Grand Rapids Chamber Planning Regional Conference

June 16, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — Move over, southeast Michigan. The western half of the state is planning to get some face time with Lansing.

The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce is planning a two-day Regional Policy Conference for hundreds of business, civic and government leaders in downtown Grand Rapids on Thursday and Friday, Sept. 18 and 19. The inaugural conference at the JW Marriott and DeVos Place is for business and community leaders from throughout western Michigan — from Traverse City to Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids to the lakeshore.

"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," said Jeanne Englehart, president of the GRACC. She said Michigan is "at a critical crossroads," and the conference will be an opportunity for "large and small businesses throughout the region to have access to some of the most influential business leaders, and to have a voice in the policy issues that affect their bottom lines."

Gov. Jennifer Granholm has been invited to attend and lead the closing luncheon, but a spokesperson for her office said it was too soon to determine whether or not she would be able to attend.

The Regional Policy Conference is similar to the Detroit Regional Chamber's Mackinac Policy Conference, which just marked its 28th year. Many political and business leaders from West Michigan have claimed over the years that Southeast Michigan gets too much of the state government's attention, at the expense of West Michigan.

Conference highlights include panel discussions, breakout sessions, a keynote speech by nationally syndicated columnist George Will, and a "VIP PAC reception" with Michigan Speaker of the House Andy Dillon and Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop.

Attendees will actually vote on issues and concepts to decide the content of what Chamber officials call a "playbook" for western Michigan's priorities.

Breakout session topics are "reforming Michigan's education system, lean government and Michigan's work force of the future, which will focus on Right to Work," according to a statement issued by GRACC.

Amway Corp. founder Richard M. DeVos will present a keynote speech on "Public/Private Partnerships."

Other West Michigan chambers are also involved, as are several regional economic development organizations.

A key objective of the conference is to "let Lansing know where we come together" on the issues, said Cindy Larsen of the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce at a planning meeting last week.

The weakness of the U.S. auto industry is usually cited first as the root of Michigan's economic downturn, but the conference will pointedly remind state leaders that there is other industry in Michigan. The first day of the conference will feature a panel presentation entitled "Our Big Three: Design & Manufacturing for the New Economy." The panelists will be the leaders of Steelcase, Haworth and Herman Miller.

Planning has been under way for the conference for months, according to the GRACC, with more than 50 business leaders from the entire west side of Michigan considering policy issues and concepts that should interest all attendees. Event co-chairs are Jeff Connolly, president of West Michigan Operations, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan; Doug DeVos, president of Amway; Jim Dunlap, CEO, Huntington Bank; and former U.S. ambassador and businessman Peter Secchia.

DeVos said at the planning meeting last week that the Regional Policy Conference "can't just be a nice time where we all talk to each other, then walk away." He said it has to lead to action through development of the major priorities for western Michigan, based on research of "the facts" as opposed to "opinions."

Secchia said he is sure the MBT will be discussed, and he groused about some of the economic initiatives that have been enacted lately by the state legislature.

Dunlap said the state tax on the commercial real estate business is higher in Michigan than any other place his company serves. He also said the decision by Comerica Bank to move its headquarters out of Michigan was a loss to the state economy — and a result of policy decisions. He said it is "getting harder and harder to put a favorable spin on the consequences of these policy decisions."

Politicians look to their constituents to suggest answers to problems facing state government, said Dunlap. "When they have to figure these out on their own, that's when they're in danger," he quipped.

Connolly said Blue Cross Blue Shield sees companies leaving Michigan.

"We must make Michigan attractive again" to business, said Connolly, adding his company is very concerned about the next five to 10 years. Hesaid there are other issues besides the manufacturing economy in Michigan. One is the growing cost of health care.

Jared Rodriguez, vice president of Government Affairs at the GRACC, spoke at the planning meeting about the "playbook" of West Michigan priorities that will be drafted, based on the votes of conference attendees in September. He said the Chamber believes 500 or more people will attend the Regional Policy Conference, plus a large number of state lawmakers and some federal office holders.

On the Thursday evening of the conference, there will be "afterglow" parties for the attendees at four nightspots in downtown Grand Rapids. Rodriguez said the parties will be good opportunities for the attendees to meet informally with many of the state's elected officials. "At night — this is where most of the work is going to get done."

The GRACC plans to hold the conference in West Michigan every other year, said Rodriguez.

Conference fees paid before Aug. 1 are $425 for members of the chambers in Grand Rapids, Muskegon and Holland and the Grand Haven/Spring Lake/Ferrysburg chamber. Nonmembers are $650. People not attending the conference may attend the Thursday dinner for a fee of $125. Attendance at the VIP PAC reception is $150.

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