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West Michigan biz leaders seek to build bridges on Mackinac

From Crain’s Detroit Business

By Rod Kackley

May 22, 2013

More than 600 business leaders from West and Southeast Michigan have been telling Lansing since 2008, through the annual West Michigan Policy Forum Conference, that business taxes have to be cut, state bureaucracy needs to be reduced, health care providers should be rewarded for prevention, Michigan should be a right-to-work state, and the state’s road repair fund is as broken as the streets it is supposed to pay to fix.

Now the Policy Forum’s leadership has decided to tackle a much broader agenda: bridging the chasm that has divided the business communities on the east and west sides of the state.

James Dunlap, chairman of the Policy Forum and senior executive vice president of Huntington Bank, said new lines of communication between east and west have opened since the 2012 West Michigan Policy Forum Conference in Grand Rapids last September.

He expects that to continue next week during the Detroit Regional Chamber‘s Mackinac Policy Conference.

Jared Rodriguez, president of the West Michigan Policy Forum, thinks the recruitment and training of talent in Michigan will be one of the hottest topics on the agenda, along with the revival of manufacturing and improving the state’s transportation infrastructure.

He also said that just as the West Michigan Policy Forum is trying to get people from the east side of the state more involved in its events, the Detroit Regional Chamber is getting members of the Policy Forum more involved in the Mackinac Conference, which takes place May 29-31 on Mackinac Island.

“They are making a conscious effort to put more West Michigan chief executive officers on panels and get them more involved in the discussions,” Rodriguez said.

Dunlap said he could see attitudes changing last fall at the Policy Forum event.

“Before this, people were observing the conversations. This time they were speaking out,” he said. “We had active, dynamic and visible participation from Canada — because the New International Trade Crossing was being discussed — from Southeast Michigan and from local chambers throughout the state.”

One of those from the Detroit area who spoke out was Dan Gilbert. He joined Dick DeVos on stage and told the audience about his vision of retail development being the future of Detroit.

“And I will tell you what he did after that,” Dunlap said of the Quicken Loans Inc. chairman. “He spent the rest of the day driving around Grand Rapids, and he told us that he learned so much about the intimacy of the relationships between the business community, the government and the philanthropic communities.”

The discussions did not stop when the Policy Forum conference ended. Dunlap said the leaders of the east and west Michigan business communities have since held a series of private “conversations.”

“There are understandings that are being formed as we get to know each other better,” he said. “There are friendships developing here that are sincere, they are productive and they are long-term.”

He also said that while the “formality of these sessions — on Mackinac Island and in Grand Rapids — still are necessary because they push agendas forward and they challenge the protocols,” the real action will be going on behind the scenes.

Dunlap isn’t sure what will be on that closed-door agenda this time on Mackinac Island. Yet he is confident of a positive result.

“We know that promises we make to each other will be kept and favors will be returned,” he said. “It’s about a handshake.”

It would be hard to mark the historic beginning of the east-west divide in Michigan, but it hardly has been difficult to document anecdotally.

Sandy Baruah, CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber, said he couldn’t believe the conversations he had in Grand Rapids the first time he visited three years ago.

“People were always surprised to see me,” he said. ” ‘Oh, gosh, we have never seen the Detroit Regional Chamber at one of our events,’ they would say. So it was clear to me that just showing up was kind of a big deal.”

It might have been an epiphany for Baruah. But Rodriguez said, “The conversation about the east-west divide is nothing new and there are still people who have those feelings.”

The West Michigan Policy Forum was organized by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce more than four years ago to send a unified message to the state’s political leaders from Michigan’s business leaders.

Baruah and Rodriguez agree that if bridging the divide will help Michigan, it also follows that the chasm itself has hurt the state.

“You see that in the infighting, the political divisions and this kind of win-lose mentality that said, ‘Well, if the west side of the state wins, it is an automatic loss for the east side of the state,’ or one side of the state saying that all of the problems in Michigan were being caused by the other side of the state,” Baruah said.

Dunlap said attitudes began to change when the regions’ leaders looked into the abyss of the recession. They were led away from the brink by Gov. Rick Snyder.

“He (Snyder) said, ‘Figure it out, do it fast and do it together,’ ” Dunlap said. “It doesn’t matter where it happens. What matters is how it happens.”

Dunlap said he saw evidence of this new attitude during the fall of 2010, when the board of Huntington Bank’s holding company held its two-day retreat in Birmingham.

He also saw the proof of Snyder’s assertion that unity brings power.

“Twelve CEOs at the dinner that night talking about their confidence in the future of the Michigan and what they were willing to risk, to invest,” Dunlap said. “Our board walked away so convinced that there was this emerging alignment that you saw a $2 billion loan commitment.”

That was the agreement announced during the 2011 Mackinac Policy Conference. Huntington Bank agreed to join with the state in a loan program for commercial and small-business lending.

CMS Energy Corp., DTE Energy Co. and the Export-Import Bank of the United States were also initial program participants.

“To have the confidence in that room that night to have all of these CEOs look in each other’s eyes, half of whom didn’t even know each other, and talk about their vision,” Dunlap said. “It was a powerful moment, and the rest is history.”