MACKINAC ISLAND — A looming cloud hung over this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference, and it wasn’t left over from Wednesday’s rain.
The majority of the approximately 1,500 attendees at the annual retreat hosted by the Detroit Regional Chamber were laser-focused on two issues the state would rather not be known for: the legislative budget fight for the nearly-bankrupt Detroit Public Schools (DPS) and the ongoing Flint water crisis.
Conference-goers — mainly business and civic leaders, politicians and nonprofit executives — were much the same as in previous years with one notable exception: State representatives remained sequestered in Lansing trying to save or at least do something to help the situation at DPS.
Their absence may have been for the best.
“If you’re a member of the Michigan House of Representatives, some people up here are pretty pissed at you,” tweeted Crain’s Detroit Business reporter Kirk Pinho.
The Michigan House passed a bill late Thursday night that will bail out DPS, create a new-entity and return the school district to local control after years of being run by the state. That bill will now head back to the state Senate, which previously passed a different version of the legislation.
Gov. Rick Snyder signaled to MiBiz in an interview Friday morning that he was willing to support a compromise bill.
“I think it’s positive progress and I appreciate the legislature moving forward with something that the Senate can take up now,” Snyder said. “I think we should view the (bills) as very positive accomplishments and say let’s just move forward and continue to have the Senate hopefully take a careful review of the package, and then we’ll work to get things implemented. It’s about the kids.”
Snyder’s take on the DPS bills was similar to his public statements on other issues during the week.
Known for his “relentless positive action,” Snyder said the infrastructure and education crises will not deter him, nor will his historically low 48 percent approval rating. According to a report earlier this week in The Detroit News, 52 percent of likely voters disapproved of Snyder’s performance.
“Reports of my demise are well overblown,” Snyder said on Wednesday during one of his addresses. He added that speaking with reporters was like “talking to Eeyore,” referring to the gloomy and depressed cartoon character.
But despite the state’s struggles with addressing its beleaguered infrastructure and public education system, the conference still managed to bring about what many could view as positive news.
On Thursday morning, Grand Rapids-based Fathom LLC, a maker of an underwater drones, won $5,000 in the inaugural “Pitch Mackinac” business pitch competition.
Additionally, a coalition consisting of public and private sector stakeholders announced plans to bolster the state’s defense industry. Dubbed “Protect and Grow,” the plan outlines 17 recommendations for ensuring the industry not only remains, but grows, in Michigan.
Although the Detroit Regional Chamber sponsors the Mackinac Policy Conference and Southeast Michigan drives much of the discussion, the group has focused in recent years on including more of a statewide perspective.
The broader, statewide emphasis has been beneficial, according to Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place Inc. in Grand Rapids. She said attending the conference makes for convenient access to economic development stakeholders.
“You have all this brainpower right here and you catch people you’d normally have to schedule a meeting with,” Klohs said. “To me, this is a great place to cultivate and continue your relationship-building while getting a lot done in a fairly short period of time.”