After about eight years away, Jeff Mason has returned to the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Having previously worked at the state’s top economic development organization as a senior vice president for business development, he left in 2009 to head up the University Research Corridor, an alliance of Michigan’s three major research institutions. He’s rejoining the MEDC as its president and CEO, where he’ll lead an organization that’s grown into new focus areas, specifically community development. Mason spoke with MiBiz about these organizational shifts and the new economic development tools the state legislature recently passed to help make Michigan more competitive.
What’s changed in the years since you left the MEDC?
Some of the things the organization’s involved in in the community development space, and helping communities to grow and create the right environment where people want to live.
Things like the redevelopment-ready programs, or the public spaces, community places are just really great programs that are new to me and really are exciting. We were doing some of the Community Development Block Grant stuff. I guess I would characterize it as more kind of traditional infrastructure stuff in communities, water and sewer. This whole notion of placemaking is one that I’m really impressed by the depth and the breadth of what is going on here.
What makes the MEDC the right organization at the state level to tackle issues like placemaking?
I think it’s a recognition of what’s going on now in terms of talent, right? People are choosing to live in places and then find great jobs in those communities. It’s this interplay between where you live and where you work, the companies you work at. I think that is a recognition now of how we need to make those pieces work together if we’re really going to be successful at growing our economy.
To that end, the state Legislature passed a handful of bills such as the “Good Jobs for Michigan” initiative aimed at attracting large employers. What will that do to help achieve the state’s economic development goals?
I think they are measured responses to what is happening in the marketplace that kind of allows us to round out that toolbox and be more competitive as we compete nationally and globally for some of the new growth and business opportunities.
It’s recognition that there are some projects throughout the state, in some of our communities, that really need the support to get across the finish line.
Given that the Good Jobs bill is geared toward catching large national or global employers, does that mean that the state has shifted its focus toward hunting, as opposed to economic gardening?
I don’t look at it as an either/or, I look at it as an and. In my mind, it’s not a shift. We’re trying to amp up both. We need to grow more jobs and the way to do that is to work with our existing customers here in the state and the companies that are here.
How does the MEDC do that?
We’ve done a really good job over the last six or seven years in terms of helping create that entrepreneurial environment for people to start their own companies, not just go to work for companies. We need to also be strategic about how we attract more companies and business into the state.
With the tools the legislature just added, does Michigan have what it needs to compete on a level playing field with other states or are more programs needed?
I think those are measured responses to the marketplace, and tools that I think will allow us to compete and win more than we lose. I wouldn’t expect or think that we would need more tools in the toolbox going forward. I think we need to let these work, and see what happens, and be transparent and share the results.
Some economic developers have said they’ve noticed a shift in policy where many of the tools available to them are now done by legislation. Would you agree with that assessment?
Over the last six or seven years, early on when you look at the business climate and some of the things that have been done in terms of getting Michigan’s fiscal house in order, creating the corporate income tax, moving away from the old Michigan business tax, or the single business tax — I think a lot of that business climate and environment was course corrected early on. I think what we’ve created is the right environment, and I think that’s allowed us to compete pretty effectively.
What do you hope to focus on in the short term as you begin your position at the MEDC?
One of the things I really want to do is spend some time out around the state listening and talking to our local partners in all the regions to really understand the challenges and opportunities that they see, so that collaboratively and in partnership we can potentially start to address some of those.
Do you envision any significant shifts in how the MEDC does business?
In my mind, if you look at the change in leadership at, say, Ford or GM, they didn’t get out of the mobility and transportation business. I don’t see us getting out of the economic development business. I think the mission is the right mission that we’re focused on. How we go about doing that, I think, is what we’ll look at in the future.