Editorial: On Mackinac, an island of opportunity

The Detroit News

All of Michigan's problems aren't solved. The economic recovery is far from complete. But as Michigan's business and civic leaders arrive on Mackinac Island today for the Detroit Regional Chamber's annual policy conference, there is a sense that it's time to begin cashing in on the gains made by the state and region.

Much of what's been fought for at this annual gathering over the past several years has been delivered.

Michigan has a better business climate thanks to tax and regulatory reforms that drove the agenda of this conference leading up to the election of Gov. Rick Snyder. The state economy, though stifled somewhat by sluggish national growth, is creating jobs and attracting new businesses. Michigan is growing again.

Speculation about Detroit's survival was a perennial staple of the agenda here. This spring, Detroit is out of bankruptcy and is attracting interest from investors worldwide.

Instead of focusing on what needs to be done to fix Detroit and Michigan, the discussion this week will be on what must happen next.

Organizers have structured the conference around three pillars: talent development and retention, urban revitalization and cohesiveness. All are critical if the region and state are to exploit this moment of opportunity.

Talent is a particular concern. Policies enacted by Snyder and the Legislature have made the state more attractive to employers who require a high skill workforce. There are opportunities in high-tech manufacturing, as well as in engineering and industrial design, that should fit Michigan well.

But the state still suffers from a skills gap. It does not have enough engineers, scientists and technicians to fill existing openings, let alone provide an employee pool for those who want to come here and create new jobs.

More public and private investment is needed in skills training. And the state absolutely must finally begin making significant strides in improving its public schools. Other states are moving ahead while Michigan indulges in turf wars.

Remaking the state's fading industrial cities, including Detroit but also Flint, Saginaw, and others, is a key to attracting talent. Michigan lost one of every three of its college graduates during its Lost Decade. Young, educated workers today want to live in vital cities. Michigan has to provide that environment if it hopes to compete for the nation's top brains.

More than ever, Michigan is speaking with one voice. The battles between the core city and the rest of the state, as well as the eastern and western halves of Michigan, have not disappeared, but are not as prevalent as they once were. Ending the internal feuds and resentment will allow all pieces of the state to work better together to compete for investments. The competition lies outside Michigan's borders, not within.

This is not a policymaking body. It's a place to exchange ideas. It's also an opportunity for deal makers to work quietly to resolve pressing problems.

This year, that means engaging influential leaders to help broker a deal to fix Michigan's roads. Political leaders also will be working to resolve the nagging barriers to getting the regional water authority off the ground. And everyone should be committed to finding a unified approach to fixing Detroit's schools.

Michigan and Detroit are at a moment of opportunity. The next three days should be all about exploiting it.