We’re cruising northbound on I-75 toward northern Michigan for what I’ve been told is the greatest networking opportunity in the state. It’s late May, time for the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual confab, the Mackinac Policy Conference. The picturesque Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island plays host to virtually every mover and shaker from across the state for a weeklong shindig that, ostensibly, is about public policy.
It’s somewhere around Gaylord when an unusual billboard for Westland Mayor Bill Wild catches my eye: Got Vision?
Wild is one of several candidates vying to unseat Wayne County Executive Bob Ficano this year — some 250 miles away from our current location.
Immediate thought: Huh?
The idea of the conference is sound — bring together politicians, business executives, and civic leaders under one roof to consider ideas for Michigan’s future, essentially forcing everyone to talk to one another. But in an election year, it’s clearly a place candidates feel is essential to tug the heartstrings of those who hold serious influence and fat pocketbooks. Wild’s camp, it seems, regards billboards as a resolute ploy to tap that political keg.
It’s a little after 1 p.m. and we’re bound for Mackinaw City, a photographer and I, to ditch the automobile for the week and catch a 16-minute ferry ride to the island to experience the conference firsthand. Being that we’re first-time attendees and clueless as to where anything’s located, we decide to tow a set of bicycles along to get around. Automobiles are banned on the island in favor of horses. (The lingering aroma of their manure, we’d later find, is ubiquitous. You simply can’t escape it.)
The idea behind this trip was to dispatch a guinea pig correspondent in an unusual capacity: to camp in Mackinaw City and wake at dawn each day to hop an early-bird ferry to the island. Funny, no?
That idea quickly unraveled — and with good reason: The last ferry leaves Mackinac Island at 8 p.m. daily. And, as some explained, it’s necessary to stay on the island to soak up the entire experience of the business-centric conference. (Plus, we’d miss the nighttime activities! Things happen until 2 a.m., as one veteran put it.) The $2,000 to $2,500 registration fees are palatable to only a select group, but journalists are accommodated with free food, coffee, spirits, and the opportunity to bumrush nearly every kingpin in the state for an off-the-cuff comment. To some, the conference carries a reputation as a meeting of minds drenched in booze, an event where not much at all is accomplished. So Metro Times saw fit to send someone along with an open mind, one who’s never visited the island before, to get a feel for the conference.
The chamber sets an agenda for the week, with numerous keynote speakers and panel discussions to cover — this year’s focus mainly being STEM (science, technology, education, math) education and the future of Detroit.
We’ve also been told to anticipate an exceptional level of service.
After boarding a boat, a pre-recorded audio message on Shepler’s Ferry offers riders a glimpse of what’s to come: For those who aren’t staying at the Grand Hotel, the message says, you can still enjoy its famous “Grand Boo-fay,” apparently island-speak for what mainlanders know as a “buffet.”
Each year, it’s estimated more than 1 million people cross Lake Huron to visit Mackinac Island. As we’d soon find out, that ferry ride entails batting away an initial blast of bugs pelting you in the face. Imagine sitting in a movie theater and, just before the film begins, a cage of flies large enough to irritate the entire audience is dropped from above. That’s the scene here.
Though it’s an ideal spring day, the ride is freezing, thanks to the cool temps of the lake and a light breeze. Someone on the deck of the boat, clearly headed for the Grand, punches away at a MacBook while simultaneously scrolling through his smartphone. For those who follow Michigan politics but have never attended the conference, this jaunt to the island seems like a who’s-who event for wonks. On this ride, Nolan Finley of The Detroit News is within earshot of Craig Fahle of WDET. Exciting stuff.
Soon enough, we’re approaching land and the Grand Hotel is off in the distance. The ferry slows, and the swarm of gnats returns. Welcome to Mackinac Island.
GAWKERS AND FOOD
There were some issues in planning for suitable lodging on the island. That’s because the conference is well-attended, and we’d made reservations only a week earlier. An estimated 1,700 people registered this year alone. Lucky for us, we managed to find not just one room, but three! (What better way to see the island than having to relocate every morning due to almost-zero vacancies?)
We drop our bags off at Room No. 1 and head toward the festivities.
For the record, the average island-goer not registered at the Grand has to pay a $10 entry fee just to enter the hotel. There’s a sign out front noting this.
Through a set of doors next to a recent addition to the hotel, Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor, chamber employees check us in and give us our nametags, an all-access I.D. that grants entry into the Grand, the media room, the porch, and the food.
There’s a certain mystique about the Grand; it’s a place compounded of 19th-century decor and first-class service. At the same time, it’s odd. Its long, winding hallways and over-the-top opulence make it feel more like you’re standing on the set of The Shining than a waterfront resort. That the waitstaff is decked out in 1800s attire just doubles down on the weird.
