“In just a few short months, we have collaborated on grant-funded projects, hosted business roundtable meetings, launched the student-supported sustainable business initiative 'Good for Upper Peninsula' and supported student and community member start-up companies in the Innovate Marquette Accelerator," said David Nyberg, NMU executive director for business and economic development services, previewing just a few of NMU's far-reaching collaborations of late. Here is an overview of the partnerships and synergy that NMU is helping to drive and support.

Kaufman Block

The iconic 1927 First National Bank Building at the corner of Washington and Front Streets in downtown Marquette and its adjoining brick annexes are now known as the Kaufman Block and are home to next-century innovation. In May, multiple like-missioned organizations—most with NMU ties—moved into the renovated space. They are:

  • Accelerate UP – consulting for those who want to start, expand or diversify a business in Marquette County
  • Innovate Marquette SmartZone – supporting technology-focused ventures that enable accessibility, sustainability and creativity within the region
  • Invent@NMU  –  powered by students, led by professionals, providing entrepreneurial support services for those with product ideas, business ideas and existing businesses
  • Invest UP – a regional economic development organization driving prosperity through business development, promotion and thought leadership
  • Lake Superior Community Partnership – connecting  businesses, organizations, leaders and legislators to strengthen the Marquette County economy
  • Northern Initiatives – loans for small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs
  • Northwest Michigan PTAC – marketing, technical consulting, and training for businesses pursuing government contracts.

NMU’s College of Business also has an active classroom adjoining a common co-working and kitchen space in the block.

“Northern is an active partner in our region's economic development ecosystem.  While the university has long-standing partnerships with local and regional organizations, physical alignment at the Kaufman Block creates a welcoming front door to the Marquette community and Upper Peninsula for business and economic development services," said David Nyberg, NMU executive director of business engagement and economic development.

The highly collaborative space is usually bustling with students, business development mentors and meetings with clients. It also brings experts in to brainstorm solutions to pressing opportunities or challenges. For example, NASA Associate Administrator and former NMU Board of Trustees member Thomas Zurbuchen (who led the recent DART mission to nudge an asteroid off its path) led a roundtable for aerospace companies. Strategy sessions have been held on how to alleviate the shortage and cost of childcare options as well as the constraints on housing across the region.

The block also offers office space to tech startup businesses that are a part of Innovate Marquette SmartZone incubator and accelerator programs. One such tenant is SwimSmart Technologies, which launched a swim safety warning system that updates automatically as National Weather Service forecasts change.


InvestUP has received an allocation of $15 million from the State of Michigan for Upper Peninsula economic development. The funds can be used for any of four critical challenges facing the region: housing development, childcare, broadband, and talent attraction. InvestUP was the only economic development organization to receive funding.

“This budget was a major win for the Upper Peninsula,” said InvestUP CEO Marty Fittante. “InvestUP has been entrusted with funds that allow the U.P. to help direct the region’s fate and future by directly addressing our self-identified priorities."

Fittante explained that the priority the group and partner stakeholders intend to address is housing, as it’s the most critical challenge facing the area at the moment.  A declining and aging population is the defining issue before the region.   

"We know with what is taking place with things like remote work, climate and a renewed interest in quality of life and outdoor recreation that there is a renewed interest in living in the Upper Peninsula.”

"In fact," Fittante continued, "our most recent Glengariff poll revealed that 43% of respondents knew someone who wanted to relocate to the region. But that opportunity is restricted by a lack of housing.  So, we will use this funding to address that challenge." Making the fund sustainable and more than a one-and-done investment is also a priority.

NMU and the NMU Foundation were inaugural members of InvestUP and President Kerri Schuiling and Foundation CEO Brad Canale are board members.

InvestUP also organized and hosted an inaugural U.P. CEO Summit this spring at Northern, where nearly 100 business and community leaders gathered to explore strategies to advance the economy, increase the population by attracting talent and businesses, address housing needs, and retain graduates of our universities and community colleges in the U.P.

“I think the most effective way to do that is to build stronger and permanent bridges between our higher education institutes and the private sector,” said Bob Mahaney, board member of InvestUP and NMU. He envisions internship partnerships between colleges and businesses (both local and those with remote work options). Those internships would then become full-time jobs upon graduation.

Highlights from a recent U.P. resident survey conducted by the Glengariff Group, a national independent polling firm, were also discussed, and featured such eye opening statistics as:

  • More than half of business owners expect their performance next year to be stronger, with 40.5% expecting to expand their business
  • Available housing was the top issue facing those between the ages of 18-39.

Innovate Marquette SmartZone

Outdoor innovation is the focus of a significant federal grant that Innovate Marquette recently received called Capital Challenge. The U.S. Economic Development Administration awarded the grant to Innovate Marquette, one of only two recipients in Michigan, through the Build to Scale (B2S) program. The grant will infuse $611,911 into local economic development efforts over the next three years.

“Rural innovation begins when longtime residents who have built the foundation of a community work in parallel with those who have a vision for a regenerative economic future,” said Joe Thiel '04 BS, CEO of Innovate Marquette. “That’s what we are seeing in Marquette today; it’s pivotal and it’s just the beginning.” 

Innovate Marquette plans to use the new resources for the Make it Marquette Start to Scale (Marquette STS) project, which will leverage educational, economic development and capital investor partnerships.

