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County commission chair: Vibrant Detroit needed to keep grads in Michigan

By Joseph Lichterman, Editor in Chief
Published May 31, 2012

MACKINAC ISLAND — Following a panel discussion in which the mayor of Detroit and metro Detroit’s county leaders traded barbs, Conan Smith, chairman of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, said in an interview with the Michigan Daily that a united southeast Michigan will help keep college graduates in the state.

Smith said the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University draw students from around the globe to Washtenaw County, but the lack of a vibrant metropolitan area makes it difficult to prevent students from moving to places such as Chicago or New York.

“We fail to keep (graduates) in the state of Michigan because we don’t have an affinity with a strong core city,” Conan said. “If more people come to Ann Arbor for their education and see economic opportunity in metro Detroit and have the experience of working and playing in metro Detroit, they’re going to build their lives here in Michigan — and many of them are going to build their lives in Ann Arbor.”

While many cutting-edge technological advancements are made at the University, Smith said a strong urban area in the region is needed so local entrepreneurs can take commercial advantage of their work.

“The commercialization opportunities within Washtenaw County (and) within the city of Ann Arbor are, frankly, limited,” Smith said.

His comments came after a session featuring the “Fab 5” — Smith, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel — at the 2012 Mackinac Policy Conference.

This was the second year Washtenaw County’s leader was invited to participate in the event, and during the talk Smith said Detroit’s success is critical to the region and country’s success.

“Detroit is our global brand, and we need to make sure that brand is super strong,” Smith said.

But Patterson took objection to Smith’s statement, saying Washtenaw County couldn’t aptly participate in the conversation over Detroit due to its lack of contribution to a regional millage to fund the Detroit Institute of the Arts. He added that the county didn’t participate in Detroit-area transit agreements or a millage to support the Detroit Zoo.

“You don’t have any skin in the game,” Patterson said. “Until you pay your way in, you don’t get to say how things are done.”

Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties will vote in August about enacting a 0.2-mill property tax, which would support the DIA. According to the Detroit Free Press, if it passes, the millage could raise up to $23 million for the museum.

Also in the interview, Smith responded to Patterson’s comments, saying that the millage isn’t necessarily applicable to Washtenaw County because many residents use similar, nearer cultural institutions in Toledo.

“Let’s not get too far ahead of (Patterson),” Smith said. “They’re not contributing yet either — he’s still got to take that vote.”

And while Patterson chided Smith for not participating in past regional discussions, Bing extended an open invitation for Washtenaw County leaders to participate in future collaborations.

Smith said he “deeply appreciated” Bing’s gesture.

“I’m going to take advantage of it,” Smith said. “I’m going to make sure my commissioners take advantage of it, so that we continue to have these conversations and to grow that interactivity to the point where at least our leaders understand the value of interacting with the metro region.”


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