Metro Detroit county executives address rumors, mental health crisisMay 16, 2022
May 14, 2022
DETROIT — It was as if we hadn’t skipped a beat Wednesday as Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, and Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter gathered with me to talk about things at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Advocacy in Action event at The Mint in Lathrup Village.
This was among the chamber’s first in-person gatherings since the pandemic started and was attended by about 200 people who seemed happy to see other people, versus Zoom screens.
The last in-person gathering I moderated with the county executives was for the Detroit Free Press’ “Breakfast Club” speakers forum, held just before things turned upside-down. That 2020 gathering included the three county executives plus Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Jason Morgan, former chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. The topic then was regional transit.
On Wednesday, the focus with the three county leaders shifted a bit as we talked about how to make the region more competitive, particularly in the electric space, picking up the pieces as the pandemic still has its hold, how to take advantage of things like the two airports (Detroit Metropolitan and Willow Run, which are only 4 miles apart as Evans noted, calling that area, “a diamond in the rough”), and why it’s paramount to dedicate more funds for mental health.
May is Mental Health Month and Evans, Hackel, and Coulter talked about the need for additional dollars to address this crisis, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“We need to pay as much attention to our mental health as we do physical health,” said Coulter.
Hackel, former sheriff of Macomb County, came to office with his slogan, “Make Macomb Your Home” and joked he might change the slogan to “Make Macomb Your Electric Home,” given the vast amount of economic development and jobs growing from the electric sector. The auto industry remains the bedrock of our region as it goes through seismic change as we move from gasoline-powered vehicles and communities to electric.
Coulter talked about his open invitation issued to President Joe Biden, who visited Ohio last week and talked up 3-D printing opportunities in the Buckeye State.
“We invited him to come to Oakland County to see what’s taking place here. … We already have firms doing that,” Coulter added.
Hackel also talked about an issue near and dear to him: roads.
“We can fix any road or bridge that needs it,” Hackel said. “That’s not the problem. We need to fix the model of how to pay for it. … That’s the issue.”
And there was talk of politics, too, which is inevitable as they are the top three elected executives who oversee the region.
Hackel, who is running for reelection this year, as is Evans, talked about how he is doing his job and focusing on it, and will let the voters decide in November.
Evans, who helped steer his financially beleaguered county when he stepped in seven years ago, finds it in a healthier space.
Evans added a quick “no comment” when asked what he thought about prospects of former Detroit City Council President Monica Conyers, who has filed paperwork to run for Wayne County executive.
Hackel addressed rumors he is looking ahead and considering running for governor in 2026 when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (if she wins reelection this fall) would be term-limited.
“I would not say I would not consider it,” he said. He talked about running for governor in 2010 and 2014 and decided against it both times.
Latest rumors suggest Hackel, who describes himself as a moderate Democrat, might consider switching parties to run as a Republican. In response to the idea he would run as a GOP candidate, Hackel added: “I am very much a Democrat.”
Regional transit was also discussed, though not much changed from where we left off in our last gathering two years ago. Between opt-in and opt-out communities, and differing opinions about what metro Detroit needs when it comes to meaningful regional transit, the needle hadn’t moved.
Then again, the three executives have had to contend with a pandemic, issues evolving including social justice and equity, and growing talent needs as the workforce has changed dramatically.
“There was no playbook for dealing with these things,” said Coulter, as he summed up what the past two years has been like.
Up close and personal
One thing most agree on is that there is something to be said about having important conversations in person and it made sense for the chamber to have this particular event with participants together onstage with an audience.
“Like many, we’re slowly returning to many pre-pandemic routines,” said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the chamber. “This event with our county execs really needed to be in person. These guys have great chemistry and the conversation would not be nearly as dynamic if it were on Zoom.”
Baruah is looking ahead to the Mackinac Policy Conference at the end of this month when folks from across the state gather on Mackinac Island. The chamber has protocols in place and has limited attendance to 1,300 versus 1,700. The conference is booked with a wait-list.
“Society is in the process of transitioning from pandemic to endemic,” said Baruah. “It’s still too early to tell what pandemic habits and protocols might be a part of a new post-pandemic normal. We feel comfortable returning the conference to in-person and the steps we have taken to protect Michigan’s top leadership — but that doesn’t mean we are back to normal yet.”
Claude Molinari, president and CEO of Visit Detroit (aka the Detroit Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau), was among those in the audience Wednesday. We chatted after the program about our region getting back to normal when it comes to events and meetings.
“I’m pleased to see shows coming back,” Molinari said. “My biggest concern is that labor shortages will make it difficult to provide the level of outstanding service that our clients expect when they come to the metro Detroit region.”
Pamela Dover, senior director of marketing and business development at Comcast Business, was also in the audience and talked about the state of gatherings.
“I don’t think we will return to the same normal,” Dover said. “Because of a hybrid workforce and, at events, some people still will be masked up and others won’t participate at all.”
Yes, I think we can also count gatherings and events among things that will be changed going forward thanks to a health crisis that changed so much.