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Q&A: Sandy Baruah, Detroit Regional Chamber

December 9, 2012

By Carl Dunker

Building off a career that included serving as the last administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration under George W. Bush, Sandy Baruah now serves as president and CEO of the 20,000-member Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. In his previous role, Baruah helped shape the response to the credit crisis of 2008 as well as administered the SBA’s $18 billion loan portfolio. Prior to joining the SBA, Baruah served as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce.

Baruah joined the Detroit organization in 2010. His focus at the chamber has been on fostering economic development, educational reform and regional collaboration, something he touched on at a recent breakfast event sponsored by the Grand Valley State University Seidman College of Business.

While people like to “slice and dice” the state, Michigan must look beyond divisions to come up with real solutions to the issues it faces, he told the audience.

“We are operating as one Michigan perhaps more than ever before. The collaboration and partnership between east and west Michigan is not only real, it is genuine and it is productive,” Baruah said. “I think we’re starting to realize that the differences between the east and west parts of our state actually make us stronger.”

Baruah spoke with MiBiz about the role both sides of the state play in Michigan’s economic future.

How is Michigan’s economy doing, from your perspective in Southeast Michigan?
Well, it is picking up. GDP growth is growing at a faster rate than it has in the past several years.

Do you see anything on the horizon that could slow down that growth?
Statewide, I don’t see a lot of storm clouds on the horizon that will slow things down – of course, depending on how things play out with the fiscal cliff negotiations. Some economists are saying that if we go over, we’ll go back into recession. That can definitely affect how things play out.

There have been many efforts in the last few years to better connect the eastern and western sides of the state. Have those efforts paid off?
The collaboration from the east to west side of the state has never been greater.

Is Michigan unique in having such dramatic cross-state differences?
Certainly there is nothing special about living in a state that has multiple cultures. Where I come from, on the West Coast (of the U.S.), you have L.A. and San Francisco. They’re less than 400 miles apart, and yet they might as well be on different planets. They’re still part of the same state.

What does each side of this state bring to the table?
West Michigan has a strong sense of purpose and has strong institutions like The Right Place, the (Grand Rapids Area) Chamber (of Commerce) and the (West Michigan) Policy Forum that are making a real difference in this state. Grand Rapids especially has the business community setting a positive agenda. East Michigan has a strong sense of cultural history. … These assets, I think, (are) greater than ever before, and I think they are the envy of the rest of the rest of country.

What keeps you up at night?
There’s always the storm clouds hovering over the the economic situation in Europe. Depending on how that goes, we could have some problems over here. Also worrying to me is the government of the city of Detroit. Will they allow the state to come in and help them with some of the problems they are facing?

What’s the state’s biggest challenge?
Infrastructure continues to be an issue here in Michigan. Obviously, that’s going to be helped by the New International Trade Crossing. The state dodged a bullet with the defeat of that proposal along with the other four that would have really put the brakes on Michigan’s recovery.