We’re directed to the Grand Hotel Stables for an opening reception featuring musical entertainment from WXYZ’s Stephen Clark and WDIV’s Devin Scillian. It’s unclear whether this is technically the first official day of the conference but, nonetheless, it’s the first instance of its well-noted culture — that is, schmoozing.
The ensuing barbecue feels like speed-dating on steroids:
“Hi, how are you? I’m […]. Who are you with?”
“Hey! I’m […]. I’m with […]. How’s it going?”
“Happy to be here now!”
“[Insert commentary on what firm, nonprofit, politician does.]”
Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel works the crowd. Former state treasurer Andy Dillon, who recently got some bad press for landing a job at a restructuring firm he helped win a contract in Detroit, shakes hands and smiles. Someone says of a roasted pig on the buffet line, “Now, there’s something I recognize!” It’s a sight to behold.
In the background, the musical duo of broadcast journalists holds its own with cuts from Johnny Cash, John Denver, and more. Near the bathrooms in the back, there’s a pungent smell. There, attendees can gawk at a cabal of horses in the stables. A couple of stalls are marked with paper stars bearing Scillian’s and Clark’s names — a joke from event organizers, a stable employee says, to indicate where the two got ready for their performance.
Although the barbecue was set to end at 9 p.m., things would surely spill over afterward into the restaurants down by the ferry dock. But it feels right to keep things low-key and turn in early. The island’s backdrop makes for a pleasant bike ride at all times of the day.
COFFEE AND HEADACHES
The look on the faces of attendees Wednesday morning says it all. The complimentary drinks have clearly taken a toll. Some conference-goers are zombie-eyed, clutching cups of coffee, while others just grumble aloud about the pain.
If you’re wondering why the Detroit Regional Chamber still holds the conference on Mackinac Island, veterans often say the main catch is the off-agenda powwows that happen. Yeah, officials are still plugged into the world through their smartphones, but it’s still hard to escape the island once you’ve arrived. It’s a place to get things done.
Ken Cockrel Jr., former mayor and member of Detroit City Council and current executive director of Detroit Future City, supports the notion. He says the conference offers a chance to conduct meetings that have been on the back burner for months in a span of two or three days.
“This is an opportunity to come to a location where [there’s] a number of people that I’ve maybe been trying to get with,” he says, “and they’re all here in one place.”
Cockrel’s point is highlighted inside the unimaginatively named “Media Row,” a section of the Grand’s main dining hall where attendees can witness live broadcasts from a gaggle of radio and TV outlets. One by one, talk show hosts interview Michigan U.S. Senate candidates Gary Peters and Terri Lynn Land, high-profile keynote speakers, and civic leaders on-site to pitch their initiatives. During early hours of the day, the hallway would be a tight squeeze, as hotel guests are escorted through the area to their dining seats for the Grand Boo-fay.
And in what amounts to one of the more amusing scenes of the week, some of those not attending the conference would actually stand by and gawk. At a live radio show broadcast. We must genuinely love the chance to peek behind the curtain.
Wednesday morning, the first actual event of the conference takes place, a “debate” between current U.S. Rep. Peters and former Secretary of State Land. It wasn’t so much of a debate as it was a well-crafted opportunity for both candidates to stump for 15 minutes before a room of 100 people and then float some questions from the audience. A non-debate debate.
Appearing poised and confident, Peters, a Democrat, goes first, delivering long, wonky answers. The chamber’s moderator has to ask Peters to shorten his responses. But he manages to leave the room striking an upbeat tone.
The Republican candidate Land, on the other hand, doesn’t fare as well. Speaking from a set of note cards behind a podium, she delivers a rigid performance, a scripted monologue that feels like a campaign commercial is possibly being taped. Her back-and-forth with the audience that follows makes things worse. She sidesteps questions by continually falling back on unenthusiastic one-liners.
In response to a question about her stance on the proposal to alter “net neutrality,” the guiding principle of the Federal Communications Commission to ensure that all data on the Internet is treated the same, Land simply says the Internet should be free. Really.
She’s asked by a group of reporters afterward to clarify her position, and says she wasn’t suggesting there should be free national broadband access to the Internet for all; rather, “I think it’s important that the costs don’t go up so people can have access to the Internet.”
What will be left out of the media’s ensuing coverage, though, are her earlier remarks in her speech on why the Affordable Care Act should be repealed:
“We need to repeal Obamacare so once again we can have the best health care system in the world,” Land had said. (It’s certainly of note that a study last year found health care costs were the No. 1 reason for bankruptcies in the nation.) Asked later by someone in the audience what she would replace Obamacare with, Land danced around the question, offering one suggestion to improve “patient-doctor” relationships, among other things.
