By Jim Bloch
“It was a pretty busy year, considering everything,” said Dan Casey, chief executive officer of the Economic Development Alliance of St. Clair County.
Casey spoke at the semi-annual economic growth meeting of the EDA, held Feb. 11. Normally the event is a luncheon. This year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, there was no food. There was no gathering in a banquet hall. Nearly 140 registrants met virtually via Zoom.
A busy year is not necessarily a good year. The average unemployment in the county in 2020, driven by the pandemic, was 11.8 percent. The EDA set aside work on its new strategic plan to assist businesses with pandemic-related challenges. It added a business-specific COVID-19 page to its website. The EDA administered a number of grant programs designed to help the business community during the pandemic. The EDA team oversaw $141,000 Michigan Small Business Relief Grants to 30 businesses; $25,000 in grants to 12 business on behalf of the Community Foundation of St. Clair County’s program for women and minority-owned businesses; $1.3 million to 187 businesses on behalf of the Michigan Small Business Restart Grant Program; and $90,000 to 18 businesses as part of the city of Port Huron’s COVID-19 CDGB grants.
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The EDA launched a program called “Shop. Dine. Win.” to award cash and gift cards to encourage residents to spend their money locally. It was complemented with a health and safety program to protect shoppers.
Casey said that the EDA extended assistance in one way or another to county businesses more than 1,000 times in 2020.
Despite the toll of the pandemic — 8,424 cases and 233 deaths by Feb. 11 — there were a number of positive economic development signs in the county.
There was nearly $96 million in investment in St. Clair County, which resulted in 524 new jobs, $4 million in new investment that led to 10 jobs, $27 million in business expansions that created 275 jobs, $64 million in community development that triggered 239 new jobs, and 179 new housing starts.
These numbers did not include the new auto plant in St. Clair, which has not been formally introduced, pending the announcement of state incentives, expected in two weeks, Casey said. Construction has begun on the 343,000 square foot plant that could employ as many as 350 people.
One of the projects announced in 2020 was the $14.4 million redevelopment of the old Art Van store in Port Huron, now dubbed the Wrigley Center.
The 27 expansions included the $7 million project at TI Fluid Systems in Marysville, the Star of the West Milling Company’s $2.7 million project in Emmett, and US Farathane’s $14.4 expansion in Port Huron.
Community development projects included the Kroger renovation in Clay, the Dunham Sports move in Fort Gratiot and the Sunoco gas station in Smiths Creek.
“We’ve run out of buildings in our county,” said Casey.
To help correct that, three spec buildings are going up in Ira Township on the corner of Marine City Highway and County Line Road in an effort to attract industrial, office and retail tenants.
Meanwhile, the partially shelved strategic plan calls for development that creates 900 jobs over the next three years, $330 million in capital development and 120 companies served by the EDA each year.