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5 things to know about this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference

Crain’s Detroit Business
May 25, 2022

Michigan’s most prominent gathering of business, civic and political leaders is gearing up to return to a more traditional format and spot on the calendar.

The Mackinac Policy Conference, put on by the Detroit Regional Chamber, is set to run May 31-June 2 at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. The conference is essentially “sold out,” the chamber says, at its capacity of 1,300 people.

COVID policy changes
Last September’s Mackinac conference was marked by COVID-19 pandemic protocols, which included a lower cap on attendance, many outdoor events, and a requirement to wear masks in certain areas.

Perhaps most memorable were red, yellow, and green wristbands meant to signal a person’s willingness to shake hands. (Those wristbands won’t be making a return engagement, the chamber says.) The conference also required proof of COVID vaccination.

The chamber has eased vaccination rules for this edition of the conference, allowing unvaccinated people to show a negative PCR test for COVID to be able to enter the conference.

The eased protocols have still caused some headaches. Republican candidate for governor Ryan Kelley first said he wouldn’t take part in a June 2 candidate debate tied to the conference in protest of the chamber’s COVID safety measures even though the outdoor debate has no requirement for vaccination or testing. After learning of that, Kelley said he would take part, before changing his mind again and saying he would skip the debate.

One change that is sticking: a lower attendance cap on the conference. The chamber says it liked the vibe of a less-crowded event and wants to keep a cap of 1,300 attendees, down from 1,700 pre-pandemic.

The themes
The official themes of the event, which the chamber refers to as “pillars,” have a heavy focus on addressing the political rancor in American society:

  • Advancing diversity as a strength
  • Utilizing civility and facts in public discourse
  • Building a culture of empathy
  • Advocating for the fundamental tenets of American democracy.

Not on the official list but clear in the lineup is another idea, that one area of society in which such division doesn’t exist and people come together is the world of sports, reflecting the involvement of the conference chair, Detroit Pistons Vice Chairman Arn Tellem.

Republican debate
On June 2, the chamber will host a Republican gubernatorial candidates debate. The event has been marked by some controversy over who can take part.

As of May 25 and after Kelley’s withdrawal, the list of “invited candidates” consisted of former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, businessman and “quality guru” Perry Johnson, former auto dealer Kevin Rinke, and Kalamazoo chiropractor Garrett Soldano.

Two of those, Craig and Johnson, face uncertain eligibility for the race because of fraudulent petition signatures. Most prominent among the candidates not on the invitation list is media personality Tudor Dixon, who has received endorsements from Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and the DeVos family.

How the lineup might change due to the petition controversy or other issues is not yet clear. A chamber spokesman said Tuesday that organizers will watch decisions made by the state Board of Canvassers and change the lineup accordingly.

Who’s speaking
The speaker lineup includes luminaries from the political and business worlds including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, and Henry Ford Health President and CEO Wright Lassiter III. from the world of sports are a former Microsoft CEO and Los Angeles Clippers owner Steven Ballmer, New York real estate mogul and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and private equity billionaire and Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores — perhaps best-known locally for his hundreds of millions of dollars of donations to the University of Michigan.

Ross will join a panel that also includes Keith Bradford, senior vice president of the Ilitch family’s Olympia Development, and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II focused on “talent-driven development.” Ross and the Ilitch family are working to put a new University of Michigan Center for Innovation in The District Detroit area surrounding Little Caesars Arena.

A sporty addition
Also new this year: an invitation-only pre-conference golf event on the island on Tuesday that is expected to include business leaders and athletic legends including Lee Trevino, Isiah Thomas, Mia Hamm, Ben Wallace, and others.

The chamber says the event thematically fits the conference because sports can be a vehicle for understanding and civility in society.