All-in-all, the non-debate is a bit of a drag, a way to pass the time until the official conference begins at 1 p.m., with remarks from Republican Gov. Rick Snyder — a mere 19 hours after last night’s barbecue. In truth, the debate offers the first glimpse of a seemingly important pillar of the Mackinac conference’s agenda: Don’t disagree with one another. Sure, there are differing opinions overheard in the lobby and during cocktail hour. But from the onset, the main discussions fail to yield any serious opposing views.
Inside the Grand’s theater, Hank Cooney, president and CEO of law firm Plunkett Cooney and chairman of this year’s event, offers a different perspective on what’s taking place: “This conference is not just about conversations,” he says. “It’s about getting things done.”
Moments later, Snyder is introduced for the first of two speeches this week. He hits the stage to a standing ovation from the audience. The way the incumbent governor conducts himself, especially with an election looming this fall, it’s obvious he sees this as an opportunity to promote himself — at one of the most widely covered political events of the year, sponsored by an influential group that has already endorsed him, and will continually boost his record throughout the week. These are Snyder’s people, and it’s clearly his show.
He implores his peers to find their state senator this week and tell them to support the so-called “grand bargain,” an $816 million deal that intends to shore up Detroit’s pensions, salvage the Detroit Institute of Arts collection from a potential fire sale, and provide the city with an opportunity for a smoother exit from bankruptcy. This is the linchpin of Detroit’s historic case that requires a $195 million one-time infusion of cash from the state, which passed the state House last week. The deal would still cut pensions for general retirees by 4.5 percent, with their cost of living adjustments wiped out; police and fire employees would take no cuts, but their COLA would be reduced to about 1 percent.
“The comeback of Detroit is critical,” Snyder says to a round of applause.
The room clearly loves it. All week there’s a palpable enthusiasm brimming for the future of Detroit, a city whose unemployment rate continues to hover around 18 percent.
But one has to wonder what the average Detroiter sees as a benefit to the Detroit Regional Chamber hosting its annual conference on Mackinac Island? What comes out of the event for the typical Detroiter? What’s something your average resident can sink his teeth into? Numerous attendees point to the newly minted Regional Transit Authority as an obvious extension of conversations that transpired at the conference — although the agency has experienced some bumps since its inception. Asked later by someone if Lansing would work to increase the RTA’s funding, Snyder says it’s up to metro Detroit to adequately fund it. Perhaps this year, the “grand bargain,” which officials say is the best path forward for Detroit’s residents and employees, is this year’s We Can Do It moment.
In his closing remarks, Snyder says he doesn’t like “nice meetings.” What he means is a meeting when, at its conclusion, someone leaves feeling unenthusiastic about accomplishing much of anything. When the conference ends Friday, he says, attendees should feel like they’re going accomplish this, this, and this. Action items. What “this” is, at this point, is unclear.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan is the man of the hour Wednesday night. Before a room full of Republicans and business leaders, Duggan delivers a crisp presentation that highlights some of his accomplishments since taking office in January — more buses on the roads, about 500 streetlights in neighborhoods per week, a so-far successful home auction website, increased numbers of blighted homes removed. He also introduces a jobs program for upward of 5,000 high school students.
“How transformational would it be for 30 or 40 companies to come to Cody or King High School and interview kids for a potential job … to say we need you, we believe in you,” Duggan says. The initiative would be partly funded by the city through federal community block grants, he says.
The mayor’s talking points are the highlight of the Grand the remainder of the week. Throughout the remainder of the conference, everywhere you turn, someone could be overheard chatting about homes being auctioned off in East English Village or the proposed youth jobs program.
Asked later how he would grade himself on his first six months as mayor, Duggan answers, “Incomplete.” A refreshing dose of realism.
Whether the optimism in the room for Detroit will translate into results remains to be seen. The first day of the conference officially concludes at almost 6 p.m., and guests are soon piling onto the Grand’s porch for the open bar. Meandering about the porch at this point is nearly impossible. Trying to maneuver around the ongoing “networking” is like being at a busy bar on a Friday night. Actually, it’s exactly like being at a busy bar on a Friday night — except the booze comes compliments of the chamber. It’s a wallflower’s worst nightmare. One attendee remarks to me that, because of the decadence of the conference, the chamber couldn’t get away with hosting it in Detroit. “The residents wouldn’t let it happen,” he says.
The overall sentiment so far seems to be that everyone agrees with everyone on what’s being suggested by keynote speakers and panels. Absent from those main agenda discussions are any serious contrary viewpoints. It’s apparently a time to ease up, and nod in acquiescence.
MEET AND GREET
On Thursday, around 10 a.m., I breathe a sigh of relief. My initial concerns about bouncing from room to room each night are in vain: a porter has safely transferred our bags to room number three.
Today it’s clear there are as many people mingling outside as there are inside paying attention to the main agenda items, if not more. The chamber might pride itself on the agenda it cobbles together each year, but the networking’s undoubtedly the main attraction. It’s a common complaint about the conference, but it really is a perfect opportunity to pick the brain of nearly any top official in the state.
