Perceptions are everything, or so it is said. The economic tale of two cities — and their perceptions — is told in a report this week on page 1, the result of a project partnership between Grand Rapids Business Journal and Crain’s Detroit Business to assess how business leaders in Michigan’s two largest cities view one another and the economic well-being of the state.
Both business newspapers contracted with Lansing-based Epic MRA to survey 200 executives in Eastern Michigan and 200 leaders in West Michigan. Ed Sarpolus, who led the project for Epic-MRA, noted that West Michigan executives in the ’90s attempted cross-state exchanges to better link executives east and west. That effort was lead by Sibsco owner Peter Secchia and then Alticor President Dick DeVos. Sarpolus noted, “(They) attempted to come together and bridge the barrier between the two regions. Some of that bridge still has to be completed. There is a lack of trust between regions, a lack of understanding.”
There were common touch points on which executives near and far could agree: West Michigan scores among all executives as a region stronger in a committed labor force, job opportunity for college graduates, strong municipal governance and leadership, and transportation and infrastructure. Southeast strengths include higher education, cultural and regional attractions, social and intellectual diversity, and a business climate more tolerant of differences and receptive to new ideas.
Leaders in both regions well understand the weak links, and both regions are addressing those inadequacies. The West Michigan Chamber Coalition (Grand Rapids Area, Muskegon, Holland, and Grand Haven, Spring Lake, Ferrysburg chambers) is spending much time and money on diversity programs. The West Michigan Strategic Alliance has been able to create partners in West Michigan education systems. But whether diversity programs will become a top priority among business owners who provide the issue’s answer of “action” is as much a guess as whether an “entitlement attitude” can be changed in Eastern Michigan.
The fact is those roadblocks to growth and change exist in both regions.
Interestingly, Sarpolus also commented that despite West Michigan’s economic woes in the furniture industry and manufacturing, “Everything is so positive in West Michigan despite the losses of Pfizer and manufacturing jobs. West Michigan has a smaller population, so everything has a quicker impact on businesses.”
The optimism is built of West Michigan’s storied “strong work ethic,” business partnerships and new coalitions. The perceptively flawless private and public entity response last week to the helicopter crash atop Spectrum Health’s Butterworth Hospital is a vivid example. Other cities would be hard-pressed to avoid bureaucratic bungling and egomania under such circumstances. Just ask Kwame Kilpatrick’s business community.
The question is whether either will be able to escape from the confines of problems unique to each side of the state, or whether business leaders in both regions will finish building the bridge for a more prosperous state.