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Bootstrapping Economic Development

In Hillman, self-reliance sparks job-creating edge

December 19, 2002 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Surplus heat and steam from Hillman’s wood-burning power plant will be used by a new aquaculture company to produce yellow perch. Plans are in the works for a greenhouse, a plant nursery, and even a microbrewery to market products under the North Country Pride label.

HILLMAN, MI -- This town of 700 people in the land of elk herds and vast state forests is not a place where you find Saks Fifth Avenue catalogs on inlaid maple coffee tables. Rather, people in this northeast Michigan community receive lots of sweepstakes entry forms in the mail. Why? Because marketing research shows more than half of the population is likely to be older and white, earn an average $18,000 a year, read True Story, and purchase chewing tobacco. They fit into a marketing category that some research companies actually call “hardscrabble,” households that believe Ed McMahon might just show up with a big fat check.

But the New York-based market research firms that dreamed up “hardscrabble” are off the mark. “Bootstrapping” is more to the point in this rural community that is beginning to build new wealth from its own resources rather than waiting for big employers that may never come. More so than any other small city in northern Michigan, Hillman is now marketing itself as an innovative incubator for environmentally-sensitive businesses, and the host of one of the Midwest’s only “eco-industrial” parks.

Not Wasting Energy
The park’s center is the community’s wood-burning power plant. For years the locally-owned Precision Millworks Company has used the plant’s surplus heat to power high-efficiency, wood-drying kilns that produce higher value wood products. Now that same heat and steam will be deployed by a new aquaculture company to produce commercial quantities of yellow perch.  The company projects making an $8 million start-up investment and employing 30 people in three to five years. Plans also are in the works for a greenhouse, a plant nursery, and even a microbrewery at Hillman’s eco-industrial park, which could employ 120 to 150 people.

“You all are really leading the way in Michigan,” Rex LaMore, director of Michigan State University’s Community Economic Development Program, told a group of regional leaders, residents, and agency officials earlier this month at a sustainable development conference in Hillman. National experts agree and tout Hillman as an emerging model for rural sustainable development.

The job and business creation now taking shape in this small town is measured not only in dollars but also in civic vitality and the preservation of local resources, including the region’s natural beauty. As more communities struggle with the fallout of economic recession, Hillman’s experience developing homegrown entrepreneurs offers a guiding light to those seeking stability in rocky times.

Nature is Business Friendly
One critical factor in Hillman’s business plan is to work with nature instead of against it. That’s what makes the symbiotic relationships between businesses as disparate as a fish farm and a power company feasible. It’s part of a new wave of “green” business development across Michigan and the nation. Even the Ford Motor Company is investing $2 billion to modernize its Rouge River manufacturing plant in Dearborn, including planting a grass roof to cool and insulate a vehicle assembly building.

Such ideas have really taken root in Hillman. Economic leaders here are considering constructing greenhouses that would use fertilizer from Sunrise Aquaculture fish farm. They also are proposing to build food-processing facilities that would use and add value to products grown in the greenhouse, as well as process meat from an existing local cooperative of natural beef producers. The facilities workers could finish their days at the microbrewery.

The community has even developed a label, North Country Pride, to promote local products produced in the eco-park. And they might sell their wares at the Brush Creek Grist Mill, a historical site the group is working to develop into an arts and crafts tourist attraction. Much of the energy and brains behind the work are the result of a creative collaboration of local citizens, the Northeast Michigan Council of Governments, Michigan State University Extension, and the nonprofit Northern Innovative Communities initiative.

“There’s more happening here than a lot of areas across the country with similar economic and environmental contexts,” said eco-industrial park developer Corey Brinkema, of Minneapolis-based Trillium Planning and Development, who spoke at the conference. Mr. Brinkema described a number of eco-industrial parks across the country, adding that the Hillman area already has in place many of the secrets of such ventures’ success: vision, commitment, and creativity.

Atlanta Listens
Hillman’s success with sustainable development — building an economically successful community where people take care of the environment and each other — is catching on with neighboring towns as well. In Atlanta, for example, half an hour west of Hillman, residents are rallying around plans to turn a vacant school building into a small business incubator and community enrichment center. A central focus is the support and development of home-based businesses, which provide some of the greatest opportunities in the new “knowledge economy” for northeast lower Michigan families to make a living where they want to live.

Mr. Brinkema is working with Michigan State University extension agents, the council of governments, and the community to turn the Atlanta school building’s empty halls into a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity. The center will provide shared clerical and other administrative services, for example, to the small businesses it aims to nourish.  “We really want to help out the cottage industries that are developing in this region,” says Tom Edison, a prominent conservationist in the region and business development specialist. 

Jack Matthias, a local resort developer and an investor in the Sunrise Aquaculture plan, believes in the sustainable future the region is envisioning. He’s seen it work, both in what Hillman has accomplished lately and over the last 20 years of community-focused development. “When I moved here in 1965, most everybody drove to Alpena to work,” he said, referring to the industrial city along the coast of Lake Huron, 25 miles east.  “Now we have more jobs in the Village of Hillman than we have population.”

Many of those jobs are at a community-owned medical clinic that village residents built. Other jobs are at retail and service businesses, such as gas stations and clothing stores, which exist because Hillman does more than merely function as a bedroom community for distant, larger, less isolated towns.

Creating local jobs and businesses builds the kind of community wealth and civic pride that translates into well-maintained homes, caring neighbors, and strong families, says Hillman Village manager Dave Post. It’s worth more than just the tax base that businesses provide, he says. “If you’re working in Alpena, and your husband is working in Gaylord, who’s around when your kids get home?” he asks. “It makes your family situation better.”
Patty Cantrell, an economist and journalist, manages the New Entrepreneurial Agriculture project at the Michigan Land Use Institute. To reach her write patty@mlui.org. For more information on New Entrepreneurial Agriculture see the Farmland Protection section of the Institute's Web site.

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