Time To Make Dust Not Eat It

June 5, 2002
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The economies of West Michigan and the state of Michigan have seen some turbulent times during the last few years. Most recently, the acquisition of long-time local institution Old Kent Bank by the Ohio-based Fifth/Third Bank resulted in the announced layoff of 1,400 workers. These events clearly signal that it is time for our area and our state to plan for the future.

We must remember that much of what happens economically depends on the actions we take today. We must act decisively to ensure the economic security of West Michigan now and for our children. While we may be disappointed by changes that already have taken place, they shouldn’t consume us. Instead, we must respond to them.

Economic change and development is a continuous process. In West Michigan, we have seen local companies such as FMB, Beverage America, Batts Inc., Prince Corp., Old Kent Bank and others acquired by larger corporations, often from other areas of the country. At the state level, we witnessed one of our major corporations, Chrysler, acquired by the German automotive giant, Daimler-Benz. While it is difficult to judge the ultimate impact of these mergers on West Michigan or the state, one thing is clear: The future of employment decisions and investments by the resulting corporate structures now will be made by individuals who don’t live here. They don’t call West Michigan home and their employees are not their neighbors.

Our communities have lost something significant by no longer being the home base for some of our major corporate citizens. We are now just another location in a large corporate environment. The potential short- and long-term impacts of this situation can already be witnessed through the recent actions of the new DaimlerChrysler, which callously announced cuts of nearly 26,000 employees and other belt-tightening moves that will have a far-reaching effect on Chrysler’s employees and plants.

These changes also reflect the changing nature of our corporations. They have matured into global enterprises that must compete on an international basis. We shouldn’t be surprised by their acquisitions. They are compliments and testaments to the strength and vitality of our local economy. We need to recognize that in order to survive in this changing marketplace, we must strive to be an attractive location for investment. We must continue to encourage new businesses to locate or begin their corporate lives in West Michigan. We need to encourage a new cadre of local businesses led by individuals who have deep, personal ties to our community, not because they have investments here, but because they live here. West Michigan and the state have met the challenge before and we must do it again.

How do we maintain our vitality for future generations? What will attract investment and entrepreneurs? We must maintain a highly talented and skilled work force. We must build the infrastructure that makes the cost of business in West Michigan low and will enable our current and future companies to compete in the Information Age. We must welcome new industries like biotechnology into West Michigan through investments like the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids. We need to recognize that our manufacturing base must not stagnate — it must continue to evolve.

We also must continue to make West Michigan a quality place to live. We must continue our tradition of educational excellence. We must maintain and expand a diversity of activities in the arts. We must protect and enhance the environment in which we live and work. We must maintain and improve the safety of our neighborhoods. West Michigan needs to continue its reputation as a place where people want to live and raise their families.

As these changes in our economy continue, we need to closely monitor the fairness of these corporate mergers on the employees they involve. Far too often, these acquisitions seem to benefit only a few, while harming many through ensuing layoffs, restructuring and reduction of customer services.

But while customers have the opportunity to go elsewhere, employees often are left holding the short end of the stick. It may be time to look at new worker protections and legal remedies for employees negatively affected by corporate mergers.

Lee Iacocca once said, “If you are not making dust, you are eating it.” West Michigan and the state of Michigan can claim proudly that for much of the last century, we have set world-class standards of excellence in industry upon industry. We can claim proudly that as the economy has evolved, much of West Michigan has adapted in an effective and timely way to preserve our standard of living and compete on a global basis. We, as a community, must rededicate ourselves to staying on the leading edge of the economy. We need to keep making dust.

That’s why I am excited about the regional planning commission headed by Jim Brooks. I hope that its recommendations will help draw the map to our continued economic and social prosperity. Our region is changing, but there is no reason why we can’t — with proper leadership — build upon our rich traditions. Thirty years from now, I hope we can look back to these days as the time when we built the foundation for a new and even stronger West Michigan.

Congressman Hoekstra, R-Holland, represents the Second District of Michigan. He is chairman of the Select Education Subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, vice-chairman of the House Budget Committee and a member of the House Select Committee on Intelligence.

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