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Optimism at state's top annual leadership conference obscures some serious challenges

Jun 5, 2017

The party’s over on Mackinac Island.

If that’s what you insist on calling the Detroit Chamber’s annual policy conference on this island frozen in time — complete with its high-end hotel prices and tony wine bars. The only thing that moves fast here are the cash registers and welling nostalgia.

That’s a problem. Michigan and its largest city do their best work in a crisis. But as 1,700 or so of the state’s business movers and political shakers descended on the Grand Hotel this past week, there is no real crisis to rally the collective mind.

Credit Daniel Howes / Detroit News

Automakers are booking record North American profits in the longest-running car and truck sales boom since the 1960s. The city of Detroit is out of bankruptcy. It’s hitting its financial targets, and showing signs of economic reinvestment, chiefly downtown and along lower Woodward.

The city of Flint is back on Detroit water and its mayor is talking about reinvestment and partnership, not finger-pointing and politics.

Financial crises in Lansing are a fading memory. And that’s enabling the Republican-controlled Legislature to conjure new and meddlesome ways to needle the teachers' unions, to slow-walk development incentives, or to gut curriculum standards.

If history is any guide — and it is — now is when the political and business leadership around here tends to grow complacent. And complacency kills, metaphorically speaking, as this town and its people can attest.

No question, Michigan and its largest city are rebounding. Detroit’s seen some $7 billion worth of investment since 2013. Auto sales are running at historic highs and unemployment is running at its lowest point this century, even in Detroit.

But the state’s comeback ain’t what it used to be.

The state long ago lost its perch as a national leader in per capita income. Population growth statewide is mostly non-existent, and Detroit continues to lose residents, albeit at a slower rate.

Growth in taxpayer obligations to past and present public employees is outpacing growth in personal income and property values, affecting tax revenues. And personal income growth between 2000 and 2013 is less than half the national average.

Educational attainment is worsening across the state and across both rich and poor districts, says Education Trust Midwest. No wonder the Legislature is pushing to lower curriculum standards and ease requirements for math and foreign languages. Its leaders must think Michigan kids will get ahead by falling further behind.

Yep, complacency kills.

Governor Rick Snyder knows it, judging by his repeated efforts to say just that. Mayor Mike Duggan knows it, in part because he’s up for re-election at the most hopeful time Detroit’s seen in 50 years.

The challenge is getting the folks to know it and back efforts to quicken the competitive metabolism. To stand behind incentive plans that could bring thousands of advanced manufacturing jobs to the state. To toughen educational standards, not weaken them and consign another generation to second class.

The work’s not done, and it won’t be anytime soon.

Daniel Howes is a columnist with The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.