The Michigan Economic Development Corp. recently celebrated its 20-year anniversary. CEO Jeff Mason, who has led the organization since July 2017, is optimistic about the state of Michigan’s economy in 2019, and emphasized the importance of improving the state’s infrastructure. He expects the talent shortage to continue, although the MEDC and a variety of partners are working to address it. Mason talked with MiBiz about how the MEDC’s work has changed along with the state over the last two decades.
How has the MEDC evolved during your tenure?
We’ve evolved as an organization to focus a lot more attention on placemaking and community vitality and helping to create places around the state where people want to live. And that attracts a lot of business. In terms of helping communities large and small across the state, from Ironwood at the western end of the U.P. to Detroit to along our southern border, we are engaged with over 250 communities involved in this Redevelopment Ready Communities process to help them through a process to determine how they plan for and actually implement growth strategies within their communities.
What are your expectations for working with the new Whitmer administration?
I think the new administration really understands that the Michigan economy is doing very well. In terms of the business climate, I think it’s great. In terms of the governor’s position, it’s that we’ve got to do some things in terms of our road system, we’ve got to ‘fix the damn roads.’ We’ve got to improve our infrastructure, we’ve got to improve our education system to really be able to produce the amount of talent that the economy needs for the businesses that are over here in West Michigan. We’ve got to have an infrastructure that allows goods and products and people to move effectively. That’s the focus now: How do we go from here in Michigan to the next level up?
What’s your outlook for the state through the rest of 2019?
Overall Michigan is doing very well. You’re seeing really strong growth in a lot of the manufacturing area, but also a lot of high-tech growth. Our economy is very diverse, whether it’s manufacturing, tourism, agriculture, finance. Things are going well, certainly on the east side of the state, with the announcement by Fiat Chrysler of 6,500 jobs and $4.5 billion of investments. There’s some projects we think we’re pretty close on in terms of Grand Rapids and some other areas on the west side of the state. There’s a lot of opportunities. We spend some time, nationally and internationally, going out to meet with businesses and talking to them about why Michigan is a great place. People are now starting to recognize that.
What do you think is the MEDC’s role in addressing the talent shortage?
Part of our role is really to help connect the demand challenges to the supply side. We interact with a lot of companies, working with local partners on the west side of the state, helping communicate what the needs are in the supply side, whether in the K-12 system, community colleges or four-year institutions. We really try to help create some of those bridges between the business community and the education community so we can create a more effective pipeline.
What challenges or opportunities are presented by the marijuana industry?
We look at it this way: It’s now the law in Michigan, but we don’t think there’s a role for the MEDC in terms of having to incent companies to do it. It’s a captive market, just like a grocery store that’s going to set up in a community. It’s a local product. It’s a local choice. Where there is, I think, some opportunities, is the production side of things, where there’s large needs for energy. Some energy companies maybe are seeing some increased demand in terms of the need for power. Some of the production and manufacturing side is similar in nature in terms of other agriculture products. We just look at it as something that’s happening in the state, and we don’t really need to play a role in it.
What are the biggest factors that will shape economic development in the near future?
The biggest piece out there is really around talent and a skilled workforce. As Gov. Whitmer has proposed in terms of Michigan Reconnect and the MI Opportunity (Scholarship), we have to continue to invest in our education and talent system in order to produce the quantity and quality of the talent pool that companies need to be competitive in this local economy. That’s probably one of the biggest challenges and opportunities out there for Michigan right now.
Interview conducted and condensed by Sydney Smith.