‘Big Four’ say autos, tech are future in Metro Detroit

Christine Ferretti, and Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Detroit — Top officials in southeastern Michigan are optimistic about the region’s future as the automotive industry continues to add jobs in the United States, and Metro Detroit continues to diversify its economy.

“I can’t remember a time when the leadership of the region was as unified in vision and direction (as it is right now),” said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan at the Detroit Economic Club’s annual “Big Four” luncheon Tuesday.

Duggan, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Oakland County Executive L. Books Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel spoke for about a half hour at the luncheon, which took place during the 2017 North American International Auto Show.

The officials said recent announcements from Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV that the companies would be investing and adding jobs in Michigan, among other states, add to a positive outlook for southeast Michigan.

Mark Hackel, L. Brooks Patterson, Mike Duggan and Warren Evans.

“To bring Detroit back, we’re going to need a whole range of strategies,” Duggan said. “The auto industry is a big part of that.”

Duggan said in addition to the auto companies, suppliers and smaller technology companies are beginning to settle in Metro Detroit as the companies race toward creating driverless vehicles.

“They’re not trailing on this, they’re leading,” Duggan said.

Hackel added southeast Michigan is poised to see more investment from the automotive companies working on autonomy. The region has the infrastructure in place to accommodate that investment, he said.

Meanwhile, Patterson and Evans said they’re looking to attract other businesses to their counties.

“It’s a big part of our economy ... doesn’t mean we shouldn’t diversify,” Evans said.

GM was once the largest employer in Oakland County, Patterson said. That badge is now owned by Beaumont Health, and GM isn’t in the top 10 employers.

The whole health care sector is booming in Oakland County, according to Patterson.

“I think my future is going to be in the high-tech side of health care,” he said. And since the auto industry in Michigan is already leading on the technology front, people are going to start moving to the region to work.

The panelists also touched on the failed Regional Transit Authority millage.

Voters in Oakland and Macomb counties rejected the proposal in November. Washtenaw County voters approved the tax with 56 percent support while the proposal was favored in Wayne County at almost 53 percent. But the area as a whole voted it down.

Hackel said Macomb County isn’t against a regional transit plan, but the one presented on November wasn’t right.

“It’s not that the voters are against the concept. ... I just think there needs to be a plan that’s very specific,” he said.

Duggan said after the millage was shot down, he and other officials realized they were not “deeply engaged” in developing the plan.

But Patterson said he hasn’t seen proof a regional system is necessary.

“The transit advocates have to make their case,” he said. “People didn’t believe them. ... Where is the demand these people keep talking about?”

The four politicians were cautiously optimistic about the pending Donald Trump presidency, and the new president’s potential effect on southeast Michigan.

“What we have here is four people who are trying to make something happen in a region,” Evans said. “I don’t think that happens often. ... I think the administration will see the importance of this area.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau