May 30, 2009 at 1:00 am

29th Mackinac Policy Conference

At Mackinac conference, focus changes to diverse businesses

But behind the scenes, carmaker crisis dominates talk even as event looked beyond Big 3

Executive Chairman Bill Ford is interviewed near the Ford Focus Battery Electric Vehicle during the 2009 Mackinac Policy Conference on Friday. (Sam VarnHagen / Ford Motor Co.)

Mackinac Island -- More than 1,000 politicians and business leaders made their way to the 29th Mackinac Policy Conference this year, but unlike recent years, more of the news driving the back-room talk throughout the event was coming from downstate instead of down the porch.

Many attendees came to Mackinac expecting to hear of a resolution on the revival of a deal to expand Detroit's Cobo Center, but the biggest news of this year's conference, sponsored by the Detroit Regional Chamber, came Friday afternoon when Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano announced a huge tax break for General Motors Corp. intended to keep the nearly bankrupt automaker headquartered in the city.

Also at the tips of many tongues this week was the impending tie-up of Chrysler LLC and Italian concern Fiat SpA.

Meanwhile, the official conference programming was light on automotive talk and southeast Michigan issues compared with recent years.

"Just like we need to diversify our economy in the state, we've diversified our panels and what we're all talking about this year," said Tammy Carnrike, chief operating offer of the chamber. "We're really looking to our future."

Besides the announcement of an offer to GM to designate the entire Renaissance Center headquarters complex as a nearly tax-free renaissance zone, there were very few major announcements to impress attendees. In years past, many of those who attended said, more news was made on the Grand Hotel's porch than this year.

The conference, which drew roughly 300 fewer attendees this year than last, according to early estimates, also reflected some of the subdued realities of the nation's recession -- though conference attendees were reluctant to publicly talk about any downsizing of the early summer fetes.

While the booze still flowed freely at many nighttime parties at the Grand Hotel and in Mackinac Island's picturesque downtown, some leaders remarked that the snacks and meals being offered at some events were just a little less opulent than in years past.

Even the freebies in the tote bags given to each registrant were less plentiful than before. This year, each bag contained Mackinac fudge and a pack of travel-sized toiletry bottles; last year, highlights included computer mice and Thermoses.

The mix of people attending this year also changed.

Noticeably absent were legions of representatives from the Detroit Three automakers and their suppliers, though two Ford family members made notable speeches.

Sandra Pierce, president and chief executive of Michigan and Indiana for Charter One Bank, who chaired this year's conference, said there was a greater focus on getting high-level executives up to Mackinac.

"More than 35 percent of this year's attendees are CEOs," Pierce told a dinnertime crowd Thursday, before introducing speaker Ed Bastian, president of Delta Air Lines and chief executive of merger partner Northwest Airlines.

The chamber also focused on getting more young people to the conference, as well as business and political leaders from all areas of the state; traditionally, Mackinac has been a haven for southeast Michiganians alone.

"Just like in our approach to government, we have to take a more regional focus," the chamber's Carnrike said. "It's the best approach for meaningful collaboration."

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