Bullish on Michigan

December 6, 2010

CLOSUP Program Manager Tom Ivakco played a key role in designing and implementing the center's Michigan Public Policy Survey (MPPS)-an innovative effort to query elected and appointed officials from every jurisdiction in Michigan. Tom spoke with State & Hill about the survey and prospects for the Next Great Michigan.

S&H: What's been learned lately from the MPPS?

TI: Our most recent report was on "economic gardening"—a relatively new concept in economic development that is picking up steam here in Michigan. The idea is that cities can nurture existing local businesses, rather than simply hunt for new ones with tax incentives and so forth. We asked city and county officials whether they were doing things like fostering networks among business leaders, developing infrastructure, or providing market information to existing businesses.

It turns out that there's more of it happening and more support for it than we would have expected.

S&H: Is that a good thing?

TI: Economic development is probably most effective as a basket approach where you want to incorporate lots of strategies. Yes, you have to "hunt"—everyone else is doing it and you can't not be in that game. But economic gardening seems to really work, in part because entrepreneurs who are in your community now want to be there, so it makes sense to build on that spirit.

S&H: What's next for the survey?

TI: The next wave will focus on intergovernmental cooperation—one of the really hot policy domains facing the state. For local officials, cost savings are far and away the biggest motivator for cooperating: nobody wants to raise taxes, and budgets have been tight for a long time, so the cuts that are coming up next would represent serious service cuts. So what other options are there? One is to cooperate with neighboring jurisdictions to reduce redundancies.

But saving money isn't the only motivation. It could also be about providing a service that you couldn't do on your own, such as economic development, a regional parks system, or a library system. Or, it could be a route to better policy: if each little jurisdiction is doing its own land use planning, for example, you could hit the boundary and instead of extending a housing subdivision, suddenly there's an industrial site right next to it, polluting the subdivision— that's not effective, sound policy.

S&H: You've involved external partners with the MPPS. Why?

TI: Bringing academic research to bear on the real world has been a key goal for us. Well before we launched, we went to the Michigan Association of Counties, the Michigan Municipal League, and the Michigan Townships Association. We asked them to be involved from the beginning—so that it wouldn't be just "the ivory tower" asking what we thought were interesting questions. We've gone even further now and convened advisory panels of stakeholders on upcoming waves of the survey. We want to make sure that the survey design and the questions asked are relevant, so that when we come out with the results, they're useful and actionable and won't just sit on the shelf.

S&H: You're a Michigan lifer (and a loyal fan of the Wolverines). Where do you see Michigan in 10 years?

TI: You know, I am really bullish on the state of Michigan! I think that the future is bright for the state. It's going to be a slog before that unfolds, although some experts think we may have already hit the bottom. I think we're close, and when the national economy picks up steam, then Michigan will finally start to grow.

Michigan has always been a boom and bust state. If you go all the way back to the very first economy based on animal pelts—furs were a massive resource! But the trappers became so successful that they depleted the reserves. It was the same thing later with timber. Both times, people thought the boom would last forever. Agriculture boomed next, but technology led to employment declines in that sector. And of course now we're living in a post-industrial bust.

But there's an incredible amount of activity across the state from talented, committed people who are laying the framework for our economic future. I really think—and I don't know when—that the state will bounce back and we'll see the Next Great Michigan.

The talent of the Ford School students is one of the things that make me optimistic. I hope we can find a way to keep more of them around after graduation.


Below is a formatted version of this article from State & Hill, the magazine of the Ford School. View the entire Fall 2010 State & Hill here.

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