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Adrienne Roberts: Meaningless conversation

By Adrienne Roberts, Editorial Page Editor
Published June 1, 2012

The Detroit Regional Chamber Mackinac Policy Conference’s name is a bit confusing. It’s quite the strange juxtaposition, really. It’s a conference, primarily focused on how to fix Detroit and it’s surrounding communities, that takes place at an overpriced island a day’s drive away.

There seems to be no shame in that. Because, at the end of the day, this is simply a conference. And at conferences, a lot of people talk, some listen, but mostly, attendees network, drink, eat and then drink some more for good measure.

Granted, there is value in talk. But watching the “Fab Five” — regional leaders from Detroit, Macomb, Oakland, Wayne and our own Washtenaw County — make petty jabs and lamely joke about lakefront property in a panel discussion was simply annoying and discouraging to witness. When asked if these oddly-titled “Fab Five” ever meet outside of this conference, there was an obvious hesitation and a muddled affirmative was choked out.

They made an important point — collaboration is needed between the counties in order to improve the situation in Detroit. After all, Detroit is, for the most part, isolated from the other counties. And Dave Bing, the mayor of Detroit, wants financial help. But other counties have no incentive to help Detroit out because they don’t view Detroit as particularly relevant to the people they work to serve.

So the vicious cycle continues. A melodramatic play that we are forced to endure each year. Talk of uniting Detroit, enthusiastic pledges of support and then a return to home where the conference seemingly never happened.

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Conan Smith, the chairman of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, said, “We fail to keep (graduates) in the state of Michigan because we don’t have an affinity with a strong core city.” While this may be accurate, what solution is offered?

It was Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D–Mich.) that suggested a high-speed railway should connect Ann Arbor and Detroit, giving Ann Arbor residents, University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University students an easy and efficient way to travel to Detroit. If college students are able to go to Detroit on any given weekend, they will have the opportunity to appreciate its cultural significance. This has the potential to keep more college graduates working in the state of Michigan. And Ann Arbor residents may be more receptive to giving money to Detroit if they felt like they were somehow connected.

This is what a valuable discussion looks like. It comes in the form of a statement followed by a plan to make that change. But Stabenow is not a part of the “Fab Five.” She doesn’t represent Washtenaw County or Detroit. And, most likely, people won’t really listen.

Words can be extremely powerful, especially when they come from important people. Thomas Friedman, a New York Times columnist, probably gave this event even more media attention than usual. But as we crowded around the live stream at the office where I work and groaned at random musings by political leaders, we expected some kind of plan of action from the “Fab Five,” if only just for show. That didn’t happen. Instead, we sighed and went back to our work, unimpressed and certainly not inspired. Simply wasted words from people we take the time to listen to.

Talk is good, but this talk, coming from many people with money and the ability to implement change, was useless. Despite all the media attention and countless news stories, we cannot pretend that this is something it’s not. It’s a conference, like any other. A time for heavy drinking, expensive hotel rooms and shameless networking dotted with momentary feelings of enthusiasm and power that quickly dissipates as the next round is served (all on the taxpayer’s dime, I might add).

Yet the name of this conference, on second thought, is perfect. The conference is a paradox in and of itself: Powerful leaders coming together in one room for the good of our state, doing nothing of worth, and saying absolutely nothing with lasting meaning.

Adrienne Roberts can be reached at adrirobe@umich.edu.