Since 1987, Birgit Klohs has guided regional nonprofit economic development organization, The Right Place. After more than three decades on the job, Klohs has decided now is the time to retire. WGVU talks with Birgit Klohs.
Birgit Klohs: "The second hardest decision I've ever made, the first one was moving to the United States all those many years ago decades now. I have been in this position for 33 years and I loved every minute of it. And it was very difficult. A number of things came together, not the least of which is my birthday and that in my husband, but also as you know there's another, a new generation coming along in West Michigan. And it's their time and that means some of us are going to have to get off the stage or should get off the stage to let the next generation do the work and lead this community in the next 10,15, 20 years."
Patrick Center: "You understand this community and what makes it great and where this community can head in the coming years and where it can be. What is it about this place and why you've dedicated your entire life and why, the right person needs to be selected to fill your shoes."
Birgit Klohs: "My profession economic development has sort of two sides to it some of my colleagues get recruited, and you know once they accomplish the challenge of a new community and then they move on maybe every 5, 7, 8, 10 years, I wanted to be in addition to being an economic developer and making the deals and doing the expansions and making the new businesses I wanted to be more deeply involved in the community as it went to its resonance on starting 30 plus years ago and economic development is also intensely a network business. It's a relationship business, it’s way more an relationship business in West Michigan then it is in a lot of other communities and to be able to pick up the phone and call someone and say we need your help with something can you help us with this and everybody stepped up. That's something that when you move doesn't always happen or you have to get to know that network all over again and this community is so engaged and so proud to help and so pleased to help. And it was so clear during this pandemic when back in October, we got phone call after phone call, can you find us this PPE or that PPE and we literally stood up. Companies that start making this stuff because we needed it I really as much as I was being recruited really, really never wanted to leave because this community is just... to me really special. The private sector, the public sector and, the philanthropy sector work together to really make this community and what it is today. And there was no reason [unintelligible] and not only that but we grew from a small organization of 3 people with one county in a small budgets to 6 counties and over 30 employees and team members and the board was always I've always had great boards that's the other thing you know if you're in my in my role, anywhere you always have a board. And I've always had constructive board members and constructive chairs and they were always there for me to have my back to talk to me, talk me through issues and that can't be underestimated either so to me it was just. No, it's the best job I could have ever had in my life."
Patrick Center: "You talk about those relationships, there is that organization Grand Action which kind of hit the pause button last year, but now you had mentioned the next generation we may see that next generation unfold in the second iteration talk about Grand Action in your relationship with that organization that has propelled this area."
Birgit Klohs: "When you talk about economic development there is economic development and community development and talent development. So when Grand Action was created in '85 and we went live it was economic development growing the business sector of this community right, but then when you think about talent, talent wants to know what else they can do after 5 o'clock when the job they have at a good company is over. And so the creation of Grand Action and I was asked to sit on the Grand Vision group before it became Grand Action so I was in office Grand Action for 30 years. And Grand Action was about the community development of our downtown for central business district. How do we bring life and entertainment and restaurants and you know what people want to do after their job is done for the day and that was Grand Action. And the two of us really played well together, I had Grand Action board members on my board, I served on the Grand Action board on three executive committee and the quality of life that came out of the grand action really compliments at the work we're doing with our companies as they were growing and we we're bringing new ones. And when you bring a company now here, you know obviously we do business retention but we ought to do business and talent attraction and if you bring folks whether it's for business or someone who thinks about relocating here for a job, the way our city presents today is so different than it was when I took this job and it's become a major factor and how we market our community. And so right place in Grand Action just went really wonderfully hand in hand."
Patrick Center: "And you've also served on the Gerald R Ford International Airport."
Birgit Klohs: "Uh oh yeah."
Patrick Center: "Already we've seen so much growth there or how is that impacting this community."
