Editor’s note: This article was published in Grand Traverse Business magazine’s Fall 2018 issue.
By Kent Wood
The policy arena can be a contentious world on occasion. Every now and then, I’ll hear a comment about not understanding why the Chamber would take a policy position on a legislative or local issue.
I understand the sentiment behind the question. With more than 1,500 individual business members — which means more than 1,500 individual opinions — someone is bound to disagree. Someone may even drop their membership over the issue in question.
So why take that risk? Because the business community needs an advocate, and someone needs to do it.
As long-time Michigan capitol correspondent Tim Skubick once said, “if you aren’t talking with your legislators, somebody else is.” Chambers and business organizations that aren’t already engaging their elected leaders on policy issues important to their local economy should be. I can assure you that others who don’t have the prosperity of the business community in mind already are.
Chambers have been around since the middle ages, and it’s important to remember that a Chamber of Commerce’s first interest is exactly what is in its name — commerce. Commerce is what brings life and prosperity to a community, and when chambers take strong, clear positions and work together, they can be extremely effective for their communities.
Creating an environment that is favorable to commerce does not happen on its own. It requires leadership, and leadership can be hard. It means tackling large, complicated issues, sticking with issues that may not have a lot of support, and taking positions that may be controversial.
The chamber in Traverse City and the Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance — a partnership of more than a dozen Chambers and economic development organizations across northern Michigan and the U.P. — have worked together to impact legislation that is having, or would have had, direct impact on northern Michigan’s ability to do business and compete in the state and global economy.
For example, just in the past year, Chamber members and business advocates in this region have:
— Stalled a bill that would have given a state contract preference to a downstate salt company, which would have meant a loss in dock and trucking jobs in the region;
— Won a small, but hard-fought amendment in the state budget that will allow more rural-friendly competitive robotics program in schools, plus an additional $500,000 for competitive robotics grants to schools. Many small northern Michigan districts already are taking advantage of this win this fall, and we will see the impact of this in STEM fields for years to come;
— Pushing back on the Federal government’s tariffs on steel, aluminum and other products that, in particular, hurt small- and medium-sized manufacturers in our region;
— Made multiple, significant amendments to a bill creating a transformational brownfield program so it would allow northern Michigan communities to participate;
— Killed a bill that would have pre-empted local units of government from providing high-speed internet — a critical, yet hard-to-come-by commodity in rural areas. This bill would have killed the Traverse City Light & Power fiber internet project, something many businesses are clamoring for in Traverse City.
These are intentional actions taken directly in the interests of those doing business in northern Michigan. While everyone would like to stay focused on their piece of the pie, chambers should advocate to ensure there is a pie to begin with.
Chambers of commerce should and will continue to lead with a strong voice on issues that impact the business community and economy in our region. Of course we need to seek member feedback, keep open minds and remain professional in our approach. But we also need to stay true to our organizational missions, visions and values — all of which I’m sure require strong leadership to accomplish.
I’m proud to work alongside so many Chambers and other business associations that get involved in the nitty-gritty world of public policy work. There is no doubt it can be time consuming and often political, but in my view it is the most important thing our organization can do.
If business organizations aren’t advocacy leaders on behalf of a region’s business community, who will be?