Along with the usual jokes and gibes, there was recognition of the reality of the economic and social interdependence of southeast Michigan during the rechristened and expanded Fab Five panel discussion at the Detroit Regional Chamber Mackinac Policy Conference Friday.
Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, Wayne County executive Robert Ficano, Macomb County executive Mark Hackel, Oakland County executive L. Brooks Patterson and newcomer Conan Smith, chairman of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, gathered at the Grand Hotel’s main theater in front of a packed crowd of around 900 to go over the region’s challenges and opportunities.
Patterson said he’s learned he has a vested interest in the financial health of the city of Detroit. He said Wall Street has told him that Oakland County will lose its top AAA bond rating if Detroit next door goes into receivership, bankruptcy or gets an emergency financial manager.
Patterson said that would cost him bragging rights — but more importantly, it would cost Oakland County taxpayers $2 million to $3 million a year in increased borrowing costs.
After learning that, Patterson said, “I called Dave (Bing) and said Dave, I’m your new best friend, how can I help?”
He said he’s offered Detroit access to its award-winning IT and financial staff to help the city run more smoothly.
Ficano said the era of regional governments being forced to share services and best practices has arrived.
“The old days of silos are really going away, when everybody had the resources to do everything,” Ficano said. “The era of shared services is here.”
Ficano also praised the Aerotropolis effort as an example of cross-border competition, comprising nine local units of government in Wayne and Washtenaw counties around Detroit Metro and Willow Run airports, as well as a state law of financial incentives passed last December. He said a national advertising campaign aimed at luring new companies to the Aerotropolis area is about to commence, with a large General Electric development center as the initial example.
Ficano and other speakers also urged those attending the event to be “positive ambassadors for Detroit.”
Bing said Detroit’s importance stretches past the borders of Michigan.
“Everyone talks about how important Detroit is to this state, but it’s way beyond that,” Bing said. “I think Detroit is very important to this country. All of us have to think about the message we take to Washington on behalf of southeast Michigan.”
The hour-long discussion had the usual groanworthy humor as well — but most of it seemed to involve Hackel, in his first such event as Macomb’s first-ever county executive, rather than the usual suspect, Patterson.
Hackel made several jokes about showing bipartisanship by “rooming” at Mackinac with a Republican Macomb County commissioner. And he said he was considering a third international bridge for the Detroit area, to be built as an extension of M-59 across Lake St. Clair and called “The Mighty Mac-omb.”
Washtenaw County’s Smith, for his part, spoke of his county as an exporter of talented youth to the whole region, and a potential partner for Oakland County in its Medical Main Street targeted economic sector effort. Other leaders mentioned their sectors of economic effort: Hackel talked up defense, with Macomb County’s Army tank and auto command and Selfridge Air National Guard Base; Ficano mentioned Aerotropolis; and Bing talked up Detroit’s available land.
“I think we need to start viewing Detroit’s land as an asset,” Bing said. “With all the vacant land we’ve got we can start with a white sheet of paper and ask what you want to do.” Bing said the city has land that could be used for an IT corridor, a manufacturing corridor or a health care corridor.
And in the only mention of labor, Ficano said the state and its leaders “need to realize unions don’t have horns … they can actually work with you and help you be competitive.” Patterson followed that up with a slam at the former Granholm administration, saying Michigan had seen “eight years of malaise followed by five and a half months of remarkable achievement.”