Welcoming West Michigan?

As readers of our work know, we believe that culture trump policy. In a world where economic growth is driven by knowledge and innovation, the most successful regions are those which highly value learning, an entrepreneurial spirit and being welcoming to all. The evidence is that Michigan is having trouble with all three.

More evidence of our welcoming challenge comes from Holland where the city council recently voted against adding sexual orientation and gender identity to its anti-discrimninations policies. MLive has a good overview article. What is encouraging is the reaction from the business community which understands how being gay friendly matters to the region’s current and future prosperity.  The article includes: “I’m concerned about Holland’s ability to keep and attain talent because, in the future, there will be a talent war,” said Dean Whittaker, whose Holland-area consulting firm, Whittaker Associates, supplies companies with market research data. And: “We’ve heard it’s not just about recruiting gay people, it’s about recruiting people who want to live in an open and accepting place,” said Jeff Padnos, president of Louis Padnos Iron & Medal. “I think the vote was an unfortunate statement about our community.”

The West Michigan business community, through its innovative talent attraction organization Quaeris, organized a forum with the mayors of Grand Rapids, Norton Shores and Holland to discuss attracting and retaining young talent to the region. As MLive reported the event underscored the different approaches to growing the region’s economy. As they wrote,  Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell said: “What cities can do to attract talent has more to do with place-making. If you create a vibrant area where people want to be, then I think (recruitment) happens.” …  Butting heads with Heartwell, (Holland Mayor) Dykstra said tax and regulatory policies are the best means to attract talent and economic investment. “Capital goes where it’s welcome,” Dykstra said. Said Heartwell: “Place trumps tax rate any day.”

Melissa Preddy in a terrific article for the Center for Michigan reminds us that gay friendly is a statewide, not just West Michigan, issue. She contrasts what is going on in Michigan to New York where big business was a vocal supporter of the state’s gay marriage legislation. She writes: … a powerhouse group of industry leaders signed a public letter to lawmakers urging marriage equality for gays. The signers, including the chairmen of companies such as Alcoa, General Electric and Goldman Sachs, along with chief executives and senior managers at other household-name corporations, made an economic case for legalizing same-sex marriages. They wrote: “To remain competitive, New York must continue to contend with other world cities to attract top talent. Increasingly, in an age where talent determines the economic winners, great states and cities must demonstrate a commitment to creating an open, healthy and equitable environment in which to live and work,” …

She quotes State Representative Jeff Irwin as summing up the Michigan approach as: “There’s been a lot of energy spent in trying to shut down the equal rights we should be giving to everyone,” Irwin said. “What’s going on in Lansing now sends the wrong message to the rest of the world and we risk turning people away. Michigan will be a more economically prosperous place when we try to bring the best and brightest here. Inclusiveness is a big part of that.”

All of our work supports Mayor Heartwell and Representative Irwin’s beliefs that it is talent – which chooses the place where they want to live and work – that is driving regional and state economies. And that welcoming to all is one of the place characteristic that many of them are looking for.

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