Mackinac meeting to focus on roads, schools, urban revival

Mackinac Island and Lake Huron seen from the Grand Hotel. (May 28, 2014)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The architects of Detroit’s debt-clearing bankruptcy case, a presidential historian and Michigan’s business and political elite will take part this week in the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual policy conference on Mackinac Island.

It’s a chance for more than 1,500 people to hear from national experts and engage in formal or impromptu discussions about struggling schools, Detroit, urban revival, skilled trades, the economy and — of course — what to do about deteriorating roads weeks after voters crushed a lawmaker-proposed infrastructure plan.

The three-day meeting at the historic Grand Hotel starts Wednesday and will be organized around three “pillars” — attracting and retaining talented workers, revitalizing cities and uniting state leaders around shared values. A Friday session, for instance, will feature at least three of the state’s five new U.S. House members and is intended to “build some cohesion within the Michigan delegation that I think has been lacking for the last several years,” said Brad Williams, the chamber’s vice president of government relations.

Guests speaking at the conference include John Hope Bryant, founder of Operation HOPE, which provides economic education and financial counseling to lower-income Americans; presidential author Doris Kearns Goodwin; Mike Rowe, host of CNN’s “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” show; and statistician Nate Silver.

Gov. Rick Snyder will again have a prominent speaking role, as will Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford. Typically, about 80 of the Legislature’s 148 members attend. They are not planning to vote on legislation in Lansing on Thursday, though work on the state budget is expected to continue.

Last year’s meeting came amid uncertainty over Detroit’s bankruptcy as lawmakers still had to commit state money and city employees and retirees had to approve pension cuts. This year organizers are reuniting key players involved in the bankruptcy exit for a more “all-encompassing” discussion Thursday about how the city can move forward, Williams said.

Participants will include former emergency manager Kevyn Orr, retired federal Judge Steven Rhodes, Detroit’s chief U.S. Judge Gerald Rosen and Ford Foundation President Darren Walker.

Among policy issues on the conference agenda is fixing low-performing schools, especially in Detroit. Snyder recently proposed a sweeping overhaul of the troubled state-run school district, saying it should be split in two to address “crushing” debt. The plan needs approval from legislators who are resistant to directing more state funds to Detroit at the expense of other K-12 districts.

The Skillman Foundation will host a Wednesday session with two co-chairs of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren, which issued recommendations for overhauling the city’s school system — some of which Snyder disregarded.

“They’ve got a lot of different approaches to similar ideas. As the (legislative) process moves forward, ideas from both sides may be pulled in and incorporated,” Williams said.

A Thursday panel on issues involving Detroit and state government will feature House Speaker Kevin Cotter, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, City Council President Brenda Jones and Lisa Howze, the city’s chief government affairs officer. A Friday session on road funding also is planned.

Some groups opposite the business community on the political spectrum will host their own “women’s economic security” summit on Wednesday in Mackinaw City, on the mainland. Engage Michigan and other liberal organizations plan to raise awareness about stagnant salaries, income inequality and to strategize about family leave and sick time.

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