Let’s talk about Mackinac

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It’s expected to be sunny on Mackinac Island this week as business, civic and political leaders gather for the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual policy conference.

But they leave behind storm clouds at home that portend choppy waters.

The official agenda contains a healthy dose of woke offerings, reflecting the conference’s commitment to advancing the goals of diversity, equity and inclusion.

The real corn-grinding, however, still happens in the off-curriculum conversations between investors, job creators and policymakers in private, away from the conference stage.

The pooh-bahs have a lot to talk about this year – and a lot to fear, including:

  • The fate of downtown Detroit. In recent years, it has been almost taboo to focus on downtown, lest anyone get the impression that companies are favoring downtown over neighborhoods. But what has happened downtown since the pandemic cannot be ignored. Visitors are absent by more than a third in 2019, according to the Downtown Detroit Partnership. And their absence is more noticeable on working days. Much office space is occupied sporadically, as companies are still allowing their staff to work from home or have adopted a hybrid model. The pre-COVID vision for downtown is no longer relevant. At least some of the office space that has been built or rehabilitated over the past decade will need to be redeveloped. With rising interest rates and a faltering economy, the ability to fund this work is uncertain. Big ideas are needed.
  • Labor shortage. Businesses that don’t have help-seeking signs in their windows are extremely rare in the Detroit metro area. Despite rising wages, attracting workers has been a frustrating endeavour. At almost every level of the labor market, there are more jobs than there are employees willing to accept them. This affects the quality of life in the region. Longer waits for services and shortages of goods have created a new level of aggravation for consumers and a threat to the survival of employers. Training is only one aspect that needs to be addressed. Michigan needs ready-to-work workers now, and it needs lots of them.
  • An economic downturn. The latest Bloomberg survey of economists put the odds of a recession this year at 30%, down from 27.5% in April. GDP fell in the first quarter; if it falls again this quarter, the economy could be officially considered in recession. It will be difficult for companies that are just coming out of COVID inclement weather.
  • Win the EV race. As my colleague Daniel Howes recently reported, of 70 planned electric vehicle projects in the United States, Michigan is competing for only nine of them. Its latest loss was a Stellantis battery installation last week. That doesn’t bode well for Motor City. While the Michigan Economic Development Corp. is working to make the state more attractive to the new electric iteration of its bread-and-butter industry, we are far behind. Michigan needs to close the gap quickly because siting decisions are being made now.

These are all pressing concerns. There is no better place than Mackinac Island to advance discussions on solutions.

Twitter: @NolanFinleyDN

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