SPARK gets down to business

Posted on March 25, 2013

Ann Arbor SPARK officials said they are on the verge of igniting some significant business activity in Livingston County.

In their first year of handling economic development for the county, SPARK officials said they have 20 projects in the pipeline that represent $40 million in investment and would create 434 jobs. The potential projects are from existing companies and some new ones. SPARK officials admitted not all the projects might happen, but they’re optimistic about the activity.

The first new project was announced Wednesday with Lake Trust Credit Union planning to construct a new, $30 million headquarters in Brighton Township.

“Ann Arbor SPARK has been working with Lake Trust since November and is thrilled that the company finalized its site selection in Livingston County,” SPARK President and CEO Paul Krutko said.

Krutko said SPARK marketed the county’s unique assets, including low cost of doing business, proximity to its employees and a beautiful parcel.

SPARK, an Ann Arbor-based economic-development organization, took over economic development for the county in 2012 as part of an agreement with the Economic Development Council of Livingston County. The county’s economic-development organization will pay SPARK $335,880 annually over a three-year period.

In addition, Krutko said, SPARK staff has met with local government officials, 60 local companies and handled 103 referrals from local companies. He said SPARK also is looking at possibly opening a SmartZone satellite office in Livingston.

“That’s a pretty good year,” Krutko said.

The SPARK staff handling the work in Livingston County are Phil Santer, senior business development manager, and Katrina Campos, business development coordinator.

Santer said he met with local government officials to understand their assets and how ready they are to receive a new project.

“You just want everybody to be on the same page,” Santer said.

When he met with officials from local companies, Santer said he discussed what their needs are and what services SPARK can provide, such as assessing capital programs or trying to connect them with local government.

Santer, who used to drive through Livingston County every day while commuting to Lansing, said it’s been exciting to learn about all the great companies here. He used to work for the state’s Michigan Economic Development Corp.

“It’s exciting to be able to go and see what’s happening in the private industry here,” Santer said.

Santer said the amount of foreign companies operating in the county helps when he talks with site selectors, individuals who locate sites for companies, and attends trade shows. Santer will be visiting a large trade show in Germany in April to try and attract foreign investment.

He said the $35 million investment by Thai Summit Ogihara, a major auto supplier in Howell, is a good example.

“You wouldn’t necessarily consider there’s going to be foreign investment in a place like Howell, Michigan, let alone from Thailand,” Santer said. “That’s a nice story.”

Santer said having existing foreign investment gives us more “quills and anecdotes” that can be shared as why Livingston is a good place to locate.

Mike Kennedy, chairman of the EDC board, said the county has had a much more coordinated effort on economic development since SPARK took over. He said this cooperation includes the Brighton and Howell chambers of commerce and the Michigan Small Business & Technology Development Center.

Kennedy said SPARK is helping provide access to state programs and funding to retain local companies, which is a key goal of economic development. He said helping local companies grow and stay competitive is a priority.

“Another thing we’re really excited about are the national and international connections of SPARK. That’s the sexy part of economic development,” Kennedy said.

He said Livingston County has great locations, a fantastic talent pool, great quality of life and a location near major markets.

Kennedy also said he’s excited about the county possibly becoming a satellite SmartZone office. He said such a zone allows for funds to be used to help launch new businesses.

He said this collaboration is “starting to get more legs this year,” and he’s excited about the 20 projects in the pipeline.

“I feel we’ve gotten more services than we anticipated,” Kennedy said.

Jim Totten, Daily Press & Argus.