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West Michigan Policy Forum Day II: Three Wealthy CEOs talk “downtown development”

September 13, 2012

The second day of the West Michigan Policy Forum began with comments from the Chairman of Haworth, Matt Haworth. He talked about how his company doesn’t refer to their workers as employees, rather they are “members.” This reflected another linguistic slight of hand that makes workers feel as if they are valued, without having any power, especially since they are not unionized.

Haworth also provided a summary of the first day themes and what day two will entail. He also facilitated some online voting by attendees around the issue of what would be on Michigan’s November ballot. This very public voting, once again demonstrated that this forum is highly political and even reactionary, since the online voting overwhelmingly showed opposition to the Protect Our Jobs ballot, the Home Health Care ballot and the Renewable Energy initiative.

Morning Session – Day 2

The first session of day two maintained a similar pattern, by having another journalist facilitate this session. Carol Cain, with a Detroit CBS affiliate, was joined by Dan Gilbert, Chairman, Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans, Dan Loepp, President and CEO, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and Dick DeVos, President, Windquest Group. The theme of this discussion was Branding Michigan: Why Strong Cities Matter.

Dick DeVos started by emphasizing the importance of developing the downtown of any city in order for them to thrive. Loepp and Gilbert affirmed this notion and Loepp talked about the decision of Blue Cross/Blue Shield to move their office to the old Steketees building in Grand Rapids.

Carol Cain lobbed another softball at Dick DeVos by asking how easy it was to rebuild downtown Grand Rapids. Dick said that in West Michigan people agree publicly and disagree privately. DeVos said it was a matter of scale, but failed to acknowledge that his family has been one of the largest beneficiaries of downtown development, with hotel expansion, offices, Grand Action projects and the money maker that is ArtPrize.

Dan Gilbert talked about purchasing buildings in downtown Detroit, because of “this commitment” to reviving the core of Detroit. Gilbert couldn’t even remember how many buildings he owned and of course was not asked if his buy of property would lead to accelerated gentrification.

DeVos also talked about the phases of development in Grand Rapids, which began with major investment in large buildings, followed by retail, followed by entertainment, then housing and finally education. He emphasized the importance of improving education in core city areas, which was interesting, since everyone in the room certainly knows that what Dick and Betsy mean by education is private education.

Ultimately, this session was a love fest amongst three wealthy CEOs who are reaping the benefits of using public policy to redirect public money to help re-develop downtown areas of major cities across the state. The all stated that the market should have barriers put before it, but they welcomed government handouts in the form of corporate welfare.

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