PAW PAW — Van Buren County is positioned to experience substantial economic development over the coming years.
That’s according to a report by Zachary Morris, executive director of Market Van Buren and Kinexus.
On Tuesday, Morris gave both an oral and a 35-page written background report dubbed the Economic Development Improvement Plan on what the two organizations have been doing. He also summarized what he sees in the pipeline for the future – millions of dollars of investment producing hundreds of jobs.
Economic development, according to Morris, is “the connection between talent, business and community.”
“If these three are not in balance they start to fall apart from each other,” Morris told Van Buren County commissioners.
Although often described as rural, Van Buren County actually has a diverse economy with both large and small industries. The top industry is retail trade, representing 14.8 percent of the work force, followed by health care at 11.4 percent, manufacturing at 11.1 percent, arts and entertainment at 10.6 percent and accommodation and food services at 9.8 percent.
Twenty-six businesses responded to a recent survey, and 11 of them said their main impediment to growth is finding labor. Eight reported that competition was their largest problem and three cited government regulations.
“The majority of business (13),” the report said, “stated that it has been somewhat difficult to attract new, qualified employees. An additional five firms said it was extremely difficult.”
As of July, Van Buren County had an unemployment rate of 2.6 percent. This implies, the report said, “there is a substantial shortage of labor in the county.” According to federal statistics, the county “is operating well above full employment.”
The county has a number of competitive advantages, including proximity to markets, highways and railroads. There’s also space. Kalamazoo, Morris told commissioners, is built-out. “That’s good news for us,” Morris said.
Among the downsides is the pending closure of the Palisades nuclear plant, with the resulting layoffs.
The Economic Development Improvement Plan has four major recommendations. They are:
• Identify and retain qualified workforce talent.
• Expand the freight rail system.
• Improve the county’s housing stock.
• Seek grants to improve internet service to rural areas.
In other matters, commissioners formally adopted the 2019-20 general fund budget, which begins Oct. 1.
Revenues and expenditures are balanced at $24,049,140, with a projected fund balance of $6,532,980 at the end of the fiscal year.