April 28th, 2021

How entrepreneurship is driving economic growth in rural communities

Entrepreneurship is the lifeblood of every community and is especially critical to the future prosperity of our rural towns.

Ionia County Lake County Montcalm County Newaygo County Oceana County Rural Economic Development

Every business starts somewhere.

Our daughters’ favorite specialty shop began as a retirement project for a pharmacist in our local downtown district. He wanted to do it for fun.

The award-winning brewpub was conceived nearly 15 years ago – before the craft beer boom in Michigan – and has since grown into an anchor for the community.

Down the road from me, a manufacturing company with a global sales portfolio, and over 100 employees, was started sixty years ago in the founder’s garage. Two generations later, the company is now run (and being grown) by the founder’s grandson.

Entrepreneurship is the lifeblood of every community and is especially critical to the future prosperity of our rural towns.

I’ve worked in rural economic and community development for fifteen years now, and I have zero doubt that these tight-knit places can, in fact, become prosperous, creative entrepreneurial centers.

It’s no mystery that rural communities can offer many attractions including lower costs, lack of congestion, a greater sense of community and a more intentional pace of life. Now, with the impacts of COVID-19, people are looking to the communities I love with a new eye, more so than ever before.

This is why investing in entrepreneurship in 2021 and beyond is critical to our future.

2020 threw a wrench in our lives in myriad ways. Surprisingly, however, it was a banner year for entrepreneurship. New business startups hit an all-time high in the 3rd quarter of 2020 in the U.S. Meanwhile, Michigan saw over 1,500 new business applications – a 51% increase from the same period in 2019.

These small businesses tend to make up a larger proportion of a rural county’s business ecosystem, both in terms of number of businesses and total employment. For example, in Newaygo County 64% of all business establishments employ two to nine people. This equates to 25% of the total number of jobs. Adding businesses who employ up to 99 people, this comprises 59% of the total jobs in Newaygo County.

While entrepreneurship support isn’t often seen as a traditional economic development initiative, it has become a core piece of our approach in the rural counties we serve at The Right Place.

In 2019, Business Development Manager Julie Burrell – an entrepreneur herself – bootstrapped a first-of-its-kind initiative in Newaygo, Oceana and Lake Counties called Pitch North. This business pitch competition saw great success right out of the gate, with over 20 entrepreneurs stepping out of their comfort zone to submit their idea.

Realizing that ongoing cultivation of a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem was crucial to move the needle long-term, she unveiled Grow North, a series of intimate events to forge connections and educate entrepreneurs on tips and tactics to enhance their success.

Due to COVID-19, Pitch North pivoted to a virtual format in 2020. However, the move didn’t hamstring success, as the organization experienced a 40% growth in submissions and 14% growth in attendance. Going into 2021, The Grow North series will be held quarterly, and just concluded the first event with record attendance.

2021 is primed for additional growth in this sector for The Right Place in two important ways.

The third annual Pitch North will be hosted virtually on June 8, 2021. Our team will be accepting submissions until Monday, May 10, 2021 for those entrepreneurs who live in Oceana, Lake or Newaygo Counties.

Secondly, the Rural Team at The Right Place is exploring ways to expand this successful entrepreneurship support programming to other rural counties in our region. Initial (enthusiastic) discussions are currently underway in Ionia and Montcalm Counties.

Whether these initiatives cultivate the next successful craft distillery, a tech company leveraging expanding broadband capacity, an innovative solution for outdoor recreation accessibility, or a new manufacturing process, supporting our rural entrepreneurs will have a significant, positive and lasting impact on the people, places and prosperity of our entire region.



Travis Alden

Senior Director, Community Development

As Senior Director of Community Development, Travis is focused on transformational place-based development projects and initiatives throughout the West Michigan region.

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