GRAND RAPIDS — Michigan’s economy may be on an upward trend now, but policymakers and leaders want to know how to maintain that trajectory and prepare for the state’s future economic needs.
That was one of the messages coming out of the second day of the West Michigan Policy Forum, a gathering of some 600 business leaders to outline their strategic priorities for state government.
One key suggestion: Michigan needs to pay more attention to and invest more in its metropolitan centers and in education, said Bruce Katz, vice president of the Brookings Institute and director of its Metropolitan Policy Program, in addressing the group at the Amway Grand Hotel.
“One thing that is clear is we need to purposely restructure our economies at the national level and the Michigan level, building our cities from (an economy) that was focused inward and characterized by excessive consumption and debt, to one that is globally engaged (and) driven by production and innovation and the revival of our cores,” Katz said.
Building off the panel discussion about branding Michigan and developing strong cities – a session that featured Quicken Loans Chairman Dan Gilbert, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan CEO Dan Loepp and Windquest Group President Dick DeVos – Katz said what leaders needs to understand is that the growth of cities and urban cores is what’s driving the growth of emerging and powerful economies.
As a country, Katz said states need to become good at building exports, the low-carbon economy and innovation to tap into future growth opportunities.
“We are under-performing on exports in the United States because we have looked inward to a very large country for a very long time for our growth,” he said. “Only 13 percent of our GDP comes from exports. Improving this is the path toward prosperity.”
Two years ago, President Obama set a national goal to double exports by 2014. That led to additional local programming like the State Trade Export Promotion run by the Michigan Small Business & Technology Development Center to help small businesses overcome challenges to start and to increase exporting activity.
Katz said the current recovery is fueled by exports and manufacturing, and he noted that Michigan has a good start on this sector — as well as on the low-carbon economy.
However, the state must do better with educating its future workers if it wants to see long-term growth in its cities and overall, he said.
“There are lags in educational attainment, and those lags are particularly pernicious with regards to blacks and Hispanics,” Katz said. “This has got to be cracked, if (Michigan) is going to succeed and prosper. … You’ve got to upgrade the education and skills of the workforce that is coming.”
The leaders gathered for the forum seemed to get the message. Two of their top five priorities focused on improving education performance and providing more state funding to early childhood development, a key driver of educational achievement.
The state’s education challenge is not just an issue of disparity, it’s about competiveness, Katz said. To combat the state’s deficiencies, Katz outlined three goals:
- Strengthen the link between manufacturing and innovation to bolster exports.
- Strengthen the regional system to upgrade worker skills.
- Leverage the assets of city cores, the cultural institutions, industry clusters and higher education intuitions.
Katz also argued that the state should coordinate its investment into relatively small geographic regions like Grand Rapids and Detroit. He said this would create 21st century places that would be able to leverage private sector capital.
“We’re talking about a Kickstarter for cities,” he said.