Outside on the porch Thursday, we experience our most notable instance of the impromptu meet-and-greets. We grab state House Speaker Jase Bolger, a Republican from Marshall, after he wraps a TV interview, to ask him about the conference and what it means for Detroiters.
“I think jobs, jobs, and opportunity,” he tells me. “I’m talking to employers who are encouraged by the future of the city of Detroit, and I think they’re excited about the opportunities that are … available … they’re poised to make those investments; they just need some certainty.”
Asked if there needs to be a conversation about how municipalities collect revenue, as a recent editorial in the Detroit Free Press suggested last month, Bolger says, “You have to have a long-range view … those who say we need more money and resources are not having a long-range view; they’re trying to get by today for the harm of tomorrow.” Basically, he says, the state’s current solution of using emergency managers to fix structural issues in cities is working.
Moments later, House Democratic Leader Tim Greimel, of Auburn Hills, walks by. Perfect timing! We ask him the same question. Of course, he disagrees.
The emergency manager model “doesn’t work,” he says, because they’re “not acting in the long-term best interest of communities.”
Greimel adds: “Emergency managers typically are focused on the shorter-term bottom line, at the expense of long-term economic growth in communities. That’s a huge problem.” In essence, he means, a city must be situated in a way that allows it to grow in the future — something he says an EM doesn’t allow for.
Later in the day, Snyder delivers his second speech, outgoing U.S. Senator Carl Levin is honored, and a cohort of Detroit public school students perform some smooth jazz on the porch at dinnertime.
Snyder emphasized earlier in the week that Michigan must not vilify Detroit and continue seeing it as an enemy of the state. “It’s not Detroit vs. Michigan, or Michigan vs. Detroit,” he says. “It’s Detroit, Michigan.” The crowd approved.
The week’s final keynote address comes from Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, the man tasked with ushering Detroit through its historic Chapter 9 bankruptcy, and putting it on a solvent trajectory.
Orr remains cautiously optimistic about the $816 million deal to shore up Detroit’s pensions, and the imminent state Senate vote on Lansing’s $195 million commitment. But if one piece disappears, the entire package would evaporate.
Discussing the possibility of not getting the money from the Senate, Orr says, “Without the vote, we’re done.” He has some harsh words for pensioners considering a “no” vote on the grand bargain and his proposed bankruptcy-exit plan — as a protest, or in hopes of taking their chances on an appeal to Detroit’s eligibility for court protection.
“This is not a game,” he says. “This is not a time for protest votes. This is very serious business.”
Orr emphasizes the point further when speaking with reporters afterward.
“We want to make sure people understand that it doesn’t get better by voting no,” he says. Harsh words to close out an upbeat week.
In its final act, the chamber releases a to-do list at the conclusion of the conference — in a way, an answer to Snyder’s call for attendees to leave feeling riled up to accomplish something.
This year, the group mentions supporting Duggan’s youth jobs program and to be “loud and proud” about Detroit’s assets and future. That the city’s future now hinges on a smooth transition out of bankruptcy and a need for a considerable amount of investment is something that should not have been lost on attendees as they head home Friday afternoon.
The momentum in the city is real, and the optimism in the room is encouraging, but it’s a far cry from a complete solution — something Orr and Duggan both allude to in their remarks.
At times, it isn’t easy to soak up the refreshing support for the city at an event that commits more overall time to networking and eating and patting one another on the back than it does to having discussions that include a wide range of viewpoints. It’s equally difficult to bank on the optimism when much remains to be seen in Detroit’s bankruptcy case.
The first thought I have after packing up and leaving the Grand is just how much of this has actually sunk into the attendees’ brains. Riding along the main drag of the island toward the Shepler’s Ferry dock, the scent of horseshit wafting through the air, I consider the months of preparation that must go into planning this conference — to deliver what, exactly? What is it that makes this group unable to have these conversations in a more central location? I think about Greimel, the House Democratic Leader, and his point to me that, yeah, we could — and we already do. But it does provide an opportunity to run into nearly everyone these people want to run into, in order to get things done down the line. Is this something that’s covered by media outlets across the state simply because everyone is here?
Arriving back in Mackinaw City, the sea of gnats seems to have multiplied by the dozens. From the moment you step off the ferry till the minute you plop down in your automobile, it’s downright unnerving how relentless these bugs can be.
The southbound trip along I-75 brings no billboards boosting a local candidate, only the same recognizable features of springtime in Michigan.
I think of Gov. Snyder’s insistence on leaving the conference feeling ready to accomplish a bevy of action items. Approaching Detroit, I consider this: As of August 2013, Detroit’s unemployment rate was 17.7 percent, the city’s median income was half the nation’s average. Recent estimates show its population has fallen to 688,000. What’s it going to take to fix these numbers?