Howes: Detroit chamber moving to delay Mackinac Conference to August

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

In response to the spreading coronavirus outbreak weighing on Michigan, the Detroit Regional Chamber is expected to announce Wednesday that it will move its annual Mackinac Policy Conference to August from its traditional date in late May, two sources close to the situation told The Detroit News.

A media call is scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday, confirmed Kelly Sweeny, director of communications, adding: "media will find out when our members find out." The conference, held annually at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, is being rescheduled to Aug. 10-13 instead of May 26-29, the sources said.

The Detroit Regional Chamber is expected to announce Wednesday that it will move its annual Mackinac Policy Conference to August from the traditional May.

The move is not surprising, given predictions the public health threat and counsel to avoid crowds are likely to extend far beyond Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order set to run until at least April 13. The chamber's decision signals a potential wave of moves for everything from the Rocket Mortgage Classic at the Detroit Golf Club and the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle to a reimagined Detroit auto show in early June.

That's not what organizers of Detroit's Moto-palooza envisioned — a carefully scheduled string of high-profile events that would showcase the city, its downtown and its waterfront, that would lend credibility to the city's claim to becoming America's capital of reinvention.

Instead, the virus that causes COVID-19 morphed into a global pandemic likely to trash best-laid plans for months to come, exacerbating the deepening economic pain roiling the financial markets, pressuring Congress to act and complicating President Donald Trump's bid for reelection.

"We are in daily contact with all of our partners as well as state and local officials and health experts as we continue to carefully evaluate the situation," Rod Alberts, executive director of the North American International Auto Show, said in a statement.

"We are still several weeks before our June event, and we have time before construction would begin. While timing is an important consideration now, our top priority will always be the safety and health of participating automakers, sponsors and the public."

They don't have a choice, frankly. Concerns for public health, probably of minimal concern to most organizers most of the time, are likely to loom much larger for the foreseeable future in event planning and public consciousness here and abroad. Is it safe? Is the virus quiet — or not? And is it worth the risk?

Organizers will be obliged to consult both City Hall and public-health professionals to assess the risk of gathering many of the global auto industry's top executives at the auto show in June. And depending on where we are in, say, July, the chamber will need to stress-test the wisdom of hosting the state's top political and business leadership — typically including the sitting governor — on Mackinac Island in August.

The simple answer is we don't know. That's not being negative. It's being realistic about a virus that does not acknowledge state and international borders, does not discern rich from poor, does not disappear on the orders of presidents, prime ministers or potentates.

We're in uncharted territory here. As Congress is poised to pass a $2 trillion economic stimulus package, the promise of which propelled the Dow Jones Industrial Average to its largest one-day gain since 1933, we don't know where the economy will be in late spring and early summer, where auto sales will be tracking, whether the three-week block of events in May and June downtown will happen — or be forced to reschedule.

If they are, or if they are scaled back to comport with public-health reality, the economic boost Detroit expected would only partially materialize. In its final January show 15 months ago, the auto show delivered the region roughly $430 million in economic activity, according to David Sowerby, managing director of Ancora Advisers.

The PGA tournament, the race — all of it and the expected financial boost to bars, hotels and restaurants could be undercut by a virus (or fear of a virus) none of us can see or control. 


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Daniel Howes’ column runs most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN. Or listen to his Saturday podcasts at detroitnews.com or on Michigan Radio, 91.7 FM.