As the interim president of Muskegon Area First, there’s a lot on Darryl Todd’s plate. Think: propelling countywide growth in an economy that’s undergoing significant change. Helping companies to transfer here. Working with existing businesses to find and retain employees while facing a daunting statewide skills gap. And a whole lot more.
It’s a complex landscape Todd is navigating as the head of the 20-year-old countywide nonprofit dedicated to supporting and growing the region’s businesses and economy, but there’s something driving him that, when you get down to it, is fairly simple: there’s no place like home.
“I left Muskegon for about 20 years, and I remember, when I was away, I’d think, ‘man, something is missing,” Todd said. “I’d come back home, go to Lake Michigan and say, ‘Ah, that’s what’s missing.”
It’s this experience, this departure and return, that’s helping to inform the conversations he’s now having with others contemplating moving to Muskegon—again or for the first time.
“We know we’re not like Chicago or New York, where college graduates say, ‘When I graduate, I’m going to Muskegon,’” said Todd, who’s been with Muskegon Area First for close to four years and has been the interim president since 2017. “But we try to get people to know the bang for the buck you get living here versus Chicago or New York. People are excited and want to hear about what’s happening in Muskegon; we’re happy to tell those stories. The affordability, the natural resources, the being able to be involved in a community that’s growing—all of that is drawing people here.”
Todd, who grew up in Muskegon Heights and now lives in Norton Shores, knows this narrative well: after all, he’s lived it. He knows what it is to leave his hometown to study and live elsewhere, residing in places like Detroit, Grand Rapids and Flint. He knows the pull home. And he knows the region’s economy like the back of his hand, not just because he leads Muskegon Area First, but because he himself has witnessed the area’s ups and downs. He grew up in Muskegon Heights in the 1960s and 70s; he remembers a Muskegon Heights buzzing with commercial activity and he’s seen the disinvestment in his home city. Too, as a child, he saw his father navigate a manufacturing landscape that paid well but which was often exhausting. His father, who left Arkansas and made his way to Muskegon, worked at the Campbell, Wyatt and Cannon Foundry [CWC] in Muskegon Heights, one of the largest companies to ever operate in this area.
“His car would have all the remnants of his job; it was a dirty job,” Todd said. “Manufacturing has changed. Today, I see people going into factories, and they’re dressed nice and the pay is still good. We can easily see where the pay rate is increasing; manufacturing is on par with white collar positions.”
All of this translates to a simultaneously academic and personal approach when it comes to Muskegon County’s economy. In the same breath,Todd is happy to rattle off statistics about economic growth and speak of a childhood framed by the Muskegon Heights of decades ago. He’s deeply invested in this area, both because of his job and because this is his home. He lives here; he’s raised three kids here; he works here; he plays here.
With an understanding of both Muskegon’s successes and challenges, the Muskegon Area First leader is embracing and tackling a diversifying economy—a landscape that’s shifting from being dominated by manufacturing to being populated by manufacturing, retail, healthcare, and tourism.
“Back when I was growing up, manufacturing was huge,” Todd said. “We’ve seen a lot of manufacturing go away. Manufacturing represents about 21 percent of our economic base in Muskegon—before, it was more than half.”
In addition to manufacturing making up 21 percent of the county’s economy, health and education jobs constitute about 18 percent, retail jobs are 21 percent, and tourism jobs come in at 11 percent.
“We have a manufacturing base that’s gone away, but manufacturing is still here to stay,” he continued. “We’re trying to help manufacturers here to grow and expand, and we’ve seen quite a bit of that. Muskegon County has a number of world-class manufacturers here. We have world-class companies here.”
Attracting companies to Muskegon & facing the skills gap
To grow and diversify the business landscape here, Muskegon Area First centers a good chunk of its focus on business retention and expansion—and Todd noted the nonprofit has significantly ramped up these efforts in recent years.
“We really focus on working on projects; I remember when I first came on to Muskegon Area First, we had about 20 active projects,” Todd said, referring to initiatives to grow and attract businesses. “We have about 35 to 40 projects now that we’re managing that are all in various stages. Typically, at any given point in time, we’re managing about 35 projects.”
For example, Muskegon Area First recently worked with Fruitport-based Motion Dynamics, a high tech company undergoing a $2.7 million expansion which is now looking to hire 80 new employees.
“Manufacturing has really changed; the talent demands of the jobs have changed,” Todd said, referring to the kinds of positions Motion Dynamics and similar companies offer. “These jobs require you to know algebra; you need to have advanced skills to do the jobs. That’s not going away.”
