Policies In Focus

September 13, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — The first West Michigan Regional Policy Conference, similar in nature to the Detroit Regional Chamber's Mackinac Policy Conference, is poised for a successful launch this week.

"Our original expectations were that we would have maybe 300 to 350 people, because this is our first time," said Jeanne Englehart, president of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, a key part of the West Michigan Chamber Coalition producing the conference at DeVos Place and the JW Marriott on Thursday and Friday. Conference registration remains open.

Despite original expectations, as of last week there were "well over 500 attendees registered, so we are thrilled," added Englehart.

Nationally syndicated columnist George Will is scheduled to make the keynote speech on Thursday evening.

The policy conference is open to business and community leaders from throughout the western half of the Lower Peninsula — from Traverse City to Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids to the lakeshore. But there will also be more than 60 elected officials in attendance, including some from beyond West Michigan.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm will not be in attendance: She was invited, but she will be on a trade mission overseas, according to Jared Rodriguez, vice president of government affairs at the chamber.

"We're going to have people from all walks of life attending," said Rodriguez, adding that conferees range from representatives of nonprofit organizations to corporate CEOs to state legislators. He said most attendees are members of chambers from around Michigan.

Rodriguez was pleased at least 20 percent of attendees are from beyond the Grand Rapids region, reinforcing the goal that it be a regional conference.

Following the main dinner Thursday evening at the JW Marriott, there will be afterglow parties at three locations in downtown Grand Rapids, with transportation via trolley service to and from conferees’ hotels.

Englehart said that based on the number of hotel rooms booked for the conference, plus all the other costs of putting on the two-day event, the economic impact will be about half a million dollars.

Registration for the conference is $525 per person for members of the chambers in Grand Haven/Spring Lake/Ferrysburg, Grand Rapids, Holland, Kalamazoo, Muskegon and Traverse City. Nonmembers are charged $750. A private PAC reception late Thursday afternoon will feature Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, plus Dillon and Bishop. It is a separate event that required a personal contribution in advance of $150, or $200 at the door.

The idea for a West Michigan regional public policy conference began as part of the GRACC's 120th anniversary celebration. The West Michigan Chamber Coalition then decided to try to make it a regular event every two years.

At the conference, participants will have the opportunity to engage in regional and state policy discussions and participate in moving the West Michigan pro-business agenda forward by developing and strengthening regional policy goals and initiatives. In the final hours of the conference on Friday, all attendees will vote electronically to determine the most important policy messages to send to the lawmakers in Lansing.

Englehart said previously that "the opening session, Michigan Means Business, will serve as a framework for two days of discussion aimed at prioritizing policy changes that could stimulate Michigan's economy."

Many times over the years, West Michigan business executives and politicians have expressed the sentiment that southeast Michigan has undue influence on Michigan's government, to the detriment of West Michigan. The new West Michigan Regional Policy Conference is similar to the Detroit Regional Chamber's Mackinac Policy Conference, which just marked its 28th year.

The regional aspect of the West Michigan conference is illustrated by the title of the major session at 1:30 on Thursday: "Our Big Three: Design & Manufacturing for the New Economy." "Our Big Three" is a reference to the three largest U.S. office furniture companies, all located in West Michigan. The panel leading that discussion will be composed of the CEOs of Steelcase, Herman Miller and Haworth, and the moderator will be former U.S. ambassador and businessman Peter Secchia. Englehart said she is not aware of any time in the past when all three of the CEOs — James Hackett, Brian Walker and Richard Haworth — appeared together on a panel at a public forum like this.

Later Thursday afternoon, the conferees will select from one of three simultaneous panel discussions: Michigan's Workforce of the Future, Michigan's Education System, and Governance.

A document prepared for the Governance session by the Anderson Economic Group LLC states that "as state and local budgets become tighter, many start looking toward ways government can streamline services and become more efficient." Issues involve wasteful "fragmentation" in government and the sharing of resources and services by communities to reduce the cost of government.

The Governance session will be moderated by former Republican Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema. Panelists are Phil Power, founder and president of The Center for Michigan; Michael Shea of Government Strategies; and Louis Schimmel, director of Municipal Finance for the Mackinac Center.

Panelists for "Michigan's Workforce of the Future" are: Bill Black, Legislative & Community Affairs director, Michigan Teamsters; Birgit Klohs, president/CEO of The Right Place Inc.; and Stan Greer, project director at the National Institute for Labor Relations Research. That session will be moderated by WOOD TV political reporter Rick Albin.

The discussion on the state's future work force will focus on Michigan demographics and an overview of Right to Work laws in the U.S.

"Michigan's Educational System" will be the focus of a panel moderated by former lieutenant governor Dick Posthumus. Panelists include J.C. Huizenga, founder of National Heritage Academies; John Norquist, president, Congress for the New Urbanism; and Steve Cousins, superintendent of the Reeths-Puffer School District.

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