Ann Arbor Area Community News
I’m writing from the Ann Arbor Chamber of Commerce’s impact2005 event – it took me until the end of the first panel discussion to find a way to get a connection, so I’ll cover that very quickly while trying to pay attention to the second panel.
Jim Epolito of the Michigan Economic Development Corportation spoke first, with a focus on Michigan’s perception – especially self-perception. When he visits his hometown of Pittsburgh, he says, people ask when he’s coming back, and they don’t think about leaving. In Michigan, on the other hand, we have the second lowest retention of college grads – they don’t have any perception of what’s here for them, either in the job or lifestyle domains, “and we’re not doing a good job of telling them.” Image and marketing continued to be a major theme.
The first panel featured three regional development professionals from across the country, including Greg Horowitt of San Diego’s Global CONNECT, Paul Pescatello of Connecticut’s CURE, and Leslie Rubin of Meridian Incentive Advisors, Inc, based in Indianapolis. They spoke in general terms about lessons learned from their successes.
Horowitt spoke in very Richard Florida terms, of not chasing after big companies, but cultivating talent and letting the companies come to the talent. He made the claim that “technology transfer is people”, and described knowledge and innovation as using people as “viral carriers” to spread through the economy. Pescatello seemed to focus on experience with pharmaceutical companies; he and Rubin both looked more at the relationship of governments to companies. Rubin especially spoke of avoiding local competition within a region, and encouraged regions to look at themselves as allies against common competitors – China being the easy example for manufacturing.
During the question session, Horowitt continued to focus on talent development – referring to outsourcing as a product of a skill deficit, forcing either importation of talent or outsourcing of work. When asked about how a state with bans on stem cell research and same-sex health benefits can recruit young, talented workers (a question that drew some snickers from the audience), Horowitt cited Florida’s “tech, talent, and tolerance” as the keys to innovation, while the other two shrugged off the question. When asked what advantage Southeast Michigan has over other regions, Pescatello gave the (interesting to this site) answer that a major benefit is the absence of a single, strong, central city. Lots of firms want to put operations in one-story buildings with plenty of parking at the periphery of a city, and Southeast Michigan has lots of space that fits that description. (Horowitt disagreed somewhat, looking at the economic clusters around strong central cities like San Francisco and Boston.)
The second panel features (present tense; I’ve caught up) three people who work with businesses locally and brought observations from their interactions: Robert Ficano, Wayne County Executive; Ken Rogers, Executive Director of Automation Alley; and Rick Snyder of Ann Arbor SPARK. The format is purely question-and-answer, so it’s harder for me to make generalizations on the fly.
All three stressed the importance of regional cooperation in economic development – no part of the region stands on its own, and bringing Toyota to Washtenaw, for example, will benefit the rest of the area through strengthening supplier chains. In order to be regionally competitive, we need to eliminate intra-regional duplication. Don’t compete within the region for business. Work to combine and streamline governmental functions – Ficano mentions the possibility of a multi-county jail to ease the regional crowding problems, rather than each county expanding jails independantly.
Attitude seems to be another theme – Snyder asked, “How many fanatics did you see at the Stadium on Saturday? How can we be more fired up over college football than in our children’s futures?” Ficano phrased it, “We’re not as good as we would like to be, but we’re not as bad as the media thinks we are.”
Transportation and communications infrastructure are seen as important, in various ways. Air transportation is a first priority for global trade, especially freight. With competitiveness “measured in hours”, there’s interest in expanding Willow Run’s runways to handle direct-to-China flights. Mass transit is getting mixed opinions. Ficano supports the Ann Arbor-Detroit rapid transit project as supporting economic development along the I-94 corridor (one of them described I-94 as a “gold coast”, between the universities, airlines, and corporate headquarters it connects); Snyder thinks it is important in long-term success, but, in the short-term, communications is more important. Rogers seems unhopeful about mass transit in Southeast Michigan’s built form – having served on SMART’s Board for a few years, he’s seen huge problems with getting people from home to transit lines, and from transit lines to work. Reinvesting in existing road infrastructure seems to be high priority. All seemed very positive about Wireless Washtenaw and similar efforts in Oakland and one other County.
Snyder thinks a problem with attracting skilled people to Michigan (or keeping them here) is the possibility of failure with no safety net. “In California, if you lose your job, you can walk down the street and get another one.” He suggests the idea of an insurance policy – allowing people who relocate to Michigan (focused on start-ups?) the opportunity to pay into a program that will help them to move anywhere they want in the country if that job disappears and they want to leave – with the hope that some of them will decide to stay. Ficano says something similar – “I’ll tell you what makes a ‘cool city’: economic opportunity.” (Is this a chicken-and-egg issue, in the Floridian view? – Ficano agreed with that question afterwards, when I asked.)
Alan Barr of Creative Change Associates, and one of the organizers, presented some summary questions to the audience:
Roger Newton, inventor of Lipitor, claims that we need to make a strategic choice to look beyond focus and efficiency and harvest success from a wide variety of sources, referencing a metaphor of “plantation vs. rainforest” made ealier by Pescatello(?). Even while Pfizer was agglomerating and growing, the State made the choice to fund 10 biotech start-ups around Kalamazoo – broadening our opportunity for success.
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