Incubating success

Brian DeLong pauses inside the Business Center of Southwestern Michigan, a business incubator in Dowagiac. The large building once housed a large manufacturer that closed in 2008.

DOWAGIAC — Brian DeLong is passionate about Dowagiac and Southwest Michigan, whether it’s economic development and attracting more people to the area, or serving people’s spiritual needs as a minister.

A native of Benton Harbor, DeLong and his family moved to Texas during his youth when his parents were downsized from their jobs at Clark Equipment and Whirlpool. He came back to the area in 1990 and settled in Dowagiac to raise his family.

As he does now, he wore two hats back then: working both as a minister and in business. He worked for National Copper Products in the human resources field, and was there when it closed in 2008 at the height of the recession. He was also the pastor of the Apostolic Lighthouse church just outside of Dowagiac.

“I was a full-time evangelist when I was younger and that brought me back here,” DeLong said. “I was the lead pastor at the Apostolic Lighthouse in Dowagiac and then I started working at National Copper.”

“My life is serving the Lord in whatever capacity I can,” he added. “He’s placed me in business and in ministries. I try to use the skills he gave me. I feel blessed and favored.”

He is currently an assistant minister at the Apostolic Tabernacle on Greenly Avenue in Benton Harbor, where he teaches Sunday school and regularly preaches. “I’m not the pastor but an assistant. My goal is to help churches grow,” he said. “I’m doing the same thing I do for businesses in the church world. At the end of the day, people are people.”

It was his faith in what could be that led him to approach the owners of Prairie Ronde Realty, when National Copper closed, with his idea of using the building as a business incubator. Prairie Ronde Realty had been and continues to be the owner of the property on West Prairie Ronde, next to the railroad tracks.

“The company left and I was trying to figure out what to do,” he said. “There were 14 acres under roof here and nothing in it. I saw a lot of downsizing and closings going on and I thought we could be part of the problem or part of the solution. I wanted to find a way to help new and existing businesses.

“At the end with National Copper, I was helping employees transition and one day I was just coming through the building and I felt the Lord popped the idea into my head,” he said. “There was all this space and people losing their jobs who could be entrepreneurs.

“I presented my idea to the owners of the property and they were receptive,” he said. “They gave me a trial period to see if it would work. We took a year to get the building ready and plan what we wanted to do. We divided the building into suites and started marketing it.”

DeLong credits his human resources background for the success of what is now called the Business Center of Southwestern Michigan. “I began working with business partners to assist them and connect them with what they need,” he said. “That was 20 businesses ago, a majority of them start-ups. We continue to plug away.”

The Business Center isn’t a true incubator, in that it doesn’t get government funding and it doesn’t kick out businesses after two years. “What we do have is a rail spur, a dock for semis, fork and aerial lifts and other services. We offer flexibility and consulting and professional services.”

Currently, the Business Center is home to diverse businesses ranging from light industrial and manufacturing, to commercial and professional services. It has space for more companies. The entire site is 34.5 acres, with 15 acres of new development space available. “The center lets them get into business, be productive and not have overhead costs,” he said.

“We continue to have people wanting to come,” he added. “The internet has made the world small. You can be in a hub and do business transactions with more affordable costs without the Chicago ZIP code. Southwest Michigan is an attractive place, as we have a large population within 600 miles in the Midwest.”

“Now that we have a collection of diverse businesses, we are trying to land one or two larger manufacturers and warehouse distribution businesses, shops that need 150,000 to 200,000 square feet,” he said. “It’s like with fishing. At first you start catching those at the size limit. As your bucket gets full, you hold out for bigger fish even if it takes longer.”

DeLong remains optimistic about the Dowagiac area’s future and says that its manufacturing days aren’t over. For example, he says business is booming in nearby Elkhart County. “Elkhart is busting at the seams and we could catch some of that,” he said. “Twenty percent of Cass residents are driving to Elkhart for work.”

Although his focus is on Dowagiac, he works with other area economic development organizations to strengthen the area and would like to do more. For example, he envisions working with Southwestern Michigan College to give students a chance to test out their entrepreneurial ideas.

Outside work, he likes playing baseball and softball, along with traveling. He also does hobby building and has taken part in a “church in a day” project, in which volunteers built a church in Decatur a few years ago. “I’ve been able to do projects for churches and people,” he said.

While he’s years away from retiring, he can see himself continuing what he does now. That is, he’d like to be a consultant and lend his expertise to help both businesses and churches grow. He and his wife, Tami, a Niles-area funeral director, have three children, the youngest just out of high school.