Metro Times goes to Mackinac
A first-timer’s perspective of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual confab.
Published: June 3, 2014
What will be left out of the media’s ensuing coverage, though, are her earlier remarks in her speech on why the Affordable Care Act should be repealed:
“We need to repeal Obamacare so once again we can have the best health care system in the world,” Land had said. (It’s certainly of note that a study last year found health care costs were the No. 1 reason for bankruptcies in the nation.) Asked later by someone in the audience what she would replace Obamacare with, Land danced around the question, offering one suggestion to improve “patient-doctor” relationships, among other things.
All-in-all, the non-debate is a bit of a drag, a way to pass the time until the official conference begins at 1 p.m., with remarks from Republican Gov. Rick Snyder — a mere 19 hours after last night’s barbecue. In truth, the debate offers the first glimpse of a seemingly important pillar of the Mackinac conference’s agenda: Don’t disagree with one another. Sure, there are differing opinions overheard in the lobby and during cocktail hour. But from the onset, the main discussions fail to yield any serious opposing views.
Inside the Grand’s theater, Hank Cooney, president and CEO of law firm Plunkett Cooney and chairman of this year’s event, offers a different perspective on what’s taking place: “This conference is not just about conversations,” he says. “It’s about getting things done.”
Moments later, Snyder is introduced for the first of two speeches this week. He hits the stage to a standing ovation from the audience. The way the incumbent governor conducts himself, especially with an election looming this fall, it’s obvious he sees this as an opportunity to promote himself — at one of the most widely covered political events of the year, sponsored by an influential group that has already endorsed him, and will continually boost his record throughout the week. These are Snyder’s people, and it’s clearly his show.
He implores his peers to find their state senator this week and tell them to support the so-called “grand bargain,” an $816 million deal that intends to shore up Detroit’s pensions, salvage the Detroit Institute of Arts collection from a potential fire sale, and provide the city with an opportunity for a smoother exit from bankruptcy. This is the linchpin of Detroit’s historic case that requires a $195 million one-time infusion of cash from the state, which passed the state House last week. The deal would still cut pensions for general retirees by 4.5 percent, with their cost of living adjustments wiped out; police and fire employees would take no cuts, but their COLA would be reduced to about 1 percent.
“The comeback of Detroit is critical,” Snyder says to a round of applause.
The room clearly loves it. All week there’s a palpable enthusiasm brimming for the future of Detroit, a city whose unemployment rate continues to hover around 18 percent.
But one has to wonder what the average Detroiter sees as a benefit to the Detroit Regional Chamber hosting its annual conference on Mackinac Island? What comes out of the event for the typical Detroiter? What’s something your average resident can sink his teeth into? Numerous attendees point to the newly minted Regional Transit Authority as an obvious extension of conversations that transpired at the conference — although the agency has experienced some bumps since its inception. Asked later by someone if Lansing would work to increase the RTA’s funding, Snyder says it’s up to metro Detroit to adequately fund it. Perhaps this year, the “grand bargain,” which officials say is the best path forward for Detroit’s residents and employees, is this year’s We Can Do It moment.
In his closing remarks, Snyder says he doesn’t like “nice meetings.” What he means is a meeting when, at its conclusion, someone leaves feeling unenthusiastic about accomplishing much of anything. When the conference ends Friday, he says, attendees should feel like they’re going accomplish this, this, and this. Action items. What “this” is, at this point, is unclear.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is the man of the hour Wednesday night. Before a room full of Republicans and business leaders, Duggan delivers a crisp presentation that highlights some of his accomplishments since taking office in January — more buses on the roads, about 500 streetlights in neighborhoods per week, a so-far successful home auction website, increased numbers of blighted homes removed. He also introduces a jobs program for upward of 5,000 high school students.
“How transformational would it be for 30 or 40 companies to come to Cody or King High School and interview kids for a potential job … to say we need you, we believe in you,” Duggan says. The initiative would be partly funded by the city through federal community block grants, he says.
The mayor’s talking points are the highlight of the Grand the remainder of the week. Throughout the remainder of the conference, everywhere you turn, someone could be overheard chatting about homes being auctioned off in East English Village or the proposed youth jobs program.
Asked later how he would grade himself on his first six months as mayor, Duggan answers, “Incomplete.” A refreshing dose of realism.
Whether the optimism in the room for Detroit will translate into results remains to be seen. The first day of the conference officially concludes at almost 6 p.m., and guests are soon piling onto the Grand’s porch for the open bar. Meandering about the porch at this point is nearly impossible. Trying to maneuver around the ongoing “networking” is like being at a busy bar on a Friday night. Actually, it’s exactly like being at a busy bar on a Friday night — except the booze comes compliments of the chamber. It’s a wallflower’s worst nightmare. One attendee remarks to me that, because of the decadence of the conference, the chamber couldn’t get away with hosting it in Detroit. “The residents wouldn’t let it happen,” he says.
The overall sentiment so far seems to be that everyone agrees with everyone on what’s being suggested by keynote speakers and panels. Absent from those main agenda discussions are any serious contrary viewpoints. It’s apparently a time to ease up, and nod in acquiescence.
