The West Michigan Strategic Alliance (WMSA) went out of existence on December 31, 2014 at midnight after more than a decade of successfully initiating and completing major regional initiatives. I had the honor of serving as the third Chair of the WMSA Board of Directors and Executive Committee after Founding Chair Jim Brooks and Steve Heacock who succeeded Brooks.
I think the story of WMSA is worth telling as the organization set the table for future regional successes, even as it ended its existence. I first became involved with WMSA when I worked as Deputy County Administrator for Kent County and participated on the Technical Group and on the Governance Team. Shortly after assuming the County Administrator position for Ottawa County, Jim Brooks met with me and convinced me to become part of the WMSA Board of Directors. I served as Co- Vice-Chair with Nancy Crandall, former Norton Shores Mayor, and was asked to become Chair when Steve Heacock stepped down to run for Congress.
The West Michigan Strategic Alliance was launched in June 2000 by local philanthropist Jim Brooks and a diverse group of leaders from the private, public, and non-profit sectors. The group engaged more than 250 volunteers to develop the Common Framework – West Michigan. The document focused on cooperation and collaboration among business, non-profit organizations and governmental entities of the greater Grand Rapids, Muskegon, Holland area – or as it became known, The West Michigan Metro-Triplex. The Common Framework represented two years of objective data gathering, analysis, and strategic planning across ten essential areas: Environment, Economy, Education & Research, Health & Human Services, Tourism, Arts & Culture, Land Use, Infrastructure, Transportation/Logistics, and Governance.
This strategic planning process identified six priorities for regional collaboration:
- Create a Regional Mindset
- Foster a Prosperous Economy
- Strengthen Community through Diversity
- Ensure a Stable Environment
- Revitalize Urban Centers
- Develop a Tri-Plex Growth Strategy
For many years, WMSA hosted one-day regional summits that hosted over 800 regional leaders from business, government, healthcare, education, foundations, and many other areas. The summits combined education and updates with table discussions and ranking objectives near the end of the day. In most cases, various educational objectives were rated as the top regional need overwhelming by the participants. It was through this regional meeting process that WMSA was able to winnow its priorities down to six major areas of focus:
The WMSA accomplishments were many and varied and some of the highlights follow:
Talent 2025 – CEOs from the region’s major companies are actively participating in the identification, evaluation, and advocacy for a truly integrated talent development system designed to make West Michigan a magnet for talent and jobs. This was a direct result of the WIRED Grant that was administered by WMSA for the region.
Governor Snyder’s Regional Initiative – The delivery of State services in a strategic alignment with the MEDC Regional Economic Development regions is a direct outcome of WMSA region thinking and investigation into improved performance.
Hello West Michigan’s Internship Program – WMSA was directly responsible for developing a strategy to create thousands of new internships based the Regional Indicator sighting the need to increase our region’s talent by increasing the number of residents 25-34 years of age with bachelor degrees or higher.
WorkKeys - This standard for fully validating an employee’s capabilities is a national best practice that WMSA launched with funding from WIRED. It has since been adopted as the State of Michigan’s standard to ensure the availability of qualified employees.
Regional Indicators – WMSA established regional performance indicators for economic, environmental and social justice. The data has been used help prioritize regional initiatives, such as the internship program.
Green Infrastructure - This was WMSA’s initial project that informed decisions about our critical natural resources, such dunes, farmland, trail ways and greenways and watersheds. For example, we now are top region for miles of trail ways nationally.
Literacy to Work - This effort expanded the Making College Accessible pilot from Kent County to Ottawa County.
The WMSA initiative has served as the foundation for many other regional initiatives. Jim Brooks never lost his focus on regional thinking, the recession of 2008 hit the Zeeland-Holland area hard and Jim proactively pulled together 15 top leaders from business, education, non-profit and government to face some brutal facts affecting the Holland/Zeeland Area. The group engaged in intense strategic planning, issued a white paper entitled Holland/Zeeland Model Community Initiatives–A Three Sector Approach to Community Revitalization and agreed to champion and fund bold community processes under the name Holland/Zeeland Model Community Initiatives. Jim’s guiding vision inspired his friend and fellow leader Dick Haworth to launch the Government Future Search of 2011, laying the groundwork for unprecedented collaboration and engagement of Macatawa Area Coordinating Council member jurisdictions that continues today. That same vision brought two competitors, Brian Walker, Herman Miller CEO, and Franco Bianchi, Haworth CEO, together to launch a groundbreaking Employer/Education partnership in 2013 which has now grown into a county wide program embedded in our school system.
The Model Community Initiatives continues in 2015, with a focus on three sector engagement, leadership commitment to a community wide vision and a dashboard for success. Jim’s vision continues to guide and inspire this broad-based community effort that differentiates our area as a true Model Community.
So what happened? Why did WMSA end its existence? I attribute it to donor fatigue and the fact that companies benefitting from the WMSA work were not the same organizations that funded WMSA to any significant degree. Some of the most prominent families, foundations and employers in West Michigan funded WMSA operations, along with grant administrative fees over the life of the organization. One example of this is the WorkKeys program developed by WMSA under the Wired Grant through a partnership with the American College Test (ACT) organization. Now all high schools and may employers in Michigan use the Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze certificates that the WorkKeys testing generates and that helps potential employers better estimate the readiness of applicants for certain employment opportunities. In this case the donors funded a process that generated a tool with statewide benefit but money did not flow to WMSA from most of those who benefited.
A unique and very special benefit of WMSA was its ability to convene a large group of regional stakeholders on an annual basis, determine regional priorities within the six priorities for regional collaboration and a regional mindset, develop outstanding programs and tools, see them through to sustainability, and then move on to other priorities without holding on to them to build an empire.
One of the ways that WMSA will live on is through the Regional Prosperity Initiative (RPI) of Governor Rick Snyder. Greg Northrup, President of WMSA, developed a presentation which he gave to Bill Rustem, former Governor Snyder Chief of Strategy and others in the Governor’s Office and showed many maps depicting state services and how similar services had overlapping maps. The state further developed these maps into what they refer to as the “spaghetti map” which shows between 80 and 100 state service districts. Governor Snyder decided to simplify this and is in the process of reorganizing the 20 departments in his administration to provide their services in 10 newly identified regions of the state. Our West Michigan region consists of 13 counties and the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council (GVMC) was selected to oversee the RPI process in our region. John Weiss, Executive Director of the GVMC has been heading up this initiative and progress is being made.
As for WMSA, the impressive intellectual property developed by WMSA has been donated to the GVMC. This will undoubtedly be an asset to the RPI process. It remains to be seen what other form a WMSA type group could take either under the auspices or separate from the GVMC operation.
A line from the popular Nickelback song Closing Time has been running through my head as I write this: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
I had the ironic roles of being the Chair of the Board of Directors of both organizations, WMSA and GVMC when this transfer occurred. While there is sadness at the end of WMSA, there is hope and anticipation of the great things that will be accomplished through GVMC. I’d like to thank the GVMC Board of Directors for having the vision to take on the WMSA intellectual property. I’d also like to thank the WMSA Board of Directors that hung through to the end:
Dale Nesbary; Jim Dunlap; Daryl Delabbio; Mat Nguyen; Terry Lenhardt; Jim Bachmeijer; Chris Hyzer; Milt Rohwer; Vanessa Greene; Bob Garretson; Jim Buck; Bing Goei; Kurt Dykstra; Cindy Larsen; and Jim Brooks.