Birgit Klohs: "I always said, and I never meant it jokingly that I wouldn't want this job without that airport and that was before the airport was what it is today which is a tribute to this community. It is a key factor in economic development, it will be again, the airport will not stop growing we will get through this pandemic and there will be a future in airports and air travel. And it's become a key component of our economic development but without a good economy, it wouldn't growing without that one so it's also again mutually reinforcing to have this infrastructure and really the airport today in airports today and [unintelligible name] says it so well they are not just transportation hubs or infrastructure there not a utility today. Today an airport is a hub for we have guests right and so it's much more of a hospitality environment that it is even, remember you don’t go to the plane, but you may also stop for a book or something to eat. And so the airport had to change and with the help of this community when we raised the money a few years ago to really redo the entrance hall and all of that, which is just about finished the gateway transformation project. it helps immensely and marketing the community but again that is a regional airlines. The right place took it over, the business community cares the regional airlines was the first of its kind in the country to engage the business community and what can we do for the airport and to raise money for that gateway transformation project from the private sector it still to this day the only community that’s ever done that in the United States."
Patrick Center: "And it has a world class feel when you see it."
Birgit Klohs: "Absolutely.Absolutely. We had guests in a week ago and we were obviously socially distancing and having a meeting in a very large room, but they're like wow we're impressed by your airport. And I'm like good because it's the first thing people see when they come here when they fly obviously, and it makes a huge difference."
Patrick Center: "And now they see a Healthcare footprint that is also becoming world class and that's a partnership with a number of the universities."
Birgit Klohs: "Oh, absolutely. I mean I said this in many speeches and you've heard me it started when Dave VanAndel called me 24 years ago that his family had decided they were going to endow a Research Institute. And I remember sitting on my phone in June or July in ‘96 I think and thought to myself it's a whole new industry. And so, the institute grew you had Spectrum health, Mercy health Metrohealth, you have Grand Valley. You have obviously a medical school, a major medical school but working on their 3rd building think about it there was nothing except old dilapidated office buildings on Michigan. And now you have billions of dollars of investment in new hospitals health care centers, the medical school it's been an unbelievable transformation and to me that industry has really changed the trajectory of the community really have."
Patrick Center: "When you drive around town and you see all these buildings and you see the names on them and how you influenced so many of these deals to make it possible.I can only imagine how you feel today when you see the cranes that are in the air and you're seeing all this progress."
Birgit Klohs: "I feel proud but I also know that it was a team sport. Economic development requires a lot of parts and oftentimes the public only sees you know the tip of the iceberg and not how the rest of the iceberg looks under the water. And I think one of the things that is the most rewarding to me is the phenomenal people that I've met along the way who worked with us in concert to bring these projects to fruition, you know again everybody sees oh there's a building going up, but not what went on behind the scenes to make that happen. The pieces and the parts that had to come together for the private sector, public sector and in many cases obviously Philanthropy was just plain simple joy, it is so great to drive around and know that you know 30 years ago, this looked so different and to have people want to come here today. Talent wants to come here today is just it's just yeah it I look around sometimes and I can I don't understand where 33 years went Patrick to be quite honest, but it's been an unbelievable run. And its just been a fantastic ride and I wouldn't want to do it anywhere else."
Patrick Center: "Well, you're not calling it quits just yet, right?"
Birgit Klohs: "I’m calling it rewirement, and I you know I can't go from a 100 to 0 and next January in the meantime, I'm still driving a 100, don't tell anybody [laughs] but there are things that I still feel passionate about and will continue to keep out and about. And I want to be made I want to be engaged just not at the same, you know 9 to 12 hour day level. But you know this community is my home and I want to make sure that it continues to do well."
Patrick Center: "Well you've always been driving at the speed of the Autobahn."
Birgit Klohs: "Probably."
Patrick Center: "January 31, 2021 is your last day then you can start your rewirement. Birgit Klohs you are the president and CEO of The Right Place. Always a pleasure talking with you."
Birgit Klohs: "Thank you. Thank you very much, Patrick."