Forum seeking middle ground

October 6, 2008
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The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce regional policy conference pulled West Michigan executive lions together for two days of no-nonsense decisions last month. Next week, the University of Michigan/Urban Land Institute Real Estate Forum (principally sponsored by the U-M Taubman College of Architecture) leads an entire state to West Michigan’s front porch to view and take note of regional successes. The backdrop of dire national economic news makes the gathering all the more important — and offers a regional rainbow.

The conference has been held for 22 years in the Detroit region. Planners say they took a chance in suggesting it move to Grand Rapids for the first time in its history, but the overwhelming response to the suggestion was not only positive but one of excitement. During a September meeting of the planners, ASTI Environmental’s Tom Wackerman said planners “were blown over with support.” Conference planners, some of them doing business with Grand Rapids shingles though headquartered in the Detroit area, noted that the city has revitalized itself, and they want to know how it was done.

Wackerman also said the group is enthusiastic about introducing East-siders to the West side.

It is no secret that east and west Michigan have differing operating philosophies, some perceptions that may or may not be true, and some measure of disdain one for the other. Former U.S. Ambassador Peter Secchia told the Business Journal that he and other West Michigan executives had tried 15 years ago to find common ground, “because we were going through a period of lobbing hand grenades at each other.”

Included in this issue is a supplement, East Meets West, intended to guide some of those discussions and “show” West Michigan to those attending the conference next week. (It also is included in this week’s edition of Crain’s Detroit Business, and was produced by newsroom staff at the Business Journal and Crain’s.)

The Real Estate Forum provides one bridge to working together, and a domino effect that helps build the state’s economy.

During the Detroit Chamber of Commerce policy conference and the West Michigan conference last month, attendees were polled to determine what issues are top of mind. Both East and West want to reform state government. Eastern Michigan businesses would reportedly be happy to eliminate business tax surcharges; West Michigan businesses want to eliminate (and replace) the Michigan Business Tax, period. West Michigan is adamant about making Michigan a “right to work” state; both East and West want to attract and retain talent.

Clearly there are important issues on which there is agreement. East and West want to reform state government. Collaboration to do so will require some measure of respect, which may beget trust between the regions. And the real estate forum bringing Eastern Michigan businesses to Grand Rapids for the “West Side Story” is, at the least, a start.

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