Goals for the funding are to:

  • Support 30 scalable tech startups with $5,000 to $30,000 each from crowdfunding members
  • Engage 50 new angel investors to provide $750,000 in seed funding and sponsor 15 startups through acceleration
  • Cultivate 25 new venture capital firms to invest $1.5 million to $5 million in scalable tech startups in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

The project is also designed to be 100 percent sustainable after the proposed three-year project timeline.

NMU's Shine

NMU is creating new professional credentials in the outdoor recreation industry through the university’s Sustainability Hub for Innovation & Environment (SHINE) program headed by Professors Jes Thompson ’01 BS and Scott Jordan.  SHINE is currently offering paid sustainability initiative internships with U.P. businesses and is also partnering with the U.P. Land Conservancy to provide student experiential learning opportunities and field-based research in a way that also advances the 186-acre Dead River Community Forest, a few miles from campus.

"Community partnerships strengthen and deepen the experiential learning opportunities that we can offer NMU students—from collaboration and problem-solving skills to professional networking— our graduates get more out of their degree because of these partnerships," said Thompson.

The School of Health and Human Performance has also just introduced an online master’s degree in Administration of Outdoor Recreation and Nature-Based Tourism.

Shophouse Park

Serial entrepreneur Dave Ollila ’13 BS began innovating and celebrating outdoor recreation before it was cool. He invented an early version of what would become a Go-Pro and backcountry skis, pioneered extreme outdoor sports videos and silent sports publications and more, holding around 16 patents. His newest project is Shophouse Park, a mixed-use development combining housing with maker and small manufacturing spaces, with out-the-door access to the testing ground that is Marquette and its natural environment. It will be located off Hawley Street in North Marquette.

His vision is in welcoming those of others, but he also specifically sees incredible opportunities to disrupt the gas-powered ORV space with electrically powered snowmobiles, ATVs, boats, etc. And then use our clean transportation to increase mobility, using trails as futuristic, earth-friendly highways.

He hopes to use the Marquette venture as a model to expand to other rural communities to create economic opportunities where few currently exist.

“People are realizing the quality of life in Marquette is really high, particularly if you have a remote job and above-average income. People who moved away for jobs or education can move back,” Ollila told Rural Innovation Exchange.

Dave Nyberg said that he hopes NMU can play a part in the ventures of Shophouse Park. “It’s exciting to think of what opportunities that could create for students, including applied learning in product development and sustainability initiatives.”

U.P. WIN for Health Care

A collaborative effort to increase Upper Peninsula residents' access to health care by expanding relevant workforce training, education and employment in the region has received a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The project is called U.P. WIN, short for the Upper Peninsula Workforce Innovation Network.

Elise Bur, Director of NMU’s Center for Rural Health, is the project director. Bur said shortages of community health workers and paramedics in the Upper Peninsula continues to be an ongoing challenge that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our communities are in need of and deserve access to affordable, quality health care services,” she said. “By understanding and addressing the social determinants of health that contribute to health inequity and disparities, we can prevent chronic diseases that are the leading causes of death in the U.P., as well as in the state and nation."

One of the central elements of U.P. WIN is to create stronger links between training programs and the health care entities that will ultimately employ or rely on these public health professionals. The network's goals are to:

  • Develop and expand sustainable community paramedicine and community health worker models in the U.P.
  • Leverage EMS professionals to address at-risk populations, manage patients with chronic diseases in-home, and decrease hospital readmissions, while avoiding unnecessary emergency department visits
  • Identify, educate and provide cross-training opportunities for community health workers through NMU's Center for Rural Health
  • Develop approaches in training existing staff to maximize their clinical and operational capacity.

From Old Hospital to Vibrant Neighborhood

A public-private partnership has formed between several key institutions, led by the NMU Foundation, with the shared goal of aligning resources and visions to catalyze a mixed-use development on College Avenue, at the former Marquette General Hospital site. The current site consists of several vacant buildings and spans 23 acres.

Economic feasibility analysis shows the viability of an estimated $166 million mixed-use development, featuring a wide range of housing, retail and commercial space, along with green space and pedestrian corridors to better connect the development and surrounding neighborhoods to NMU’s campus.

The NMU Foundation’s primary focus in leading this public-private partnership is to align resources required for demolition and site preparation, successfully engage a development partner, and become an investor in the project to advance mutually beneficial outcomes for the city, community, and NMU. As an equity investor, the Foundation’s return on investment will come back to support NMU’s students, programs, and facilities.

A request for qualifications for a developer partner was issued in March, and in May, the NMU Foundation Board of Trustees authorized Veridea Group, a real estate development company, as master developer. In September, the NMU Foundation and UP Health System – Marquette closed on the purchase agreement, with the Foundation acquiring the property for $1 and UPHS providing $4 million, which may be used to support the cost of  conversion, demolition and hazardous materials removal. An additional $16 million has been or is being finalized from the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity and from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

It is anticipated that demolition will take 18 months, with interior demo beginning this winter and exterior next spring. After demolition commences, the Foundation will establish a business entity partnership with Veridea.

Watch the progress at renewcollegeavemqt.org

Reflecting on these many partnerships between NMU, national, state and local government entities, agencies and organizations, and their ability to achieve funding, Nyberg added, “People are really making things happen here. It’s amazing, promising and a testament to the U.P.’s can-do spirit and future.”


Illustration by social media design student Ania Hyatt