By Amy Lane
Published in Crain's Detroit Business
January 25, 2012
In 2006, the Prima Civitas Foundation began with a Michigan State University quest to pursue strategies for economic development that went beyond the borders of community and were regional.
Initially, the nonprofit concentrated on an area in the center of the state and into the Thumb area.
It now reaches around the state and into international arenas — as seen most recently through its creation of a consortium of Michigan companies negotiating to lead an $8 billion development in Iraq, including $5.5 billion in housing.
Closer to home, the MSU-founded organization is involved in initiatives that include trade development, working with regions of the state on economic improvement, employer internship training and assistance, and entrepreneurship.
"The main thing that we're trying to do is move the economic development needle for the state," MSU President Lou Anna Simon said.
The organization's contributions include augmenting strategies and goals of state government and other entities – such as logistics-based development encompassing rail, air and truck freight – as well as providing a capacity for research and other resources, said Doug Smith, senior vice president for business and community development at the Michigan Economic Development Corp.
For example, Prima Civitas is in early stages of work with 14 counties in northeast Michigan, where the MEDC has few resources, Smith said. The organization is helping the MEDC explore expanding the state's garment and textile-related industry and determine "is there a strategy worth pursuing," he said.
A Michigan Garment Industry Council, formed by Prima Civitas and other economic development organizations, universities and industry members, is designed to provide networking and business development opportunities.
East Lansing-based Prima Civitas has a staff of 12, including two in Flint and one in Grand Rapids. The organization's largest financial support since its inception has come from the Flint-based Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Michigan State University Foundation, as well as federal grants, said Steven Webster, Prima Civitas' board chairman and CEO.
Last year, the foundation announced an expansion of its mission statewide.
At its core, though, "the DNA has not changed" since the organization began, said Webster, who assumed his posts last year, replacing David Hollister. Webster had been vice president of governmental affairs at MSU. Hollister continues as senior vice president and strategic adviser.
Webster said that in every project, Prima Civitas uses a common business approach: Identify leadership, whether in business or local government; bring those players together and create an intermediary organization populated by local leaders; "then help them determine a plan based on assets they may have.
"Then we help them launch that plan and step away."
One project set to move to a new phase is the I-69 International Trade Corridor. Prima Civitas has helped four Michigan counties create the corridor, which spans from the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron to the western boundary of Shiawassee County, with Flint's Bishop International Airport as a central logistics hub.
The corridor — to be formed as a state-designated Next Michigan Development Corp., a type of regional entity sometimes called an “aerotropolis” — will act regionally to attract companies that move products or services via air, roads rail or water. The corridor’s Next Michigan designation awaits action by the board of the Michigan Strategic Fund.
The corridor could be a major component of another multiorganization effort: The Great Lakes International Trade and Transport Hub, a project to capitalize on freight traffic to and from the Port of Halifax in Nova Scotia through the border gateways at Detroit and Port Huron.
Those involved in that project include Prima Civitas, Michigan and Canadian officials, the Port of Halifax, MSU entities, the Detroit Regional Chamber, the Genesee Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce and Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Tim Herman, CEO of the Genesee chamber, said Prima Civitas brought the chamber in as a participant, giving the chamber "a forum to develop a plan to grow import and export opportunities for us in our region." He said Prima Civitas acts as "a catalyst for collaboration." The foundation is also a consultant to the chamber and identifies economic development opportunities.
The Prima Civitas umbrella includes the Flint Area Reinvestment Office, an entity established in 2009 by former interim Flint Mayor Michael Brown with support from area philanthropic organizations. The office, which became part of Prima Civitas last year, helps local organizations seek and procure state and federal grants.
Internationally, the opportunity for Michigan businesses to respond to a request for proposal for a planned urban community in Iraq was presented to Prima Civitas by MSU alumnus Sami Al-Araji, chair of the National Investment Commission of Iraq. In December, a memorandum of understanding was announced between the commission and Prima Civitas Global LLC, the foundation's for-profit entity.
The Michigan Iraq Consortium for Housing Development, or MICH Development, is a consortium of architectural, engineering, construction and other companies formed by Prima Civitas to present the proposal. MICH Development is created a finance strategy that could include groups of international investors as financial backers, said Pat McRae, director of international programs for the foundation.
If the financial plan is accepted by the National Investment Commission, the project will move forward under the direction of MICH Development, which will recruit and select businesses including construction contractors and suppliers.
Based on MICH Development preliminary estimates, Michigan companies could win about $1.5 billion in business from the project for work in planning, construction, engineering, project management and green-energy development and procurement.
The Iraq venture also could serve as a pattern elsewhere. Prima Civitas is looking at the possibility of a construction project in Turkey, Webster said, taking members of the MICH Development team and Michigan suppliers to that country or other areas where opportunities arise.
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