This growing demand for skilled workers is presenting significant challenges to employers, here in Muskegon County and across the state. While there are available jobs in the county and Michigan, employers are having a difficult time finding individuals with the skills needed to fill the positions, economic leaders have noted for years. According to Michigan’s Department of Talent and Economic Development, more than 800,000 high-demand jobs connected to professional trades will be created through the year 2024. But these positions, worth some $49 billion in earnings, are far outpacing the number of state residents with the skills needed to fill them, according to state officials.
“We go out and talk to companies day in and day out to help them overcome challenges; the biggest thing they’re facing, no matter what company we go to, is talent,” Todd said. “It’s a huge thing.”
“With the lack of talent, companies are telling me, ‘We have the opportunity to grow, but we’re limited,'” he continued. “This whole talent thing is crucial.”
To address the skills gap, Todd noted that 20 Muskegon County companies recently landed more than $1 million in state funding for job training programs. The financial award now paves the way for hundreds of new hires and trainees. Additionally, Muskegon Area First is working with companies to develop internship programs.
“We’re exploring some initiatives working with K-12 to help increase career awareness with students,” Todd said.
Supporting minority- and women-led businesses
Business owners of color have long faced daunting barriers to success in the region, including limited access to capital to launch and maintain businesses—something that Muskegon Area First, among other area organizations, are working hard to change, Todd noted.
“The first thing we need to do is go in and listen to what their needs are; people from the outside will have ideas about what local businesses need and not consider what people there want,” Todd said, referring to disenfranchised communities. “We know capital is always a need. We know there are a number of creative solutions available these days to help people who are in minority- or women-led businesses, or other businesses that need assistance with capital.”
Frequently, Muskegon Area First will connect business owners they’re working with to organizations like GROW, which is able to offer funding to individuals who have been denied traditional financing.
As the county grows, Todd and Muskegon Area First want to ensure that communities that have faced disinvestment, such as Muskegon Heights, are empowered and able to take advantage of an expanding economy.
“We need people involved and engaged so they’re poised to take advantage of the growth that’s to come,” Todd said. “We’re working with local community business leaders to provide those tools. We need to make sure business leaders in underserved communities are ready to take advantage of the economy.”
Specific efforts to connect underserved communities with resources include a recent business planning class offered in Muskegon Heights on Feb. 7. Howard Meade, a counselor for SCORE, a nonprofit that offers free business mentoring, and Chef Damon Covington, the owner of G-55 Catering, led the event.
In addition to access to capital, Muskegon Heights Mayor Kimberley Sims told the Muskegon Times in a previous interview that she would like to see a business incubator (think something akin to the Muskegon Innovation Hub in downtown Muskegon) open in her city.
Additionally, the mayor stressed that she would like to see already existing economic development organizations coming into Muskegon Heights more frequently.
“Organizations need to be willing to go outside of their own geographical boundaries,” Sims said in the previous interview. “As a whole, Muskegon County is only going to be as vibrant as each municipality, each city, is. If we can’t figure out how to build an equitable economic mobility in Muskegon Heights, the county is going to suffer.”
This, Todd said, is exactly what organizations like SCORE and the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce are working to do.
“The Chamber of Commerce is getting involved with the city of Muskegon Heights to help businesses become more familiar with what’s happening with the county at large and to make them aware of the resources that are available,” Todd said.
The future of Muskegon Area First
As Muskegon Area First celebrates its 20th birthday this year, the nonprofit is looking to restructure its makeup in order to evolve with the area, Todd said. Part of this change includes potentially adding more business leaders to the board “so they can help direct programming and initiatives that will better serve the community,” Todd said.
“I’ve been working with consultants and others to determine what our board should look like to better serve the community,” Todd said. “We’re in the process of walking through those steps to figure out what we want our board to look like. We’re looking forward to strengthening Muskegon Area First and being able to provide some initiatives and programming that will really be a benefit to the community.”
Currently, 18 individuals sit on the nonprofit’s board. Organizations represented on the board include DTE Energy, Consumers Energy, the Chamber of Commerce, Muskegon Community College, Northern Machine Tool Co., Hazekamp’s Premier Foods, and Nichols Paper & Supply Co. Municipalities represented on the board include: the city of Muskegon, Muskegon Heights, Fruitport, Blue Lake Township, Roosevelt Park, the city of Whitehall, Whitehall Township, and Laketon Township.
“We’re seeing so much phenomenal growth here, and we’re excited to continue to be a part of that,” Todd said.