Celebrating the Resilience of Michigan’s Small Businesses

Courtney Overbey

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

In Michigan, nearly every indicator of our state’s success is influenced by our small businesses.

They play a vital role in attracting talent to live and work in our small towns and big cities alike, offering both an exciting workplace atmosphere and contributing to a high quality of life after hours.

They are the economic drivers of our local communities, offering charismatic shops and hidden gems for tourists that make Pure Michigan an irresistible destination for people of all ages.

And our small businesses help instill a sense of hometown pride for residents spanning generations, bonding people of all backgrounds and beliefs together through a sense of shared community.

Michigan small businesses are the lifeblood of our communities.

When COVID-19 hit Michigan in March, the critical role that small businesses play in communities across the state became abundantly clear as the state economy all but halted in response to the virus. As Michiganders began staying home and staying safe to help slow the spread of COVID-19, Michigan’s small businesses were undoubtedly among the hardest hit.

In the face of many economic and public health challenges presented by the COVID-19 outbreak, small businesses throughout Michigan chose to rise to the occasion, displaying a level of creativity, collaboration and resilience that has brought their communities together during the global pandemic.

By deploying this Arsenal of Innovation, Michigan’s small businesses across all industries and all corners of the state have pivoted and retooled in response to the virus to better protect workers on the frontlines in the fight against COVID-19, while at the same time continuing to support their employees and their communities during the outbreak.

In Grand Rapids, Tech Defenders focused on giving back to the community while supporting the region’s overall response efforts. As a company that specializes in repurposing old technologies and mobile devices, it teamed up with Zeeland Public Schools to donate hundreds of face masks and iPads to the Zeeland Community Hospital. As a result, the personal protection equipment (PPE) supported the safety of the healthcare workers while serving patients, while the donated technology made telemedicine appointments possible for patients to receive virtual care sessions and connect with their loved ones over video, so as to keep them safe from the virus. Thanks to Tech Defenders stepping up to support its community during a time of need, Zeeland Community Hospital was able to provide additional critical testing for COVID-19 patients.

Shortly after the pandemic appeared in Michigan, High Five Spirits Distillery in Petoskey pivoted its production lines, shifting from vodka to hand sanitizer to meet the growing need in nearby hospitals. By providing hundreds of gallons of hand sanitizer to nearby McLaren Health Care hospitals, it not only continued to keep its workers paid and its business afloat, but it did so while supporting healthcare workers on the frontlines.

Meanwhile, in an effort to keep its communities safe and supported during the pandemic, Midtown Fresh Market in Kalamazoo stayed open during the outbreak, with its employees classified as an essential workforce. It did so responsibly by implementing CDC health and safety guidelines, encouraging face coverings to protect both its workers and its customers, and allowing curbside pickup and home deliveries to accommodate its customers. All the while, it used each month’s profits to help donate more than 5.3 million meals for Feeding America, providing necessary meals and assistance to people in need.

At the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), we are inspired by the ingenuity and resilience that small businesses like these demonstrate when faced with any number of challenges every day. The commitment they have to serving their communities – and giving back when they can – encourages us in our work to continue providing pathways toward success for small businesses in all corners of the state.

MEDC creates economic opportunities for small businesses.

When the outbreak of COVID-19 began in March, MEDC quickly responded with agility and creativity to not only develop new programs and initiatives, but to expand our existing programs in nearly all of our in-state service program areas to reach a wide base of businesses and communities, from Capital Access, International Trade, and Entrepreneurship & Innovation initiatives to our Community Development Match on Main program and PlanetM mobility efforts. These conventional programs are focused on supporting the growth and success of small businesses in Michigan.

MEDC’s Pure Michigan Business Connect (PMBC) program, for example, is a demand-driven, multi-billion-dollar public/private initiative that connects Michigan suppliers of goods and services with local, domestic and global demand. During the outbreak, the PMBC program transitioned its efforts to support a virtual procurement platform for suppliers of critical health and human services across a broad range of categories in accessing critical supplies and products, including food, medical devices, paper products, cleaning equipment and more. Today, the platform is focused on supporting businesses in need of non-medical PPE as Michigan begins safely reopening its economy in phases.

