Grand Rapids Man About Lansing

June 2, 2003
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When it comes to business interests in Michigan, the cities of Grand Rapids and Detroit are getting closer to meeting in the middle.

And now that the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce has set up shop in Lansing, Michigan’s two major economic municipalities are doing just that.

“We have what I would describe as an excellent relationship with the Detroit Regional Chamber and with the Michigan Chamber,” said Rusty Merchant, vice president of public policy and government affairs for the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. “We work closely with those folks to advance a pro-business agenda in the Legislature and to promote common interests.”

Since opening the office adjacent to the Capitol Building in December 2002, Merchant has represented West Michigan’s business interests in Lansing for each session of the House of Representatives. Merchant has attended those session days since being appointed to his position in March 2000, and the chamber has had people there in similar roles before that.

“We’ve tried to step up those efforts even more, and to have a physical presence there really helps those efforts,” Merchant said. “We want to make sure we’re coming out of this economic downturn and that we’re ready to rock ’n’ roll — so to speak — when things get going again.

“The Lansing office allows us to be visible and to let our members and state legislators know that we are there and why we are there. It allows us to be more productive.”

The office is located at 221 N. Walnut.

Merchant spends three days a week in Lansing while the Legislature is in session, and has a base of operations in the new office. Detroit and Grand Rapids are the only two municipal chambers of commerce in Michigan with their own offices in Lansing.

"Part of the Lansing culture — to be successful — is to actually be there,” Merchant said. “Previously, I was in Lansing every session day, but did not have a base of operations to work out of.

“We need to be there and need a place to hang our hat for e-mails, voicemails and to do the work to be effective. The best way to do that is to have a presence there. It shows our commitment to government affairs and our commitment to help businesses succeed.

“Our members can use the office if they are in Lansing on business, and park their car, hang their hat and sit down in our conference room and get some work done while they are there.”

Merchant shuns the “lobbyist” label, but says his mission is to protect the interests of businesses in West Michigan.

“We advocate on behalf of business,” Merchant said. “We are there meeting with legislators, talking to public policy makers and meeting with administration to make sure the voice of business is heard.

“We are the voice of West Michigan business.”

Another offshoot of the Lansing office is strengthening the relationship with the Detroit Chamber of Commerce. Although both cities have their own specific agendas, they have found some common goals and work together to strengthen those positions, according to Merchant.

“I work with folks from Detroit or the Michigan Chamber every day in some way, shape or form,” he said. “That’s a win-win for business, because you have more voices saying the same thing.

“In Grand Rapids, we do have agendas specific to West Michigan like making sure West Michigan gets a fair share of funding and making sure infrastructure needs of West Michigan stays in the forefront of funding.”

Other hot-button issues, according to Merchant, include keeping taxes low, single business taxes, small business regulations, fee structures and tax loopholes to make up revenue during shortfalls, as well as small group market health insurance reform.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on and no shortage of things to do,” Merchant said. “There are a lot of issues, but we have a couple issues we think are really important, and are on the front burner right now.”

Those issues include the cancellation or delay of major road projects in West Michigan as Gov. Jennifer Granholm attempts to balance the budget, and keeping the Michigan Economic Development Corp. intact as budget woes force cutbacks of staff and state-funded programs.

“We need to get those road projects reinstated, especially the 36th Street interchange to I-96 and U.S. 131 expanded down to the Indiana border,” Merchant said. “Those projects are critical if West Michigan is to continue to grow as an industrial region.

“We also need to keep the Michigan Economic Development Corp. intact as the economic development engine in the state to make sure businesses keep coming into Michigan, are staying in Michigan and are expanding in Michigan.

“One of our members said the elimination of the MEDC should be called the ‘Jobs for Alabama Strategy.’

“We have supported reductions in state spending for areas of government,” Merchant added. “The state can reduce spending without eliminating priority programs.

“We need the MEDC and transportation funding for the west side of the state. Those things are critical to continue economic growth in Michigan. You just can’t stop or eliminate those things and expect us to jump right out of the downturn we’re in.”           

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