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Seeing "points of light" in the West Michigan economy after the pandemic

courtesy of The Right Place, Inc.
A rendering of the Perrigo headquarters planned for downtown Grand Rapids.

West Michigan economic development officials say they helped recruit or retain 953 jobs to the region in 2020. That’s even as the area lost about 40,000 jobs overall.

The Right Place, Inc. presented its annual update and forecast on Thursday. The economic development group says it secured $105.6 million in new capital investment for the region this year. It highlighted a decision by Perrigo to locate its new North American headquarters in downtown Grand Rapids, a move that's expected to bring 170 jobs downtown.

“You know we have unexpected challenges,” said Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place, Inc. “But we also do have points of light. And, as an economic developer, I’m an optimist. I have to be an optimist.”

Some of that optimism also comes from the initial rebound in the West Michigan economy since the spring. The unemployment rate in the Grand Rapids area reached 3.7% in October, a level near where it was in 2019.

Klohs says The Right Place switched gears in the spring, helping to administer grants to small businesses hurt by the pandemic. The group says it provided 4,700 "assists" to local businesses this year, compared to about 2,000 in a typical year. 

Despite some gains, the local economy has not recovered. About 43,000 fewer people were employed in the area in October, compared to February, according to seasonally-adjusted figures from the federal government.

And Jim Robey, a researcher at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said job growth for the region may continue to be slow for the area as it recovers from the pandemic.

One of many uncertainties is what will happen to workers once the current pandemic unemployment benefits run out at the end of the month.

“The benefits cliff is a concern,” Robey said, while presenting his analysis of the Grand Rapids economy during The Right Place’s event. “Will this be something that pulls people back into the labor market, or will this be something that affects consumption going forward, as people lose their unemployment benefits?”

Robey says even though the local economy has improved rapidly since the spring, forecasting models show the Grand Rapids area may not recover all of the jobs lost in the pandemic until 2023.

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Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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