Meijer chief talks about local government

April 13, 2012
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Meijer Inc. President Mark Murray has more than a casual interest in government. In fact, Murray told Grand Valley Metro Council members last week that he spent seven years of his public-sector career in the state’s social services department before moving on to the economic development office and then to directing the state budget and finally to becoming state treasurer.

“Most of my life was a functionary role in government,” said Murray, who became president of Grand Valley State University 11 years ago before joining Meijer in 2006. “If you sum it up, I’m more a creature of government than business.”

It’s very likely his personal involvement in government drew him to One Kent Coalition, a group of about 20 private individuals and former public officials who announced early last year they would lead a legislative campaign to merge Kent County with the city of Grand Rapids in order to form a new metropolitan government similar to those in Louisville and Indianapolis.

“I was part of the early discussions with One Kent,” said Murray. “If there have been any (recent) meetings going on, I’m not aware of those. (But) I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to reconvene the members.”

One Kent has taken a timeout to allow a county collaboration work group to review potential areas of cooperation and possible consolidations of government services.

It’s also likely Murray’s personal involvement in government, combined with his current position at Meijer, drew the Metro Council to ask him to share his thoughts on the importance of having governments cooperate. He was the council’s guest speaker last week at its quarterly luncheon series. GVMC includes most of the region’s counties, cities and townships as members.

A vital issue Murray brought up was K-12 education, which he acknowledged the Metro Council has no jurisdiction over. But he said education’s importance can’t be overstated because the area’s business community has a lengthy history of entrepreneurism that has led to the region’s success.

Murray felt education has to be the best it can be so that the tradition here can continue and business can stay on its successful run. He said today’s young people are even more entrepreneurial than those of his generation, remarking that they need assistance from local government to get their ideas off the ground. He felt government officials can do that by keeping them in mind when they enact resolutions and ordinances.

“They need answers. They must comply with laws, but they need a helping hand,” he said of today’s aspiring business wannabes.

Murray also told council members that some of Meijer’s employees, like a lot of other workers in the area, aren’t becoming independently wealthy. “The clerks at Meijer don’t make a lot of money,” he said. As a result, Murray felt the tax dollars that governments collect from them should be used efficiently and to their benefit.

“We need effective quality government, but you need us,” he said of business in general. “We need you to be as efficient and creative as possible.”

Murray also said government needs to pitch in to bring more people to Michigan and higher wages to its workers. “We want 12 million people here, not 8 million. We’re currently sitting at 10 million,” he said of the state’s population.

Murray then pointed to Louisville and Indianapolis, two cities that have merged with their respective counties. He said a major benefit of those consolidations is that businesses can locate and expand there and only deal with a singular set of rules and regulations — sometimes even a single individual — instead of having to cross a county’s municipal boundaries and face a different set of ordinances and officials. He referred to both mergers as solution-oriented consolidations.

“We like working in Indianapolis. It’s a place where we know we’ll get straight answers,” he said, while adding that Meijer looks for uniformity in a locale’s rules before it considers investing there.

Murray said both cities offer lessons that could be helpful here, but he cautioned Metro Council members that the decisions made there were answers to local problems and can’t simply be imported here. “You can’t just copy things,” he said. “I’d say the collaboration here is above average.”

Murray felt local government officials have to be clear on what they’re trying to accomplish and limit those goals to a couple that can be reached through a solid public infrastructure system. Above all, Murray seemed to feel that government officials have to decide whether business investors are their friends or the enemy.

“It’s in the ductwork, it’s in the air: There is a suspicion of business,” he said. “And in some cases, it’s not unfounded.”

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