You would think an economic development official in Michigan these days would be contemplating either early retirement or seppuku. Yet the feisty Ron Kitchens, who runs Southwest Michigan First out of Kalamazoo, sounds almost giddy with the future prospects for his region.
How can that be? Where most of America sees a dysfunctional state tied down by a dismal industry, Kitchens points to the growth of jobs in his region in a host of fields, from business services to engineering and medical manufacturing. Indeed, as most Michigan communities have lost jobs this decade, the Kalamazoo region, with roughly 300,000 residents, has posted modest but consistent gains.
Of course, Kalamazoo, which is home to several auto suppliers, has not been immune to the national downdraft that has slowed job growth. But unlike the state – which he describes as "a hospice for the auto industry" – Kalamazooans are already looking at expanding other emerging industries, including advanced machining, food processing, medical equipment, bioscience and engineering business services. Unemployment, although above the national average, is more than two points below the horrendous 9.3% statewide average.
As Kitchens notes, this relative success came through often painstaking and laborious work, a marked departure from the "magic bullet" approach to economic recovery that often dominates Michigan and other rustbelt states. In the past, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm has touted ideas about developing "cool cities" to keep young people from bolting to more robust locales and, more recently, on the promise of so-called "green jobs" tied to sustainable energy.
"People don't want to talk about 'blocking and tackling,'" Kitchens suggests. "You keep your head down and keep pushing. It's not sexy but it works over the longer term."
For his part, Kitchens never much embraced the idea of coolness – a "cool Kalamazoo" effort even received $100,000 from Gov. Granholm as part of her strategy of promoting "creative urban development" as a way to keep talent in the state.
Of course, this gambit failed miserably almost everywhere, even before the recent economic meltdown. Nearly one in three residents, according to a July 2006 Detroit News poll, believes Michigan is "a dying state." Two in five of the state's residents under 35 said they were seriously considering leaving for other locales.
Kitchens does not express much faith either in Granholm's latest gambit, developing Michigan into a green energy superpower. After all, states like Texas and California have a wide lead in these technologies and other areas, notably the Great Plains, possess a lot more wind and biofuel potential. And in terms of low-mileage "green" vehicles, the Big Three lag way behind not only the Japanese but even some European competitors.
So instead of believing in reincarnation or finding some miraculous cure, Kitchens believes places must rely on exploiting their historic advantages. In the case of Michigan, those are assets like a powerful engineering tradition and a hard-working and skilled workforce that can be harnessed in fields outside the auto industry. In addition, the area enjoys a cost of living significantly below the national average and far less than those in the coastal states.
"There's no easy way to get out of the trouble the region is in," Kitchens suggests. "You can't make it by trying to be 'cool places' or be the green capital. Instead we have to focus on who we are, a place that has a great tradition of advanced engineering, and take advantage of this."
So far this approach has paid off, leading to the creation of some 8,000 new jobs over the past three years. The region has focused both on bringing in new companies as well as helping existing ones expand. Perhaps most importantly, it has also raised a $50 million venture capital fund from local investors to help launch fledgling entrepreneurs.
The region also boasts an extensive set of business incubators, which seek to leverage the engineering skill of those just out of school or those who have left bigger companies.
The Kalamazoo experience shows one way out for not only Michigan but also other struggling Midwestern industrial hubs. Another promising example can be seen in Cleveland's recently developed "District of Design," which seeks to capitalize on the regions historic strengths in specialty manufacturing. It is all about taking advantage of the embedded DNA that exists in these once wondrously productive places.
This approach can even revive the residues of the automobile industry. There may be widespread and deserved contempt for the top management of firms like General Motors, but industry veterans repeatedly point out that the region – most particularly the area around Detroit – retains an enormous reservoir of engineering talent, which could provide the linchpin for regional recovery.
One recent sign validating this was the opening of a new $200 million Toyota research and development center in suburban Detroit. The key reason for making the investment, noted Japanese Consul-General Tamotsu Shinotsuka, was Michigan's "abundant human resources." If you are looking for "resources" who know the business of building cars and engines, locating in Michigan has certain logic.
Of course, this talent pool long has been available to the Big Three. However, as retired automotive engineer Amy Fritz has suggested, they have been ill-used by top management. American engineers, the British-born and educated Fritz suggests, are not inherently less talented than their Asian or European counterparts. They tend be more innovative but their creativity is often stifled by the short-term oriented management priorities of their bosses.
"With or without a bailout, the Big Three as we have known them will not be the same," writes Fritz. "One or two could disappear. Others will no doubt shrink. However, the intelligence that exists within the engineering and industrial talent of Michigan remains. This is what the country should look to save from extinction, not the mediocrities who have ruled from highest management."
Indeed, even in a future with a shrunken Big Three – and perhaps the extinction of at least one of them – the industrial heartland does not have to die. Nor does it have to become a permanent "hospice" for failed once-great companies. The way to a long-term prosperous future cannot be built by depending on the administrations of Washington or the political clout of the United Auto Workers.
Instead, Michigan, and much of the industrial heartland, should build a strategy that taps into culture that once made it the envy of the manufacturing world. These people are the key to any recovery, the ones who can both transform fading companies or start new ones. As the late Soichiro Honda once told me, "What's important is not gold or diamonds, but people."
This is the basic lesson of business that the current leaders of the Big Three, most Michigan politicians and perhaps too many on Capitol Hill have forgotten, or perhaps never learned. The industrial heartland may be down but as long as the talent and will is there, it is far from out.
If you do not believe it, take a little trip up to Kalamazoo, which may be quietly showing how to take the Great Lakes toward a new and brighter future.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History and is finishing a book on the American future.