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Michigan Looks Outward to Reboot Economy

Following an export-oriented week in Washington--with China’s president visiting, a new White House Council on Jobs and Competitiveness created, and capped by an Obama visit to a GE plant in Schenectady New York--new Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s first State of the State message  took a similar “think globally, act locally” tack. 

Snyder’s proposals for increased exports, export-boosting infrastructure, and welcoming immigrant talent to reinvent Michigan’s economy showed how governors can pragmatically boost their state’s economic fortunes by increasing international trade and global connectivity.

At his speech last week, Snyder, the former CEO of Gateway Computers, gave the State House audience his international businessman’s bottom-line: “To achieve success in today’s world requires that we look beyond our borders. We must open ourselves to the promises and potential of the global marketplace.”

Snyder noted the region is well positioned for export success with one of eight jobs in Detroit, and one in seven in Grand Rapids, already export dependent. Along with other key metrics of economic progress for Michigan, he laid out the challenge to Michigan citizens and firms: “We must increase exports from Michigan farmers, manufacturers, and entrepreneurs.”

Snyder also used the importance of Michigan’s $4 billion bi-lateral trade with Canada, and the highly-integrated U.S.-Canada just-in-time business production and inventory systems, to make a strong argument for finally pushing through a new Detroit-Windsor Ontario bridge and border-crossing complex.

The Detroit River International Crossing (DRIC), while strongly backed by bi-national business interests, the Obama administration, and the Canadian government (which even agreed to advance to Michigan the $550 million match of U.S. federal funding for the project), had died this fall in Michigan’s Republican-controlled legislature, largely due to intense lobbying by the billionaire owner of the rival Ambassador Bridge.

Continuing the non-ideological tone of his inaugural address, Snyder surprised his fellow Republican lawmakers, and pleased Democrats who had largely supported the project, with his push for the DRIC, aided by an apparent new “deal-sealer” agreement Snyder just hammered out with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

Under the deal, Michigan can use the promised Canadian dollars to also count as the necessary--but as yet unfound in cash-strapped-Michigan’s budget coffers--match for its share of all federally-funded transport projects, which are at-risk across the state. In one swoop Snyder nailed the economic argument for the DRIC based on growing Michigan trade and exports, and found a financing solution that helps with roads and bridges in every state legislator’s backyard.

Finally, continuing his push for Michigan to get globally engaged, and reboot the entrepreneurial dynamism that made it the industrial-era leader, Snyder also made a surprisingly strong call to welcome new immigrants to Michigan. The former venture capitalist noted that “one-half of all Silicon Valley start-ups have a foreign national as a founder.” Michigan already relies on immigrants for new startups-- it ranks third behind California and New Jersey in immigrant founded technology firms.

Snyder reminded Michiganders (and Americans): “Immigration made us a great state and a great country, it’s time we embrace this concept as a way to speed our reinvention.”

More trade and exports. More entrepreneurs. More innovation. More immigrants. Better infrastructure to connect Michigan and the world. Not once did Snyder mention the auto industry (though he did visit the Detroit auto show the day before to revel in the industry’s come back). Michigan may be past hunkering down, and licking its auto-industry wounds, ready to look outward once again.