Opinion: St. Clair County a model for regionalism done right

Jeff Bohm, Hale Walker and Thelma Castillo
Swans pass the time on Lake St. Clair as fog hangs low over the water.

Michigan has come a long way over the last decade, reinventing itself after a challenging period that taught us all many lessons as we all watched our communities change forever. Jobs that were once plentiful were gone for good, forcing us to rethink how life was going to be.

No matter where you lived in Michigan, we all found ourselves in an unfamiliar situation of sudden change. St. Clair County was no different.

It was during those dark days that some of the brightest ideas came to light – many of which served as a beacon for the prosperity we’re experiencing today.

With many of us throughout the county facing similar challenges across all sectors, we quickly learned we had more opportunity for success when we worked together. It seemed daunting — getting public, private, philanthropic and nonprofit organizations to collaborate in a way we never had.

Creating a place for people to prosper, we focused together on driving entrepreneurial ventures, preparing our next generation for tomorrow’s jobs, developing our waterfront and our downtowns and neighborhoods, and promoting all the Blue Water Area has to offer.

Now, if you read our Blue Meets Green strategic plan, you’d be underwhelmed, however, if you look at what we’ve acted on and finished, our results are astonishing.

In just 10 years, we’ve completed 10 significant projects throughout the county, with another dozen underway. Many projects went from dilapidated eyesores to economic hot spots – attracting visitors and talent to a region that is within an hour’s drive for more than 5 million Michiganians.

Blue Meets Green has brought our younger generation back home. According to recent data released by the U.S. Census Bureau, St. Clair County boasts the highest net migration of college-educated people in the state — 1.6 percent — and all without the benefit of a four-year university or Fortune 500 company. Our resurgence has attracted developers from California, New York and Grand Rapids who are investing millions in the future of the Blue Water area, reimaging historic sites and creating diverse economic opportunities with every dollar spent. We’re entering Phase Five of our development plans, with a strong track record of success powering our way.

Creating a sustainable, actionable, inclusive process has driven colorful conversations — ones we don’t always start with agreement. Yet, the simple fact that we’ve been able to continually work through our differences and get everyone to the table year after year is as unique as the blue water that surrounds us.

And, we’re not alone in how we’ve approached this. Traverse City, Muskegon, Bay City and Marquette share many of our characteristics and are prospering with a combination of business, government and philanthropy.

Many communities have attempted to launch collaborative strategies and have yet to see the fruits of their labor materialize. Our focus is on collaboration and action. And, while it seems simple, its proven challenging for so many.

As we embark on this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference, where we will hear much about statewide collaboration, the impact of actual regionalism couldn’t be stronger, and we can all learn from one another if we’re willing to be open and willing to increase the dialogue throughout the state.

Jeff Bohm is the chairman of the St. Clair County Board of Commissioners and has held office since 2004. Bohm was elected chairman by his peers in 2010.

Hale Walker serves as a trustee for the St. Clair County Community Foundation and is a member of the Foundation’s executive committee.

Thelma Castillo is the president and CEO of the Blue Water Area Chamber of Commerce.