Region Uniting To Shape Policy

June 16, 2008
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Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce is putting its money on a new initiative — a long time coming and a long time discussed. The Chamber last week outlined its plans for a two-day Regional Policy Conference, modeled after one held annually by the Detroit Chamber on Mackinac Island in May. But the words “policy conference” and the legislative guest list are likely to be the only similarities.

As Grand Rapids Business Journal and Crain’s Detroit Business discovered in a joint survey of Michigan business executives conducted by Epic MRA in May (see the Business Journal June 2 issue) two distinct cultures are alive and well in Michigan. Perhaps it is most succinctly defined by West Michigan’s king of one-liners, former Ambassador Peter Secchia, who attended the GRACC Policy Conference briefing and noted east-west differences with the comment, “Fieger’s not guilty and Kwame’s still mayor, so I guess that’s pretty different.”

There may be differences but the conference seeks to unite. West Michigan’s leading executives are planning and participating in the Sept. 18-19 conference, unlike their brethren partaking in the Detroit conference. The planning core includes Secchia, Huntington Bank Regional President Jim Dunlap, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Regional President Jeff Connolly and Amway President and COO Doug DeVos. Most extraordinary is that the presidents/CEOs of West Michigan’s Big 3 — Steelcase, Herman Miller and Haworth — have agreed to share the stage as panelists regarding the new economy.

It will not be held at a special tourist-type venue; the planners want to get work done. DeVos commented that the Policy Conference “can’t just be a nice time where we all talk to each other, then walk away.”

It will not be open to GRACC members; the chamber was deliberate in inviting only regional chambers and economic development groups to participate, especially those from Traverse City to Battle Creek. Most of those business groups have indicated they would attend and are actively promoting it. GRACC President Jeanne Englehart is especially hopeful that the region’s small business owners will be involved. She is especially inclusive of “ideas a little bit different from those of Grand Rapids” to be included in the mix, noting some distinct differences between Grand Rapids and Muskegon as an example.

The biggest difference, however, is likely to be the fact that the conference is planned to create a West Michigan policy planning paper to be used as an action agenda for each of the participating chambers and business owners. It will no doubt live beyond the conference dates, and the Michigan legislature is hereby notified of this group’s tenacity.

Businesses in East and West Michigan may not be able to assimilate or change the cultures (anytime soon), but all Michigan businesses agree to the absolute necessity to change the destructive path of the legislature. Dunlap was poignant with his remarks citing the Michigan Business Tax consequences, especially in terms of tax impact on commercial real estate business, which Dunlap said is higher in Michigan than any other state Huntington serves. He blamed Comerica’s abandonment of its Michigan headquarters on state policy decisions that directly impact the economy.

The Regional Policy Conference is a long time coming, and absolutely necessary to stop the destruction.

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