Acknowledging that the impact of the state’s slumping economy has crimped some initial momentum created by last year’s debut Regional Policy Conference, its organizers remain vigilant in pursuing business community objectives that emerged from the two-day session last September. Successful efforts to unite the concerns of the east and west side of Michigan have been encouraging to the ongoing process, the group said.
“We’re staying the course,” said Jeanne Englehart, president/CEO of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. “The huge downturn in the economy has enabled us to crystallize some of our messages.”
The Business Journal editorial staff met recently with key participants in the Regional Policy Conference that was held in Grand Rapids last year and will be staged again Sept. 16-17, 2010. Progress — or the lack thereof — on the five policy directives emerging from the conference is documented in this edition.
Participating in the discussion, in addition to Englehart, were event co-chairs Jeff Connolly, president of West Michigan Operations, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan; Doug DeVos, president of Amway Corp.; and former U.S. ambassador and businessman Peter Secchia. They were joined by Jared Rodriguez, senior vice president of government affairs for the Grand Rapids Chamber and director of the 2010 Regional Policy Conference. The event’s other co-chair, Jim Dunlap, CEO of Huntington Bank, was unavailable for the session.
“We were met with some unanticipated headwinds,” DeVos said. “It’s been a function of getting people’s attention. We’ve had great engagement in the business community. The overall economic downturn has led to an even bigger crisis in Lansing.”
The opportunity to influence state policy changes identified during the conference will be enhanced significantly, group members said, with the recent announcement that Detroit Renaissance has changed its name to Business Leaders for Michigan, with an expanded organization and broader focus that now includes West Michigan CEOs.
Connolly noted such melding of interests are essential to “band together to build some type of bridge between east and west. We recognize there are inherent differences, but, again, a lot of our efforts are in common.”
Announced simultaneously was a movement by 14 business organizations across Michigan, led by the state’s largest chambers of commerce, to send state government leaders a list of suggested changes to reform the structure of state government, with the aim of influencing the 2010 budget process currently in flux.
Rodriguez said the full-court-press on legislators and the governor is in pursuit of structural reform that must “move forward, looking three to five years out. We’ve had great regional participation within the (policy conference) task forces. We feel we are positioned as a region through our conference directives to move forward in this process.”
Secchia sees hopeful signs that business leaders in the Detroit region may finally be able to break loose from what he identified as previous political obstacles that hampered united policy approaches for the entire state.
“What’s needed is a statewide conceptual approach that we tried 15 years ago,” said Secchia, who maintains that the previous effort to unite business interests waned when the gatherings “developed into a rich man’s Rotary Club” that didn’t include enough government involvement and interaction.
“People didn’t want to make decisions in Detroit,” Secchia said. “Maybe that’s why they’re bankrupt now.
“Executives have to have some chutzpah,” Secchia said. “What’s difficult is that, in the big mess of Detroit, (it has been) difficult to get folks to stand out above the pack. Now we think we’ve got the connections to do that.”
Putting united pressure on the legislature and governor’s office is primary to the collaborative efforts finding success, Secchia said.
“The problem with the divide is it is there — it is in Lansing,” he said “All the money flows down the other side of the slope and nothing comes to this side of the slope to support the arts, culture, the small business community.”
DeVos said West Michigan voices are being heard more frequently. “It’s a new day. This is a challenge with which we’re all impacted. The limited interaction I’ve had has been very positive.”