Howes: Who says Chicago is business capital of Midwest?

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Microsoft Corp.’s decision to move its regional headquarters to downtown Detroit from the suburbs has talking heads all atwitter. Why stop there?

For the first time in who knows when, southeast Michigan and the reinventing city at its core can legitimately compete to become the regional headquarters of choice for the Midwest. That’s an honor for way too long owned by Chicago.

Yes, the mind reels: Detroit, not Chicago. Woodward Avenue, not the Magnificent Mile. The Lions and Pistons, not the Bears and the Bulls. Detroit Metropolitan Airport, one of the best in North America with direct flights around the globe, not the reliably choked Chicago O’Hare.

Conventional wisdom accumulated over, what, the past 50 years says, “Detroit? No way.” But the arc of change, the redemptive power of reinvention and critical facts on the ground say a bid by Detroit and southeast Michigan to be part of that conversation could be real for those with the courage to take a real, hard look.

There’s a state government in Lansing aggressively attacking its unfunded liabilities, not a Legislature in Springfield deaf to the fiscal ticking time bomb of its state pensions. There are state lawmakers who cut business taxes to help create one of the more competitive business environments in the country, not their Illinois counterparts who raised business taxes.

I know, the prospect is so absurd. Or is it? Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert practically grows hoarse repeating his common refrain to young recruits: anyone can go work in Chicago and most will change nothing. But, he likes to say, you could make a difference working and living in Detroit.

So could companies looking to reduce costs, find a vibrant food, arts and culture scene, and join an enthusiastic business community with global connections. They could find both in Detroit. Or in Ann Arbor, with the University of Michigan. Even in Southfield with its 31.6 percent commercial vacancy rate, easy access to downtown, the suburbs and Metro airport.

Buoyed by a strong macro-economy and a robust auto sector, government at state and local levels is more fiscally responsible than any time in years. They work with business, not fight it. Tax rates are competitive, and may grow more so if Republicans in Lansing get their way.

The business community is enthusiastic, engaged and aligned (on a bipartisan basis) with government, even with a new Trump administration. Property values are lower. The cultural community here is recapitalized, tested and nationally respected.

And politics? Michigan helped Donald Trump breach the Blue Wall on his way to the White House; Chicago and Illinois didn’t. Investing in Michigan, especially in Detroit, may prove to be more fiscally smart and politically expedient that it would have appeared on, say, Nov. 7 of last year.

Timing matters. On Thursday, President Trump once again juiced equity markets with a promise to begin serious work on tax reform later this year, a development that would reverberate across corporate America — especially if it culminates in repatriating trillions in corporate profits held offshore.

Second, Trump’s liberal use of the bully pulpit to jawbone business into rethinking its commitments to the good ol’ USA could pay dividends to those states in a position to compete for both operating and headquarters investments.

Third, Detroit’s singular position as the poster child for American redemption — and America’s largest minority-majority city in the state that helped deliver him to the presidency — means making a play in Detroit, or elsewhere in Michigan, could be repaid multiple ways.

Fourth, state lawmakers need to recognize the opportunity, too. Former Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, let die a package of economic development bills that would have made Michigan more competitive in the state-vs.-state sweepstakes for new business investment.

Both the brownfield credits and the tax incentives bills are being reintroduced in a new Legislature led by a new speaker of the House. Given the political and business ferment percolating in the early days of Trump, lawmakers would be wise to mute their ideological objections in favor of a hard-headed assessment of where Michigan and Detroit stand — and where they don’t.

Trump’s meddling in the business decisions of Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co., Carrier Corp. and Nordstrom Inc., Intel Corp. and whoever else he favors (or doesn’t), opens a new window on opportunities for companies and government.

The question is whether lawmakers, economic development pros and a gutsy CEO or two are smart enough to seize them.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.