Meanwhile, MEDC’s traditional Match on Main program expanded to provide access to more communities and to refocus resources on recovery efforts of existing businesses, rather than helping new businesses open. Michigan’s small businesses and traditional downtowns are the heart of our communities; by providing the necessary resources for communities and small businesses to engage in economic recovery efforts, MEDC is helping ensure Michigan downtowns not only recover, but thrive.

In Marquette, Beth Millner Jewelry stands as a testament to both MEDC programs, having received support that allowed it to continue providing handcrafted, nature-inspired jewelry made from eco-friendly materials. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the team manufactured and facilitated the delivery of metal nose pieces for face masks for the Upper Peninsula community using the PMBC team’s COVID-19 Procurement Platform. Following its success in pivoting to provide critical PPE materials, Beth Millner Jewelry received additional support through the Match on Main program. Through the support it received from MEDC’s various in-state programs, Beth Millner Jewelry was not only able to rehire all of its workers from before the pandemic, but it also brought on additional employees to help sew masks and other materials from home to support frontline workers during the outbreak.

In times of crisis and otherwise, a key ingredient in MEDC’s efforts to support small businesses is our work to catalyze entrepreneurship throughout the state, as we bolster Michigan’s entrepreneurial reputation and world-class innovation in high-tech, automotive and mobility industries. No other state in the nation provides the breadth and depth of entrepreneurial support to emerging high-tech companies and small businesses like Michigan.

Much of this work is accomplished through the support of 21 statewide SmartZones, strategically located throughout Michigan where technology-based firms, entrepreneurs and researchers are in close proximity to all of the community assets that support their endeavors. Through these SmartZones, Michigan provides business accelerator services including mentoring, networking events, product development, grant writing, business planning, technology mining, market analysis and more. And through Michigan’s mobility initiative, PlanetM, MEDC is able to support small businesses in bringing their mobility solutions and technologies to life.

In 2018, Detroit-based Pivot Materials realized that by leveraging these support systems, it could expand its reach and accelerate its growth while doing business in Michigan. With a mission to bring sustainable biomaterials in the mainstream by replacing plastics with bamboo fibers, Pivot Materials sought support from its SmartZone in Detroit, where it received business developments assistance from the MEDC-funded Small Business Development Center’s Tech Team. Pivot Materials also received support from MEDC’s PlanetM initiative for using its technology to improve future mobility solutions, allowing it to participate at Plug and Play in California where it increased access to potential investors, pilot projects and networking events, and was introduced to the Silicon Valley ecosystem. The assistance it received through MEDC’s entrepreneurial support and PlanetM initiative, has allowed Pivot Materials to continue growing its team and creating jobs right here in Michigan.

Finally, by supporting service providers throughout the state, MEDC also expands its reach by empowering those organizations to support small businesses within specialized industries.

With 11 office locations in all corners of the state, Procurement Technical Assistance Centers (PTACs) help enhance national defense and economic development in the state of Michigan by assisting Michigan businesses in obtaining and performing on federal, state and local government contracts. The seminars, training, consultations and events hosted by PTACs are made possible through funding and support provided by MEDC, making PTACs a significant partner in strengthening Michigan’s economy and creating opportunities in industries including defense and aerospace.

Take Northern Wings, for example. The company was founded in 2001 by Marine Corps veteran Dave Goudreau and focuses on precision machining and fabrication, with capabilities in aerospace and military welding, machining and non-destructive testing. As Northern Wings began to grow, it recognized it needed support in accessing and training the type of talent necessary to support its vision. By connecting with its nearby PTAC in Onaway, Northern Wings employees have been able to consistently attend the trainings, seminars and counseling sessions provided by PTAC offices for nearly 20 years. By working with PTAC, Northern Wings has enhanced its capabilities as an aviation program manager and has been able to complete diverse projects for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Department of Interior. This success has also allowed it to grow its physical location and develop an award-winning staff, where 80% of its employees – and all its manufacturing, distribution and repair work – remains housed in its office in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

In looking back, it is already clear that if 2020 has taught us anything, it is how vital our small businesses are to the fabric of Michigan’s communities and economic prosperity. As we continue to move toward economic recovery throughout the year, our hundreds of small businesses around the state will continue to serve as proof of how Michigan remains a place where businesses of all sizes can access opportunities, grow and succeed, no matter the circumstances.

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