PONTIAC, Mich. – Truly I had no idea that I had such an affinity for old Corvettes, vintage 1950s-60s, until experiencing the Woodward Dream Cruise.
But back in my hotel room Friday night, I was reviewing the photos that I had taken earlier in the day of the parade of mostly vintage cars. And there is no doubt about it — I have this thing for old Corvettes. This is proof yet again that I am becoming a geezer.
My most able handler and host, Mark Adams, senior manager with Oakland County Economic Development & Community Affairs, is a GTO man. His preferred color: black.
Brent Pollina revealed his good ol’ boy side when a reproduction of “General Lee,” the car featured on the Dukes of Hazzard, iconic television programming from the 1980s, drove by our viewing stands on Woodward Avenue.
“I used to love watching that show when I was a kid,” Pollina confided.
Leaning over to Pollina, vice president of Chicago-based Pollina Corporate Real Estate, with a beer in my hand, I said, “Yea, I was a Masterpiece Theatre man myself.”
Brent and I were among a group of a dozen or so site selection consultants invited by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to come and kick the tires. Being that I was smack dab in car country, that was not hard to do.
The Woodward Dream Cruise runs from Pontiac in the north to Ferndale in the south, all within the confines of Oakland County. While the other consultants were assigned to other parts of the state, Brent and I were in Oakland County for two days. And I am glad as I may have not discovered my my latent love for old Corvettes.
As the show must go on, I began writing this blog from a coffee shop lounge at a Marriott hotel in Pontiac on Saturday morning before venturing out again to Woodward Avenue to ogle at more vintage cars. I am completing it late Saturday night while at the Westin Hotel at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
But I am not flying out on Sunday. No, I am to meet my handlers at 5:30 am and board a bus at 6 am, to be transported to the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., where I am to spend most of Sunday in a suite watching the Pure Michigan 400 Sprint Cup race.
As I like my NASCAR as much as the next Masterpiece Theatre aficionado, I am really looking forward to this. I do hope I can partake of crumpets with my Bud Light.
But I am not here as an accidental tourist, even if that may result from my work as a consultant. I am actually here to learn, and what I have learned about Oakland County is most impressive.
All places are different, with both attributes and liabilities, but this place is very different from most. For one thing, it’s one of the richest counties in the United States. That was quite apparent in my windshield tour of such communities as Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills and Farmington Hills. This is the haunt of highly paid automotive executives who wanted to live and work within commuting distance of Detroit.
Make no mistake about it, this was originally a bedroom community to Detroit, although some may feel that it has outgrown that status now. Oakland County is directly north of and borders Wayne County, which is where Detroit is located.
So you have one of the richest counties, with a Triple A bond rating, literally on the doorstep of a city that has just filed for bankruptcy and where there exists great swaths of abject poverty and ruin. The have and have nots live cheek and jowl here.
(But a vibrant core of Detroit does, in fact, exist, which I hope to see firsthand on Monday and Tuesday, and which could be the subject of my next blog.)
But for moment, my attention is on Oakland County, where I spent two days. Spanning 910 square miles, Oakland County has about 1.2 million residents. I was told that about one-third of all economic activity in the state of Michigan takes place within Oakland County, although I’ve seen no hard numbers substantiating that
But with about 42,000 businesses, and having about 950 foreign-owned companies here, it is clear that Oakland County is an economic powerhouse within the state.
As the automotive industry remains king here, the county’s economy hit bottom in 2009 when General Motors and Chrysler filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Nearly 60,000 jobs were lost in the county that year.
By 2011, Oakland County’s economy turned sharply, adding more than 24,000 jobs, its second best performance since 1994. More than 23,000 jobs were created again in 2012. The good news is that over half of the jobs came in high-wage industries, where the average pay was $82,495.
But there is a long way to go. From peak employment in the summer of 2000 to its trough at the end of 2009, the county lost nearly 167,000 jobs, over half of them during 2008 and 2009. Since then, the county has added more than 60,000 jobs as of the third quarter of 2012.
No doubt, a revived auto industry with rebounding sales has helped fuel much of the job growth. But Oakland County is not a one-trick pony nor wants to be. Medical Main Street – a life sciences and healthcare initiative, has generated more than $840 million in new investment and has created or retained more than 5,800 jobs.
What’s more, MMS is projected to create more than 45,000 jobs in Oakland County in the next five years. That ain’t chicken feed, folks. And neither is the fact that in the past eight years, companies have invested about $2 billion in the county in emerging sectors that include alternative energy and power generation and communications and information technology.
Now it is one thing when I hear economic developers and politicians talk about their product – that is, their community. I expect them to be advocates and to put their spin on the story, as they rightly should.
In a letter from L. Brooks Patterson, Oakland County Executive, he ends it on a more than hopeful note.
“No matter where you are in Oakland County, you’re never far from paradise.”
You got to hand it to Mr. Patterson, he is none too shy with his rhetoric, which is often the case with elected officeholders.
But when industry executives speak of a place, I tend to listen more carefully and put more credibility into what they say. They are typically not shills but tell it like they see it. And if I hear a consistent message from them, I will take notice.
I was hearing a consistent message from business people in Oakland County, and it was that they usually did not have to stray too far for the talent that they need. Indeed, the technical/engineering/IT/healthcare/knowledge-based talent seemed to be present within the community.
This is not true in many places. Sometimes, that technical knowhow well is near dry. If I am representing a manufacturing client in a site selection project, those are places to be bypassed and avoided.
So it would appear that companies in Oakland County can draw on a sufficient amount of technical knowledge and brainpower to invest and expand. That is a pretty good barometer to watch.
“The real estate opportunities are good, the school systems are great, and we’re surrounded by some of the best feeder university systems in the country,” said Nathaniel McClure, who moved Scientifically Proven Entertainment from Los Angeles to Oakland County in 2009.
The largest increases in employment in Oakland County have come from professional and business services, exemplified by McClure’s company. That share of total jobs has expanded from 17.8 percent in 1990 to 25.3 percent in 2012. During the same period, manufacturing, which represented 16 percent of all jobs in the county in 1990, fell to 8.8 percent in 2012.
Technology entrepreneurs can tap into an expansive network of resources through Automation Alley, which I had the opportunity to tour in a business park in Troy. This is more than your typical incubator. It is a place where local member companies can come to be advised on matters of workforce development and technology acceleration, funding, commercialization, and business plan assistance to name a few.
For international companies, it also serves as a soft landing space to explore opportunities on doing business in Southeast Michigan. Attracting foreign investment is an important play for Oakland County. Among the literature provided to me was a 30-page brochure entitled “Global Outlook.”
I could not read it as the entire contents were written in German. But for those who do, be advised that Oakland County “ist ein Geschäftszentrum mit einem welweiten Führungsanspruch.”
So that may or may not be important. I really don’t know. What is important from my standpoint is getting up at 4:30 in the morning, which borders on cruelty. Still, these Michiganders have been very nice to me, so I will be nice back. Now I need to dream cruise on to bed.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas.
If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America due to expansion or consolidation, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.
© Unauthorized use of this blog is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, but only if expressed permission has been granted.