At the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island in late May, the annual gathering of 1,600 business, educational, and political leaders will shine a spotlight on our area’s successes and shortcomings.
Give credit to the chamber for organizing and hosting the conference, and for creating a set of goals each year that are now tracked through milestone events and an annual report card. While the policy event offers panel discussions, spirited debates, and notable speakers, for too long there wasn’t a mechanism to measure year-over-year progress.
That changed when Sandy Baruah (president and CEO), Tammy Carnrike (COO), and the chamber team expanded the conference’s mission of uniting Michigan beyond an annual event. The Detroit Policy Conference, held in late February, now offers updates on where the region stands when it comes to education, talent development, roads and infrastructure, public transit, sustainability, and stewardship.
The chamber’s annual State of the Region Report also examines economic activity under a competitive microscope. The overview of the 11-county southest Michigan region provides benchmarks against peer regions about per capita income growth, unemployment, median home values, talent, and foreign direct investment. Other regional chambers in the state have since followed suit.
Still, the chamber can only do so much. Conference attendees and statewide leaders nod their heads in near unison about addressing and fixing the challenges we face, but it seems the reality of running a business or a department typically consumes some, or most, of our intentions of fixing what ails us.
As it stands, better outcomes can be generated if we demand more accountability. A general tenant of government is that our public leaders oversee safety, education, and infrastructure. On the first front, the region and state are doing fairly well. Crime is down overall, and the booming economy has created unprecedented job opportunities.
But more prosperity could be generated if we improve K-12 education. The cold truth is we lag far behind other states and nations in student proficiency and basic learning. On this front and others, we, like other regions, suffer from the political blame game.
At last year’s conference, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said a decade’s worth of state-appointed managers had caused myriad problems at the Detroit Public Schools Community District, including falling enrollment and poor test results. But the reason emergency managers were appointed in the first place was that for decades the school district was riddled with graft, mismanagement, outright theft, and more.
Taking it a step further, why does the city so often point its finger at the state for causing what are self-inflicted problems? Again, it’s easier to cast blame. For example, if the school district did a better job, it wouldn’t need the dozens of nonprofit organizations that provide remedial assistance to students who have fallen behind in reading, writing, math, or sciences.
As for infrastructure, the political blame game once again rears its ugly head. In March, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed more than $2 billion in new taxes to fix our roads — although if one reads the fine print, one-third of the funding package goes to her favored programs. Since then, there has been little evidence of Whitmer, who touted her 14 years in the Legislature as an asset on the campaign trail, trying to work hand in hand with her colleagues to affect positive change.
Until we, as a region and a state, demand much more from our political leaders, little, if anything, will ever get done.
— R.J. King, email@example.com