By Amy Lane/Bridge Magazine contributor
Revitalizing Michigan’s cities and urban areas doesn’t begin and end at their borders.
Michigan needs to build off the strengths and potential of its metropolitan areas and employ regional strategies, accompanied by strategic urban focus, suggests a new report commissioned by the statewide CEO group Business Leaders for Michigan.
The report, prepared by Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants Inc. and the Washington-based Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, advises Michigan to use its strengths and include ideas modeled after efforts elsewhere — such as technology centers in Ohio and target districts in Boston and Barcelona, Spain. It also advises realignment of state funding and possible new state assistance, such as a 21st Century Places Fund that would support distinct urban districts.
A central point is that Michigan’s metropolitan areas hold ingredients important to the state’s future success, and they are where assets are concentrated.
For example, Michigan’s top 14 metro areas house 82 percent of the state’s population, 84 percent of jobs and 86 percent of gross domestic product, as well as 85 percent of exports, 91 percent of science and engineering jobs and 85 percent of postsecondary-degree holders, according to the report.
“The assets that matter in today’s economy are disproportionately located in metropolitan areas, in Michigan and in the country” and “the places that leverage that” will succeed and prosper, said Brookings Vice President Bruce Katz. “Getting the geography right is a critical first step to having any kind of an urban and metropolitan strategy that is going to be successful.”
Jennifer Bradley, fellow and co-director of the Great Lakes Economic Initiative at Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program, said she hears Michigan leaders on both sides of the state talk about regions and their strengths, and the report’s recommendations can build on that. “We are able to see where people are already starting to go,” she said.
The report says Michigan metro areas are “positioned to succeed in the next economy because of their strong history in manufacturing and innovation, significant share of Michigan’s existing export economy, high concentration of global talent and investment, and substantial inroads on the production side of the low-carbon economy.”
It cites three overarching goals: Strengthening the connection between innovation and manufacturing to boost regional exports and attract global investments; work force development that includes strong regional systems to train existing workers, and helping highly educated immigrants gain professional credentials and employment; and targeted investments to leverage key assets in urban and metropolitan areas.
The report provides ideas that can “inform the state as to the actions that they could take to help these regions and cities grow in the future,” said Business Leaders President and CEO Doug Rothwell. What it doesn’t provide, he said, is a “silver bullet.” Because “there is none.”
Suggested strategies include:
• Through Michigan’s 21st Century Jobs Fund, boosting support for manufacturing and innovation, particularly among small manufacturers.
The report shows that Michigan’s manufacturing strength “gives us an advantage in the new economy,” Rothwell said. Manufacturing “is really critical to driving growth, and that’s particularly true for metropolitan areas,” he said.
• Creating a strong foreign direct investment strategy to attract firms that fill gaps and strengthen key manufacturing clusters.
• Helping small manufacturers and service businesses increase exports through greater export assistance, promotion and financing. For example, the report suggests the state might establish a competitive grant program modeled after a Washington state effort and provide grants to regional partnerships that seek to institute export strategies that are tailored to their area and support regional goals.
• Using existing work force dollars to drive regional workforce strategies that match area goals, needs and strengths.
Greg Northrup, immediate past president of the eight-county West Michigan Strategic Alliance, said rethinking work force development systems is important.
In West Michigan, for example, he said there are six different workforce development boards that control U.S. Department of Labor money coming into the region, making for a confusing situation for employers. Northrup is a consultant for the alliance and was a member of a group that gave feedback to Brookings and Public Sector Consultants.
• Helping highly educated immigrants obtain Michigan professional licensing and credentials needed to work in their areas of expertise.
• Supporting a small number of urban and metropolitan industry clusters with grants tailored to meeting specific needs. That could include a competitive state grant program to support cluster initiatives, and aligning state resources to support growth of local industry clusters.
• Designating one to three new “urban innovation districts” that connect anchor institutions with infrastructure, housing, and amenities and attract businesses and workers. Such innovation districts would embody physical elements like housing, and commercial, research and office space, as well as attributes such as walkability, access to transit, green spac, and entrepreneurial support.
In the long term, the report says, state should look at developing a new 21st Century Places Fund, possibly through a bond issue, that could be used for real estate and redevelopment purposes related to a district.
Amy Lane is a former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered utilities, state government and state business for many years.