Column: Limited Edition

Strategy, not tactics, needed to generate jobs in Michigan

Here we go again. After spending years trying to unsuccessfully prop up two stagnant automobile companies using various tactics, corrective action by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court has now sent Gov. Granholm and her economic team scurrying off on a new and different project.

Earlier this month, the politicos did a groundbreaking for the $44 million I-94/Westnedge Avenue road widening project. Vice President Joe Biden espoused the view that “we are quite literally paving the road to recovery right here in Kalamazoo.” From one lifelong Democrat to another: Say it ain’t so, Joe! $44 million won’t do it, and this project – while offering temporary construction jobs – is just another “plug the dike” tactic as Michigan searches for political leadership that will offer a sound long-term strategy for economic growth in Michigan.

Widening a freeway interchange isn’t the answer when the public indicates that it is getting a little fed up with huge malls and big box stores (think Circuit City or Linens ‘n Things, both among a growing number of retail bankruptcies). New highway expansion is not an indicator of economic growth. As the population grows, the Westnedge Mall will eventually go dark as upscale retailers leapfrog to the newest and wealthiest neighborhood further out from the city. We need livable communities where people prefer one car rather than a three-car garage, maybe even a community where people don’t have to get in a car every day. Why not invest the $44 million for the Westnedge interchange into light rail, buses or even bike paths?

Here’s another example of a misguided approach. The many “think tanks” in Michigan point to a pot of gold – the yellow brick road of biotechnology. Biotech companies have turned a profit in only one year out of 40. Since most of us don’t understand this complex science, it makes for good political spin – and, unfortunately, false hopes for the future. Ann Arbor will likely have its share of these “clean jobs,” thanks to the importance of the University of Michigan and the emphasis it is putting on biotechnology. Unfortunately, these local jobs will not make a significant difference to Michigan’s economic future. Michigan cannot effectively compete for the biotech dollars with wealthier states that are already years ahead politically and technologically in this field. Get over it. It makes good politics, but it ain’t going to happen.

The Republicans, led by Ann Arbor resident Ron Weiser (who’s chairman of the state’s Republican Party and one of about five Ann Arbor Republicans), will likely decide who the next governor is. Look for Weiser and his team to provide the much-needed long-term strategy to generate permanent job growth in Michigan. That strategy will likely take advantage of what Michigan does best. For example, Michigan is second only to California in agricultural diversity. So why aren’t we second in food processing jobs? Let’s turn rust bucket empty manufacturing facilities into farms.

What about putting more money into tourism? There is a body of water, lake, river or stream within 6 miles of any spot in Michigan. As most of you know, our state has the largest body of fresh water in the world – so why do exiting college graduates look upon Michigan as a smokestack and not as a lighthouse, as they start their new careers in states with a much more positive image?

We have more skilled transportation engineers in southeast Michigan than any other state. If we can’t produce cars cost effectively, at least we should be able to design and engineer transportation systems as well as anybody else. We need a strategy that will create more permanent employment in Michigan. It doesn’t have to be centered on clean, well-paid professional jobs. What’s wrong with tractors, a little dirt, beach sand, and Michigan designed transportation systems? Why not offload deep water cargo at Monroe and use rail transportation, thereby saving three days or more of ship traffic offloading at expensive land sites in Chicago? Land is relatively cheap in Monroe for an inventory distribution hub between Europe and the Midwest. (Savannah, with cheap land, is the third largest seaport in the U.S., as Caterpillar and John Deere warehouses, among many others, serve as a distribution center for the South to Europe and South America.)

We need an overall long-term strategy that uses Michigan’s natural competitive advantages to build new permanent jobs for our children and their children. Such a strategy is not built on ground-breakings, ribbon-cuttings, unfocused short-term tactics (patches), media headlines and sound bites. We need a person with a vision and a strategy that is willing to get his or her hands dirty and lead this state out of a hole. It will likely require a person willing to serve only one term. Turning this ship around has a maximum political shelf life of about 4 years, but comes with our lifelong thanks for the sacrifice.

About the writer: Del Dunbar, a CPA and partner with Dunbar & Martel, has lived in Ann Arbor since the 1960s.


  1. By Bob Martel
    June 21, 2009 at 8:58 am | permalink

    We definitely need a multi-modal capable port in the Detroit area. We are getting our clocks cleaned by formerly obscure east and west coast cities that have this capability. Imagine the logistical bonus of being able to drop off all those goods smack dab in the middle of the county! Overland distribution costs and time would be cut in half! Not to mention the ability to send our USA made goods right back to them from the middle of the country rather than trucking them or railing them to one of the coasts. Oh, and yes, then it would make more sense to make stuff here in the heartland instead of along the coats.

    I’ve been told by several of my non-MI friends around the country that they are seeing the Pure Michigan ads and find them compelling. “Makes MI look good,” they say surprisingly. This is the best $40 million investment that our State government has made in a generation! And I include any $ spent towards higher education (read U of M) in that assessment!

  2. By Richard
    June 22, 2009 at 11:51 am | permalink


    Excellent commentary. I think you are right on and as a Democrat, I’ve been deeply (profoundly) disappointed by Governor Granholm. Her strategies have barely reached the level of gimmicks…Cool Cities?

    I think that one of the biggest impediments to the economy is the lack of an educated workforce. I can tell you from first hand experience, that many companies avoid Michigan, even God’s gift to the world, Ann Arbor, due to the shallow pool of educated workers.

    If I were Granholm, I would focus almost exclusively on education. I would offer tuition forgivness for any Michigan college students that stay in Michigan after graduation for a certain period of time. Too much talent leaves the state…

  3. By Clayton
    June 24, 2009 at 11:18 am | permalink

    Alternative transportation, agriculture, and tourism are certainly areas where Michigan can do much better but funding for public transportation, farm assistance, brownfield cleanup, state parks, environmental preservation, are all areas that our state Republicans have resisted supporting for decades. I don’t see a Republican Governor pushing this direction unless it meant massive privatization and deregulation.

    The Granholm admin. has been disappointing, but mostly because she has been shackled with an uncooperative state legislature.

  4. By Judith
    June 24, 2009 at 8:38 pm | permalink

    Del –
    I came late to this commentary and am so glad I did.
    From your keyboard to the eyes of leadership: new, renewed, old, young, liberal, conservative… If ever there was a time to stake a claim in a better future, with repurposed and new ideas, it is now. Thanks for ‘op-edding” for my new daily news!

  5. June 29, 2009 at 12:01 am | permalink

    Sadly, ocean-going freighters pose one of the greatest threats to the health of the Great Lakes, due to the invasive species they bring in the ballast water. There seems to be a trade-off between the lakes as cheap inter-continental transportation, and recreational/food resource. Closing the Seaway is perhaps more important to maintaining/restoring the health of the lakes than reducing urban and agricultural runoff. Michigan’s outdoor recreation opportunities – lakes, rivers, forests, U.P. “mountains” – may be its greatest, and most sustainable, natural resource.

  6. By Del Dunbar
    June 29, 2009 at 10:38 am | permalink

    John, Given the higher lake elevations of Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron, wouldn’t terminating the routes of ocean-going freighters at a rail distribution center in Monroe likely help to limit the invasive species problems to just Lakes Erie and Ontario? Closing the Seaway may not be politically achievable.