|Nearly 1,700 business, educational and political elite will come via ferry and plane to hear and talk about critical issues at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s 36th Policy Conference which kicks off May 31.
It’s the Oscars of statewide conferences, where well known leaders congregate for four days to discuss things that resonate in these parts.
“We are conveners, and whether it is a speaker or panels on the stage or private conversations in the parlor, we bringing together statewide leadership to have the difficult and honest conversations that may not take place otherwise,” said Dennis Archer Jr., President, Archer Corporate Services, and Chairman of the 2016 Mackinac Policy Conference
Archer is steering the conference just as his dad, former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, did 10 years ago. Both men will be among speakers at the gathering.
Topping off topics guaranteed to get time in the spotlight on the island — the man-made lead tainted water crisis that left Flint in peril, Michigan’s roads and infrastructure, and Detroit Public Schools’ troubled academic and financial situation.
There will also be sessions about the importance of start-ups and entrepreneurs, the defense industry, and politics too —including the quirky presidential race with Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders still playing out.
“Every conference focuses on three pillars,” said Sandy Baruah, President and CEO of the chamber. “This year’s are entrepreneurship, urban education and investing in the future by supporting high-growth industries such as automotive, defense and IT.”
This is Baruah’s sixth year running the influential group.
Though the 2018 gubernatorial contest is two years away it too will garner talk including sidebar conversations on the famous porch of the Grand Hotel where careers and topics are often vetted in private.
Homage will also be paid to the state’s backbone industry — autos — where seismic changes like autonomous vehicles and technology are driving the business and with it Michigan’s future too.
GM President Dan Ammann will be among keynote speakers.
Detroit and its Mayor Mike Duggan will be center stage too as the city continues to find traction following emergence from bankruptcy. There are many positive things developing downtown.
But there are also major issues to contend with including crime and jump starting the city’s neighborhoods.
Corporations have been helping as evidenced by the Grand Bargain a few years ago.
KPMG Detroit will be among companies making news on the island with announcement of a book program to help kids learn to read.
“KPMG Detroit is celebrating serving the business and civic community for more that 100 years,” said Heather Paquette, Managing Partner of the Detroit office of KPMG LLP. “As part of our celebration, KPMG Families for Literacy is donating more than 11,000 books to the kids in Detroit through United Way’s Meet Up, Eat Up and Read Up powered by KPMG. We know that when kids have access to books at home, they are more likely to read and be prepared for school.”
Another issue will be Detroit’s civil uprising of 1967 – which will mark its 50th anniversary next year.
Former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford and TV journalist Soledad O’Brien will be among those talking about it.
And they’ll discuss national politics too.
“We’re making progress,” said Archer Jr. when asked about the issue of race in the region and at the conference. “But issues that are so complex and emotional require ongoing attention. One event or organization is not going to address this issue. But they can keep the conversation going and ensure that everyone is at the table. “
The once-prickly relations between Detroit and Grand Rapids have warmed. But that could be tested for those at the conference as a competition held between two start up companies from opposite sides of the state called the “Mackinac Pitch.”
Similar to CBS-TV’s “Shark Tank”– the two firms — Detroit-based Ento and Fathom, in Grand Rapids — will square off as they make their pitch to the chamber audience on who should win bragging rights.
Mackinac keynote speaker Daymond John, of “Shark Tank,” will be on hand. The winning company will then receive a cash prize as well as mentoring provided by chamber members.
When the conference wraps up and folks head home, those who have spent the past year planning it hope they leave with more than just some of the island’s world famous fudge.
“We learned a lot about ourselves as a state when we rallied around the Grand Bargain to ensure Detroit emerged from bankruptcy with a bright future,” said Baruah. “I hope people walk away with a renewed since of solidarity of what we can accomplish as One Michigan.”
(Carol Cain is the eight-time Emmy Award Winning Senior Producer/Host of CBS 62’s “Michigan Matters” and also moderator of the Chronicle’s “Pancakes and Politics” forums.)