There is much talk of a changing economy in Muskegon, and for good reason: the downtown has transformed from a series of dusty, empty roads following the demise of the Muskegon Mall to a bustling commercial hub filled with restaurants and shops, businesses are moving (and moving back) to the city, and there’s significant growth in everything from the educational landscape to the local beer industry.

But there’s something else that could dramatically change the city, and, really, the entire region: food processing. Right now, about 80 percent of the food that’s grown in Michigan leaves the state to be processed (in other words, to be changed into something that’s edible–think everything from milling grains into flour to turning soybeans into meal for the state’s growing livestock herds), according to the West Michigan Shoreline Food Processing Initiative. That food leaves the state, is processed elsewhere, and then returns to Michigan to be sold in grocery stores and other marketplaces.

What if that food remained in Michigan–and specifically Muskegon–to be processed? With its abundance of farms, access to the area’s largest commercial deepwater port, and underutilized wastewater treatment system, Muskegon County has the potential to become a food processing powerhouse, say area leaders working to significantly reshape the local food and agricultural landscape.

These efforts to transform the economy and pour food processing jobs into Muskegon recently landed serious financial support from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Community Foundation for Muskegon County announced late last week that it landed a $50,000 USDA grant, which will allow the West Michigan Shoreline Food Processing Initiative (WMSFPI) to further intensify its efforts to increase and support food processing in the region. Along with the Consumers Energy Foundation, the city of Muskegon, and Muskegon County, the Community Foundation is one of the organizations that helped to establish the WMSFPI about one year ago.

“The USDA grant allows us to continue to move forward with our vision to be a catalyst for growth of the food processing industry in West Michigan,” Dennis Marvin, the WMSFPI’s senior consultant of programs and communications, said in an interview with the Muskegon Times.

Currently, there are about 500 farms in Muskegon County that sell about $76 million worth of goods annually, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture. Farming, agriculture and food play starring roles in the region’s economy, and West Michigan already accounts for 43 percent of the state’s food processing jobs–but officials say that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what the region could be.

To reach that potential, members of the food processing initiative are taking a big-picture approach and are linking farmers, food processors, economic development officials, local governments, and educational institutions. By connecting key players in growing food processing, those from the initiative say companies will be able to more easily find available properties and set up shop in Muskegon, jobs will be created, and area schools–Muskegon Community College and Michigan State University–will be able to train the current and future workforce needed to fill the coming food processing positions.

All of this effort, of course, comes with a price tag–the food processing initiative launched one year ago with a $232,728 grant from the Consumers Energy Foundation. Now, with the $50,000 grant from the USDA, the group can continue to focus on its goals, including working with local officials and private sector firms to develop a “shovel ready” food processing industrial park.

“USDA is committed to supporting Michigan agriculture and helping rural communities prosper,” USDA Rural Development State Director for Michigan Jason Allen said in prepared statement. “This is a great example of how we are working with numerous partners to boost local producers and create jobs.”

Additionally, the WMSFPI is partnering with the Muskegon-based CorePark Development on a plan to build a food processing incubation and pilot manufacturing center at the site of the former farmers market at 731 Yuba St. in Muskegon. Named the Food Forward FARM (food, agriculture, research, and manufacturing), the facility is slated to cost between $5 million and $7 million and is meant to provide the support and space for food processing companies hoping to test new products. According to a statement from Core Realty, which is working to lease the space, the new site will feature food-grade industrial space with individual suites and is “designed to offer flexible lease and space options for entities ranging from fast-growing startups to well-established companies in the food industry.”

Efforts to grow food processing are complex, but the ideas surrounding the plans are not: they’re about growing a diverse economy that supports new companies and workers alike, inspiring individuals and organizations to forge relationships they may never had otherwise created, and proving that Muskegon is a place you want to do business.

“We have been investing in healthy food access and food systems for several years,” Community Foundation for Muskegon County President Chris McGuigan said in a prepared statement. “This initiative will create substantial impact through new jobs, educational opportunities, and increased healthy food access for Muskegon County.”

Anna Gustafson is the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. You can connect with her by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

Article taken from Muskegon Times.