Leading Michigan business executives view the state as having reached “basecamp two” in its climb up the mountain of becoming a top 10 state in terms of jobs, personal income and economic health.
While it’s unclear if the state will actually reach that summit, officials with Business Leaders for Michigan, the state’s business roundtable, say that if Michigan were performing like a top 10 state, 34,000 more Michiganders would be employed and per capita personal income would raise by $9,500.
“We’re focused on trying to make Michigan a top 10 state. I think we’ve made pretty good progress,” said Blake Krueger, the board chair of Business Leaders for Michigan and Chairman, President and CEO of Wolverine World Wide Inc., a Rockford-based footwear and apparel company.
“We helped influence the state to get to basecamp one and then basecamp two,” he said. “But going from middle of the pack to top 10 is a much steeper climb. That doesn’t mean we’re discouraged or we’re not up to the task. But it’s a much steeper climb.”
Officials at BLM acknowledge the challenges associated with meeting their goals are broad and represent a mix of issues, some unique to Michigan and some not.
For example, the deterioration of Michigan’s infrastructure has been well documented as roads all over the state have been closed because of cars being damaged from potholes caused by the late-winter thaw.
But for BLM President and CEO Doug Rothwell, the sorry state of the Michigan’s roads could be a blessing in disguise as the organization seeks to lobby the legislature to adopt new ways to fund infrastructure improvements.
“I actually think it’s been great we’ve had this lousy pothole season. I think it’s really brought to everyone’s visibility just how bad it is,” Rothwell said. “What you’re seeing now is the evidence of not investing and that’s just roads, let alone all the other infrastructure that’s underneath the ground.”
BLM has called for the state to adopt a variety of user fees –– from increasing the gas tax to exploring toll roads –– that would allow the legislature to shift infrastructure funding away from the state’s general fund, which could then be invested in other priorities such as education and workforce development, Rothwell said.
Michigan's chapter of American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) released a report on Wednesday grading the state’s overall infrastructure at a D+, which officials consider "not a passing grade." The state's roads received a D- while drinking water was graded at D. The report found that Michigan has 1,234 structurally deficient bridges.
Rothwell and Krueger said they feel the state has made its most significant gains in areas such as fiscal stability and diversifying the economy by investments in areas such as mobility and the life sciences.
In the pursuit of their goals, the executives at BLM hope to not only carry favor with policymakers in Lansing, but also with the broader public.
The organization recently launched the “Raise Your Hand for a Stronger Michigan” campaign, which it says will carry the message of making Michigan a top 10 state to a larger audience, particularly through the increased use of social media and other marketing tactics.
Simply put, Rothwell thinks that given the state’s momentum, now is the time to further ramp up the BLM’s work to ensure policymakers don’t regress in terms of the Michigan’s competitiveness.
Even as BLM fights here at home for policies that make the state a better place for business, Rothwell said Michigan companies could still fall victim to external factors, including a possible trade war.
In recent days, President Donald Trump has called for tariffs on imported steel and aluminum as a means of growing America’s economy.
“When a country (USA) is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good, and easy to win,” Trump wrote on Twitter last week.
But the president’s threats have elicited statements from America’s –– and Michigan’s –– largest trading partners about introducing tariffs of their own on U.S. goods.
Exports from Michigan in 2017 totalled more than $59.7 billion, a 9.3-percent increase over the previous year, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
For Wolverine World Wide, an international footwear company, getting caught in a potential trade war puts the firm in a tough situation.
“I don’t think trade wars usually turn out to be good for anybody,” Krueger said, citing his study of history. “Full-blown trade wars, usually history will tell you, don’t benefit anyone.”
While the threat of a trade war looms large over Michigan’s economy, Krueger said he’s confident the country will step back from that brink.
“You’ve got to be optimistic and have some confidence that cooler heads are going to prevail,” he said. “Whether it’s the NAFTA negotiations or steel coming from Europe, or import tariffs on German automobiles, cooler heads will prevail and at the end of the day a reasonable approach will be agreed to.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to include info from a report issued by Michigan's chapter of American Society of Civil Engineers.