May 30, 2009 at 1:00 am

Keeping state's new professionals a hot topic at Mackinac

Mackinac Island -- Throughout this year's Mackinac Policy Conference, business and political leaders talked at length about the need to keep more young professionals in the state.

It was a theme expounded upon by the likes of University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman in a panel Thursday, and political leaders like the "Big Four" -- the chiefs of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, and the city of Detroit -- during Friday's big headliner event. All of them talked about education initiatives, "cool cities" and the ever-burning question: What do young people really want?

But the people buzzing most about the need to keep young Michiganians in the state were the young ones themselves, who were a small, but significant presence at this year's Mackinac conference, typically a bastion of the state's stodgiest political elite.

Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, a nonprofit that advocates better awareness and advancement of public transportation issues throughout Metro Detroit, was one first-time Mackinac attendee who said she was happy the Detroit Regional Chamber, the conference's sponsor, was willing to proactively court more young leaders at this year's event.

"It's a really great chance for young people and those of us from nonprofits especially to network with state leaders and get a voice in what's going on," said Owens, who attended as part of the Chamber's Fusion program, which targets young professionals in Metro Detroit.

The chamber's young Fusion members were treated to a price break on the conference: Instead of paying up to $2,200 just to register and attend for the Mackinac events (hotel and lodging not included), the 70 or so Fusion members got three nights of accommodations, admittance and meals for $550.

"I wouldn't be able to come up here otherwise," Owens said. "It's good to get some face time with all of these leaders."

Tammy Carnrike, chief operating officer for the chamber, said the Mackinac conference's focus has shifted in recent years, necessitating an infusion of new ideas into an old tradition for Michigan politicians.

"We know that we need young leaders at the table as part of our conversation," Carnrike said. "They're an essential part of getting Michigan moving forward in the right direction."

The chamber's Intern In Michigan program, which connects students seeking real world opportunities with businesses looking to hire local talent, also had a major presence at the Grand Hotel, headquarters hotel of this week's events. And while chamber leaders were active in getting young professionals engaged in the conversation, many Mackinac regulars spent time discussing how to keep them there.

Coleman, the U-M president, told conference-goers that she wants the state to work on ways to retain more of the 6,000 incoming freshmen arriving in Ann Arbor each fall in the state.

"Each one of them that leaves Michigan is a lost opportunity," Coleman said.

Detroit resident Jeanette Pierce was another young professional who attended the Mackinac conference with the Fusion program. The co-founder of Inside Detroit, a nonprofit that promotes downtown businesses and offers tours for locals and visitors alike, said she felt that the state's power elite was open to hearing from younger Michiganians.

"I think they genuinely want to hear what we have to say, and we're being taken seriously" Pierce said on the front porch of the Grand Hotel.

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