Let me begin by stating that I am by nature a cynical man. Years of being an observer of politics have rendered me so.
A 20-year career in journalism buttressed a belief system that politicians are by and large an inferior class, a self-serving, self-promoting bunch who rarely follow through on promises.
In truth, I would like to believe, I hope to believe, that most elected officials actually do want to do the right thing if they could only recognize it.
And here is where I get cynical again, as I believe most of them “couldn’t hit a bear in the ass with a handful of sand,” as my father, an avid outdoorsman, used to say.
So it almost pains me to acknowledge that I am impressed with an office holder, but it does happen on a rare occasion.
I have already proclaimed in past blogs that I believe Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan to be the finest economic development governor in the country.
In my opinion, he follows in the footsteps of some former great economic development governors – that of Haley Barbour in Mississippi, Bob Riley in Alabama, Mitch Daniels in Indiana, all of whom are now out of office.
A Problem Solver
Snyder insists, and I actually believe him, when he says that he does not view himself as a politician, but rather a problem-solving pragmatist who just so happens to have an extensive background in business.
I met Gov. Snyder last week, courtesy of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, to which he was the first chairman back in the late 1990s, proof that he was interested in economic development well before he became governor.
I was among a group of site selection consultants invited to meet with the MEDC off its home turf in New York City. During a sit-down session, we were urged to give our impressions of Michigan and suggest how the state could become more competitive in winning investment projects.
Afterward, we met the governor at a Shinola watch store in Manhattan. Shinola watches are made in Detroit. Now this is a great product and a great story that I have told several times, so will not repeat it here again.
To learn more, read my earlier blog DETROIT VS EVERYBODY.
To start, Snyder believes in his role as that of a public servant.
“Anyone doing business in my state is our customer. And that is the simple view of the world that I have. The citizens and the businesses of our state are who I work for. People are excited when they see the governor, but the way I see it, I’m here to serve you. You are who I work for.”
About 400,000 jobs have been created in Michigan since Snyder took office in 2010 and today, the unemployment rate is about half of what it was five years ago. Of course, it doesn’t hurt for a governor to be in office in Michigan when the auto industry is at its highest level in eight years.
More Than a Fix Needed
Still, Snyder preached a different message on his way to winning the governorship.
“I saw a lot of politicians running back in 2009 and 2010, and they talked about fixing Michigan. Fixing Michigan was not good enough. We needed to reinvent our state,” said Snyder.
“We are a great state but we had lost our way. When you talk about finding your way back, it’s not just about changing laws and regulations. It’s about changing the culture.”
Certainly the culture or at least the business climate was radically changed with the passage of laws that cut business taxes and literally shocked the world when Michigan became a right-to-work state.
Detroit Comes Back from the Brink
Snyder then set his sights on Detroit, where decades of mismanagement, corruption and decline characterized a city on the brink of total collapse. He pushed for bankruptcy as he viewed it as “an exercise in solving problems.”
“And so we used it effectively and it was very constructive. We rallied everyone,” Snyder said. “Now street lights are being turned back on, trash is being picked up, and public safety has improved dramatically.”
Detroit also became one of four cities in the state where one of Snyder’s brainchild pilot programs called Community Ventures was initiated. It is designed to help the structurally unemployed find jobs.
“The reason I wanted to do it is because I represent these people. I work for these people that haven’t been able to find a way to work.
“And I wanted to reach out in any way that I could to constructively and intelligently help them. Not wasting resources but to do something, because if they are working, we all win. They win. We win. Everybody wins.”
Getting to the Root Cause of Joblessness
Snyder said he believed a myriad of federal programs were not working well addressing joblessness.
“There are 45 different federal workforce programs. I think they should all be restructured. My view is they were doing too much at keeping people more dependent. They were too narrow in their scope and they were not getting at the root causes as to why these people were not successful at finding work.”
Snyder’s Community Ventures program, initiated in four cities and about to go statewide, put aside $10 million a year starting three years ago with no federal constraints and in Snyder’s words “total flexibility.”
“We’re going to do what needs to be done. So after these three years or so, we’ve placed 3,000 people into jobs with about a 70 percent retention rate after one year which is very high for a program like that. Average wage is about 11 ½ dollars an hour and 14 in the Detroit area, so it is well above minimum wage.”
“If you think about it, this addresses an issue that a lot of people talk about and don’t do anything about at the national level. One, we are growing the economic pie by this program, and, two, we are dealing with the income disparity issue. Three, we are actually reducing the cost of state government over the long-term because now you have successful people versus people using programs.
“Four, we have addressed the root cause instead of the symptom and we have really helped people. Because it gets down to the human level ultimately. Have you really made a difference in someone’s life?”
I have to wonder if a program like Community Ventures were in place in a big way in West Baltimore if we would have seen the violence take place there. I have to think economic opportunity, or the lack of, was the root cause for that riot.
See last week’s blog, Smoldering Ground.
A Role for Government
In short, Snyder is a reformer by nature, believing that there is a role for government but that it can do better.
“I think how government delivers services is messed up, so we’re going to step back and do it at a much more people-focused level that focuses on root causes and focuses on measuring success,” Snyder said. “It’s not so much about the government spending money but a community coming together to help people.”
Unlike many Republican officeholders who refuse to acknowledge of a growing wealth gap in this country, Snyder, a former chairman of the board of Gateway Inc. and a former CEO and co-founder of Ardesta LLC, a venture capital firm based out of Ann Arbor, says wealth disparity and the lack of economic opportunities is our big problem.
“You solve by growing the pie and creating more opportunity,” he said.
Talent is the Future
Snyder said his top priority for the future is developing Michigan’s talent pipeline.
“The major distinguishing feature of who is going to be successful and who is not from an economic point of view is who has the best talent with the right skills sets. And we’re going to lead the nation, particularly in the area of bring back the skilled trades.
“We have a broken system in our country when it comes to skilled trades. We’re re-establishing it here in Michigan, because that is a fundamental competitive advantage that we have over the rest of the country and a sustainable one.”
FIRST Robotics, a national program designed to create competing teams of high school students to build robots, has taken root in Michigan in a big way, with the support of the governor.
“We now have 348 teams. We have more teams than any state in the nation. We created 77 teams last year, more than all the other 49 states combined. And we are shooting for 500 teams. So this the kind of pipeline of talent that we are developing,” Snyder said.
FIRST Robotics will hold its annual championship in Detroit and Houston in 2018 through 2020.
Now I have long believed that presidents and governors get more credit and more blame than they probably deserve when economies turn for the better or for worse. But perception is reality in politics.
Still, occasionally you get a leader who takes it upon himself or herself to affect change that makes a difference in people’s lives. I think Snyder has been that change agent in Michigan. He is actively trying to reinvent Michigan.
As governor, he will not get everything that he wants, nor probably should he. But he now has a real record of success, and I stand by my earlier assessment that he is the best economic development governor in the country. I pity his successor.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. He can be reached at email@example.com or at 972-767-9518. If you liked what you read here, invite him to speak at your next meeting.