southwest Michigan First is looking to have at least two private-sector business people from each county in the region on its board of directors. Over the next six months, that could swell the 19-member board to more than 30 members.

“Really what we want to do is we're amalgamating to our strengths,” Kitchens said. “The more diverse we are in terms of geography and knowledge, the stronger we'll be.”

Included will be representation for Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, St. Joseph and Van Buren counties as well as Kalamazoo County.

By Al Jones

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