MEET AND GREET
On Thursday, around 10 a.m., I breathe a sigh of relief. My initial concerns about bouncing from room to room each night are in vain: a porter has safely transferred our bags to room number three.
Today it’s clear there are as many people mingling outside as there are inside paying attention to the main agenda items, if not more. The chamber might pride itself on the agenda it cobbles together each year, but the networking’s undoubtedly the main attraction. It’s a common complaint about the conference, but it really is a perfect opportunity to pick the brain of nearly any top official in the state.
Outside on the porch Thursday, we experience our most notable instance of the impromptu meet-and-greets. We grab state House Speaker Jase Bolger, a Republican from Marshall, after he wraps a TV interview, to ask him about the conference and what it means for Detroiters.
“I think jobs, jobs, and opportunity,” he tells me. “I’m talking to employers who are encouraged by the future of the city of Detroit, and I think they’re excited about the opportunities that are … available … they’re poised to make those investments; they just need some certainty.”
Asked if there needs to be a conversation about how municipalities collect revenue, as a recent editorial in the Detroit Free Press suggested last month, Bolger says, “You have to have a long-range view … those who say we need more money and resources are not having a long-range view; they’re trying to get by today for the harm of tomorrow.” Basically, he says, the state’s current solution of using emergency managers to fix structural issues in cities is working.
Moments later, House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel, of Auburn Hills, walks by. Perfect timing! We ask him the same question. Of course, he disagrees.
The emergency manager model “doesn’t work,” he says, because they’re “not acting in the long-term best interest of communities.”
Greimel adds: “Emergency managers typically are focused on the shorter-term bottom line, at the expense of long-term economic growth in communities. That’s a huge problem.” In essence, he means, a city must be situated in a way that allows it to grow in the future — something he says an EM doesn’t allow for.
Later in the day, Snyder delivers his second speech, outgoing U.S. Senator Carl Levin is honored, and a cohort of Detroit public school students perform some smooth jazz on the porch at dinnertime.
Snyder emphasized earlier in the week that Michigan must not vilify Detroit and continue seeing it as an enemy of the state. “It’s not Detroit vs. Michigan, or Michigan vs. Detroit,” he says. “It’s Detroit, Michigan.” The crowd approved.
The week’s final keynote address comes from Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, the man tasked with ushering Detroit through its historic Chapter 9 bankruptcy, and putting it on a solvent trajectory.
Orr remains cautiously optimistic about the $816 million deal to shore up Detroit’s pensions, and the imminent state Senate vote on Lansing’s $195 million commitment. But if one piece disappears, the entire package would evaporate.
Discussing the possibility of not getting the money from the Senate, Orr says, “Without the vote, we’re done.” He has some harsh words for pensioners considering a “no” vote on the grand bargain and his proposed bankruptcy-exit plan — as a protest, or in hopes of taking their chances on an appeal to Detroit’s eligibility for court protection.
“This is not a game,” he says. “This is not a time for protest votes. This is very serious business.”
Orr emphasizes the point further when speaking with reporters afterward.
“We want to make sure people understand that it doesn’t get better by voting no,” he says. Harsh words to close out an upbeat week.
In its final act, the chamber releases a to-do list at the conclusion of the conference — in a way, an answer to Snyder’s call for attendees to leave feeling riled up to accomplish something.
This year, the group mentions supporting Duggan’s youth jobs program and to be “loud and proud” about Detroit’s assets and future. That the city’s future now hinges on a smooth transition out of bankruptcy and a need for a considerable amount of investment is something that should not have been lost on attendees as they head home Friday afternoon.
The momentum in the city is real, and the optimism in the room is encouraging, but it’s a far cry from a complete solution — something Orr and Duggan both allude to in their remarks.
At times, it isn’t easy to soak up the refreshing support for the city at an event that commits more overall time to networking and eating and patting one another on the back than it does to having discussions that include a wide range of viewpoints. It’s equally difficult to bank on the optimism when much remains to be seen in Detroit’s bankruptcy case.
The first thought I have after packing up and leaving the Grand is just how much of this has actually sunk into the attendees’ brains. Riding along the main drag of the island toward the Shepler’s Ferry dock, the scent of horseshit wafting through the air, I consider the months of preparation that must go into planning this conference — to deliver what, exactly? What is it that makes this group unable to have these conversations in a more central location? I think about Greimel, the House Democratic Leader, and his point to me that, yeah, we could — and we already do. But it does provide an opportunity to run into nearly everyone these people want to run into, in order to get things done down the line. Is this something that’s covered by media outlets across the state simply because everyone is here?
Arriving back in Mackinaw City, the sea of gnats seems to have multiplied by the dozens. From the moment you step off the ferry till the minute you plop down in your automobile, it’s downright unnerving how relentless these bugs can be.
The southbound trip along I-75 brings no billboards boosting a local candidate, only the same recognizable features of springtime in Michigan.
I think of Gov. Snyder’s insistence on leaving the conference feeling ready to accomplish a bevy of action items. Approaching Detroit, I consider this: As of August 2013, Detroit’s unemployment rate was 17.7 percent, the city’s median income was half the nation’s average. Recent estimates show its population has fallen to 688,000. What’s it going to take to fix these numbers?
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