DBusiness Blog: Detroit Should Takes Notes From Oakland County

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What if you were Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson nearly 10 years ago and your largest employer in the region was an automaker, and your No. 2 employer was a different automaker and the economy was tanking? Should you: a) double-down through tax-incentives or other proposals and figure out ways to attract more automotive jobs, or b) choose to diversify your economy by attracting new high-quality, high-paying, and sustainable jobs?

Clearly, we’d all choose option B, which is exactly what Patterson did nearly a decade ago. Before the county’s Emerging Sectors campaign launched in 2004, jobs were leaving Michigan in droves — and that’s before the recession hit in 2008. In the 2000s, Oakland County lost 131,000 jobs, most of them automotive related and considered high quality and high-paying.

After reading a newspaper headline declaring, “200,000 jobs leave Michigan,” Patterson established the Emerging Sectors campaign as a means to encourage the growth and development of business in job sectors including IT, robotics, aerospace, and homeland security.

Next year marks the 10th anniversary of the Emerging Sectors, and what does Oakland County have to show for it? A boastful $2.5 billion of investment with another $1 billion potentially on the drawing board thanks to a proposed expansion of the Henry Ford Hospital West Bloomfield campus, among other projects. In return for the investment, there has been the creation and/or retention of more than 42,000 jobs and the generation of nearly $64 million in taxes.

In June, Patterson threw a celebration honoring companies from the emerging sectors. “We are moving quickly into the knowledge-based economy that will provide the high paying, high quality, and sustainable employment of the future,” Patterson said. “Will it guarantee that Oakland County will be immune from future recessions similar to the one from which we just emerged? No. But it will make Oakland County recession resistant for years to come.”

Patterson’s success in Oakland got me wondering: If he had the foresight to provide pathways and governance in a time of prosperity for job diversity to provide some “recession resistance,” how can Detroit follow the same example to create diversified workforce sectors to grow the city out of bankruptcy?

Wayne County and Detroit both seem to have more on their plate than they can handle. Detroit has its possible bankruptcy and restructuring, while Wayne County is trying to figure out how to overcome the hundreds of millions dollars wasted on the failed consolidated jail project.

With emergency financial manager Kevyn Orr having full autonomy on decision making concerning Detroit’s current day-to-day operations, perhaps Mayor-elect Mike Duggan can make job sector diversification one of his core focuses for the duration of Orr’s authority. Doing so will allow Duggan and the city council to hit the ground running when control is relinquished back to the newly elected officials.

In the end, Oakland County’s efforts to facilitate new economic sectors and industries are not only a model for the region, but also for the state and country.

Justin Winkelman is a business consultant in the areas of strategic planning, business operations, and social media marketing and implementation.

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