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Candor Wanted

Conference Chair Dennis Archer Jr. looking for honest, engaging discussions 

By Tom Walsh

Page 10

Dennis Archer Jr., president of Detroit-based Archer Corporate Services, is this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference chair. Archer, an attorney, is also CEO of Ignition Media Group. He’s also a partner at Central Kitchen & Bar, one of downtown Detroit’s hot new restaurants.

And if you haven’t guessed it already, the 47-year-old is the son of former Detroit mayor and Michigan Supreme Court Justice Dennis Archer, who chaired the 2006 Mackinac Policy Conference. Archer sat down recently to talk with the Detroiter about his plans and hopes for the 2016 event.

What are the key Conference pillars this year, and what do you hope Mackinac attendees will accomplish?

Our pillars are urban education, entrepreneurship and investing in the region’s future to grow high-profile business sectors, such as automotive and IT. First, we will strive for honest and engaging discussion. The product from that, I hope, will be action. Last year, John Hope Bryant spoke about financial literacy, and coming out of that was a very targeted program that the Chamber has helped spearhead along with corporate donors to set up these financial literacy centers around town.

Based on this year’s speakers and panelists — national media figures Soledad O’Brien and Ron Fournier to local participants such as Rev. Wendell Anthony, Sheila Cockrel and General Motors President Dan Ammann — I think it’s going to be a colorful, candid, rich set of discussions that will yield some very targeted to-dos.

How are the pillars, speakers and panelists chosen?

In the case of urban education, obviously we have Detroit Public Schools very much in the news now, but one thing we’ve struggled with is that there are a few topics that stay with us for years. Education is one. So, how do we discuss these in a different way? How do you bring different people to the table? I think what you‘ll see is an approach and discussion about urban education with a slant toward how education in general is funded. Are there better models across the country or the world to more equitably fund public education?

On the entrepreneurship piece, you’ll see a younger, more entrepreneurial mix of folks at the Conference this year. Daymond John, a co-host on “Shark Tank,” is coming and will have a pitch competition to be judged by him and others. And we have a panel on the Internet of Things with Rick DeVos and Start Garden from Grand Rapids working with big mature companies in auto and furniture.

In the auto industry today, you’ve got GM investing $500 million in Lyft, a business that reduces the need to have a car. Think about that. (I’ve been) a GM supplier since 2005, and I’ve seen the evolution. What they want from us today is all rooted in innovation and technology and new ideas.

Michigan’s business climate seems to have improved lately from awful to middle of the pack. How can we become a top-tier state for business growth?

Going back to the Conference pillars — education, investing in infrastructure — if I’m a foreign company looking to set up shop in the United States or if I’m a U.S. company poised for growth, I’m looking at education, quality of life. Are my employees going to want to be there? If you look at Detroit as a microcosm, part of what has helped the Detroit story is that you’ve got a ton of people now who actually want to be here. You’ve got people graduating from school in Ann Arbor and Lansing who, 10 years ago, would have been wanting out of here, but now are saying “How can I work in Detroit?”

Clearly, Detroit has seen new investment and energy downtown and benefited from a successful Chapter 9 bankruptcy. But just as the Detroit and Michigan comeback stories gained traction, the Flint water crisis dealt the region a new image blow. Will that be an overhang at Mackinac?

I don’t think Flint is going to be a negative overhang over the Conference whatsoever. Instead, when you talk about investing in our infrastructure, it will inspire necessary conversation with concerned parties from across the state. Leaders from all over the state have constituents that they have to report back to, to tell why they should give hundreds of millions of dollars to the city of Flint. I think it’s a necessary discussion because the picture without appropriate explanation sure looks like a lot of the urban areas are being neglected.

I don’t know where the blame falls. I personally think the Governor should play a significant role in fixing the problem, so I’m not one of those saying he’s got to go. The most important thing is A, to fix it for Flint, but B, at the state level, what can they do and how can the federal government help in terms of testing infrastructure and making sure it doesn’t happen somewhere else?

What’s planned as far as conversation in regard to the upcoming 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit riots?

We are absolutely embracing and including discussions around the upcoming 50th anniversary of the riots. I wasn’t born yet in 1967, but a lot of the people who will be in that audience at Mackinac lived through it. I think the most important part of the discussion is how do we learn from what has happened, and how can we work to not allow those same kind of conditions and dilapidation of relationships to happen again?

There are certain conditions that make an environment riper than not to have dissatisfaction among residents. That dissatisfaction can risk blowing up to some sort of outbreak. So, how do we work in the future to move very far away from any of those conditions? I think by having Soledad O’Brien moderate that panel — she’s done a tremendous job bringing a lot of these ideas to the forefront through her “Race in America” specials on CNN — I think we will have credible, candid and impactful discussions about race rooted in using that 1967 anniversary as the foundation.

LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON?

Dennis Archer was Conference chair in 2006. Ten years later, his son Dennis Archer Jr. is leading the 2016 Conference. Here’s what he had to say:

“I’ve been going to the Conference since I was a child going with my parents. We used to rent bikes and ride around the Island,” said Dennis Archer Jr., this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference chair. “The involvement has gone from going as a kid to going as a business person to being a Chamber board member and then an executive committee member.”

“My dad and I come to this role from two different angles. He came to it as a former (Michigan Supreme Court) justice, former mayor, prominent attorney at a big firm. I come to this role as an entrepreneur.”

“He wears great suits to work, and I’m here in jeans and sneakers and a hoodie.”

“I think that speaks to what has happened here over the last 10 years, in terms of, ‘What is business? Who are the key influencers? Who are the new leaders and what do they look like, sound like, and what’s important to them?’”

“I think that juxtaposition from dad 10 years ago to myself being in this role is illustrative of an understanding on behalf of the Chamber that an evolution is happening.”

“My dad’s general philosophy is whatever you’re going to do, do it well, and to participate. One of the things he stressed — and I heard this from others, too — was speak up, be participatory, but make sure to put your mark on the Conference.”

Tom Walsh is a former columnist and editor with the Detroit Free Press.