by John Austin, Director of the Michigan Economic Center
Last week we kicked off our “Michigan Dream Restored” project with a series of unique focus groups from Detroit to Traverse City. The discussions are aimed to better define with citizen input state “public good” investment strategies central to strengthening Michigan’s economy.
The process itself was fascinating. Michigan Economic Center Leadership councilmember Phil Roos was the facilitator, bringing his techniques for pulling out the values and emotions people carry about a ‘product’ from his consumer products market research days (think the Michelin tire campaign featuring the baby in the tire—which just screams “safety!”).
In this case the ‘product’ is “Michigan”.
When asked to free associate in response to the word “Michigan” – answers were remarkably similar – whether respondents were young or old, black or white, residents of Grand Rapids or Flint: “Lakes”, “4 seasons”, “family”, “autos”, “outdoors”, “home”, “hard work”, “struggle”, ”tough economy”.
When asked to choose among hundreds of images – the 3 or 4 that best represent the ideal of Michigan almost the exact same photos were chosen from group to group: A lighthouse on the lake, fall colors, beaches, families fishing or camping with the kids, a cider mill and apples. An image of U of M, or MSU, Eastern or another university, students graduating, the GM logo, a truck or a classic car, the Tigers, Red Wings, a tribal chief or Henry Ford denoting our history, a growing plant (our ‘green’), a windmill (our green future), an arrow pointed up, a sign that said “opportunities unlimited”.
Equally consistent (and unnerving) were the pictures people chose when asked: “What image evokes the Michigan reality of today”: a battered road, a man with his head in his hands, a woman with an anxious face, gas price sign, a bloodied but standing boxer, a sisphyean image of a beetle rolling a larger stone uphill, an unemployment line, an abandoned home, a piggybank with a tight belt around it, children sleeping in class (e.g. not learning), GM logo again, but with this caveat from those who picked it—“we are about cars but we can’t rely totally on the auto industry”.
Each of the groups went on to discuss what needs to happen to move from Michigan’s “reality” of today—to the idealized version of Michigan they cherish. Again, the priorities were similar: fix the roads, improve education and make it affordable, ensure public safety and core services in our cities, innovate and create the industries of tomorrow, take better care of our parks, outdoors and natural assets.
We did begin to test ideas about to fund these priorities – including ones made by the Governor, the Legislature, as well as proposals made by various Michigan business, labor, and civic leadership organizations. What we learned needs to be further refined through many more discussions with Michigan citizens.
But the most important thing we learned was that there do appear to be a core set of values that define us as Michiganders, and evoke what we prize most about Michigan. More on what these values are next time, but any and all policy solutions to move our economy forward, have to be built up from these core values Michigan citizens hold most dear.
You can participate inthis process as well by going to Michigan Economic Center’s Facebook page and sharing your ideas of what is special and needed in Michigan.