Mark Burton took over the Michigan Economic Development Corp. just days before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued her first state of emergency to curb the spread of COVID-19. Since then, the agency’s strategic plan has shifted dramatically. It has overseen 20 programs that delivered more than $170 million in relief funds, including a $10 million small business grant program last week in which demand far exceeded program limits. Burton has worked with Whitmer for years, including as her chief strategist prior to joining the MEDC and as her chief of staff while she served in the Senate.
How did the pandemic shift your early priorities and your impression of what the job would be?
When I first started, I was specifically focused on a strategic plan that was adopted a little over a year ago. Once the (first stay-home order) was issued, it became clear that not only did we have a long-term public health crisis but also an economic crisis that would come as well. As an agency, we said: ‘Let’s think creatively and quickly about what needs are going to develop and let’s design and redeploy programs that would specifically target some of those.’
On March 19, the Michigan Strategic Fund approved the (first) Small Business Relief Program. It showed how we approached this crisis, which was we needed to act quickly without sacrificing quality and compliance that goes with programs like this.
Gov. Whitmer has been calling for lawmakers to pass a $100 million relief package for businesses. The MEDC opened a $10 million grant program last week that filled up immediately. Do you have a ballpark estimate of what might be needed to bridge these businesses?
Obviously, each individual circumstance is slightly different. The responses we heard based on our Restart program in the summer — which was about $20,000 each, the most recent was $15,000 — was that money is helpful to pay fixed costs for their establishment as well as staff for two to three months.
With the latest program, in 12 hours we had 7,997 completed applications submitted. We had another 14,000 still in the queue at 9 p.m. There’s going to be about 670 successful awards across the state. The demand is astronomical, which is why we continue to believe the state Legislature needs to come to some agreement over relief efforts before they leave for the holidays, as well as Congress. The ability to meet the needs of small businesses across the state is much bigger than the MEDC can handle and what the state can handle.
Could the MEDC launch more loan programs that are repaid over time?
We did a loan program in mid March. The experience of that was mixed from a small business standpoint. Part of that was the continued length of the crisis. Even a very low interest loan someone receives in March, April or May — here we are five, six, seven months later and they’re saying: ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have taken that out.’ Is the possibility there? Yes, but I think it’d have to be a little more targeted because of some of the realities we saw play out in the spring, summer and fall.
What have you seen in terms of the flow of projects coming before the Michigan Strategic Fund?
We’ve seen some wonderful projects come through that have been awarded some support. Perrigo in Grand Rapids was a great win, not just for the region but the state. Some projects like that have just continued and it seemed as though the crisis didn’t impact the kind of planning that businesses were undergoing for years. For some companies, the growth has been on course or continued; others have struggled and slowed. We’ve dealt with both, but it’s all-important to help those businesses that struggle meeting milestones to have a little more time.
What do you expect of Michigan’s economy in 2021, and are you optimistic?
I’m optimistic and I’m excited. I think the work of Pfizer in Kalamazoo on the vaccine has really been able to provide that hope and that optimism that we’ll control and get past this health crisis at some point in calendar year 2021. We’ll still have work to do when it comes to a longer recovery, but we adopted a strategic plan a little over a year ago that is more relevant in this crisis than it was before the crisis. As soon as we can get the public health side controlled, then we’re able to start realizing that recovery in a long-term way.