Print Friendly and PDF

The Master of Main Street

L. Brooks Patterson is leading a thriving life sciences industry in Oakland County

By James Martinez

Pages 8-9

As the struggles of the automotive industry have  proven: one industry economies can lead to one painful recession. While automotive is bouncing back, it’s clear more diversified job creators are still needed. Few elected officials in Michigan have succeeded in this effort like Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson. In 2004, he created the county’s Emerging Sector Initiative to identify the top 10 sectors to attract and retain sustainable, high-paying jobs to the county. As part of this overall effort, the county launched Medical Main Street in 2008 to strengthen and grow the region’s life sciences hub. Now with 100,000 jobs, health care and life sciences is the largest of these emerging sectors in Oakland County. The Detroiter interviewed Patterson recently to discuss Medical Main Street and the health care and life sciences industry.

With starting Medical Main Street, you obviously believed in the potential of the life sciences cluster in Southeast Michigan. What type of an economic impact is this industry having on Oakland County and our region as a whole?
It’s our future auto industry. There is all kinds of empirical data showing the growth. Not just in bricks and mortar, but in employment — well over 100,000 jobs (in Oakland County). We have more people employed in the life sciences and medical device manufacturing than the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic combined. … It’s high-paying jobs. The kind of jobs that are going to be here 30 years from now, 40 years from now. In fact, we’re going to be expanding. You’re looking at our largest employers. One-third of the top 15 largest employers are hospitals. Of course you start with Beaumont Health System who replaced General Motors as our largest employer. But now you have Beaumont merging with [Henry Ford Health System] and they  will be the largest health care provider for years to come. And that’s good. That’s where we want to guide Oakland County.

How did Medical Main Street come about?
A headline in the newspaper sparked my interest. It referenced a couple hundred thousands jobs leaving Michigan. And if you read the story, you knew this wasn’t the typical automotive cycle, these jobs were gone. … I asked my economic development team: “Where are the jobs of the future?” I had no idea. I had some thoughts in the back of my mind, but I didn’t try to guide the research, I let my team come up with the answers. And sure enough, they came up with 10 sectors (including life sciences) for the future economic growth of Oakland County. I wanted jobs that were sustainable, high-paying and high-tech. I’m convinced with everything that I read and hear that the future of Oakland County will be in the high-tech, knowledge-based economy.

What do you think the success of Medical Main Street has shown about the life sciences industry?
It flourishing is number one. And the capital investment, there are hundreds of millions of dollars. I think we have $680 million from the medical fields investing in Oakland County. That’s [nearing] a billion dollars. It is a well-financed field. It brings in high-paying jobs and the educated worker. I have a theory, too, that people who have a higher degree of education tend to educate their kids. So we will be educating the next generation  as well. Those are the kids that are going to take the place of  their parents in these positions. It locks them into a high-mode  of education for years to come.

Medical Main Street has a very impressive board, a virtual who’s who in Southeast Michigan’s health care circles. How does this board help Medical Main Street expand this industry?
I think it helps people take notice. The first INNO-VENTION conference we had this fall got us national attention. These firms are known around the world. So when a company from Germany or Italy or Israel is looking to expand and they see these companies already lined up, it’s going to act as a magnet and attract more good investment. There is a clustering effect.

What is your proudest achievement as part of Medical Main Street?
I think the INNO-VENTION conference was a grand slam for us. It put us on the board. It showed that we’re serious, that we’re players. It showed that we can pit out talents up against other premier medical communities, whether it’s in Texas, New York or California. We showed them that we’re capable of putting on a very incredible program.

Do you see the INNO-VENTION programming expanding?
There will be a second program this fall. It’s just one of the facets I’d like to see us get into. We’d like to see us eventually get into having a Medical Main Street area or venue, with a theater or auditorium or lecture hall [for this type of event]. And we’re talking to different developers about that.

What is the focus of the next INNO-VENTION?
The [inaugural conference] was about medical devices. We thought it was timely. … Technology permeates everything in life. [In 2013] we’re going to talk about technology and how it’s going to improve. IT is the 800-pound gorilla already in the room. So we’re going to show how it fits hand in glove with the medical field. INNO-VENTION 2013 (held Nov. 6-8 at the Marriott Hotel in Troy) will focus on how information technology is fueling changes in health care and its impact on the next generation of medical devices.

Where do you see Medical Main Street and the life sciences industry in Southeast Michigan in 20 years?
It’s dominant today and there is no reason why it would subside. Very quietly over the last couple of decades, under the cover of darkness, it crept into Oakland County and staked its claim. Everyone was so enamored with the auto industry, and properly so. I’m not taking shots at the auto industry, my father worked for Chrysler for 30 years. Auto was king of the mountain since World War II. We rode that horse hard, and put him away whipped, and we paid the price in 2009. We lost 60,000 jobs in one year. With all the ups and downs and challenges from overseas sending quality cars into the market at a competitive price — nobody saw what was happening in the medical field.  All of a sudden you have some of the best medical research [being performed] here. Our research and the volume of it compares favorably to any place in the country. The merger of Beaumont and Henry Ford health systems will only enhance that because they are both doing significant research. It will emphasize all the good things we’ve done and all the good things we’re going to do.

How has your recent car accident impacted your view of Medical Main Street and the life sciences industry  in general?
I appreciate it a little bit more.  I’m glad they put away the leeches and moved into the 21st century (laughing). … I like [life sciences] because I’m trying to bring good  jobs to this community — quality jobs, sustainable jobs to Oakland County. We had that with automotive, this is where the middle class was built. There was an end to that unfortunately. We’re working here to replace the quality of life that the automotive industry gave us for all those decades. But I see it certainly [happening with] the medical field.
How do you think the Affordable Care Act will impact Southeast Michigan’s economy?
Like Nancy Pelosi said,  We have to pass it and see what’s in it.’ I think we’re still discovering more and more surprises, more and more fish hooks, more and more expenses. I see it as an ultimate downer of what I’m trying to create and support here. At some point in time, I can’t believe that America is not going to rise up and repudiate Obamacare. It’s a bad experiment, with how much damage and pain we’re going to feel.

You are in your sixth four-year term as Oakland County executive. What’s next for L. Brooks Patterson?
Seventh term (laughing). Obviously, this is where I’ll finish out my public career, in this office. I’m not going to run for Governor or Congress or anything like that. I love this job. I’ve spent my entire public career in Oakland County. If you would have asked me that 40 years ago, I would have said you’re crazy. I started down at the prosecutor’s office and then came over here. … I’ll finish this term. It’s undecided what will happen next. If my health is restored, I’ve got a few programs I’d like to implement. I’ll probably go one more term for sure.

James Martinez is director of communications for the Detroit Regional Chamber.