Business and Politics: Both Better When Working Together

A recent report in a state business publication by former Traverse City-based reporter Lindsay VanHulle asked if business interests are losing their “clout” in Michigan’s state capitol. It suggested that “Lansing’s new GOP leadership is ignoring the priorities of business to pursue its own anti-tax agenda.”

The intertwining between business and politics has always been interesting, if not static. Only in recent memory has it taken on more of a partisan tone, with the Republican Party generally viewed as more “pro-business.” But there always have been business advocates across political aisles; Democratic President John F. Kennedy made famous the sentiment that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

The public perception of that relationship is also shifting — and, at least in my view, not necessarily for the better. While government and business often were considered partners in helping grow prosperity for everyone, today business is frequently seen as “wanting” something from government — at the expense of workers, “tax payers,” or the environment. Government has a necessary regulatory role; however, most business people want their companies to thrive on a level playing field that ensures good stewardship in their communities.

Many people also overestimate the government’s ability to generate economic growth. With the exception of Washington D.C. and some large state capitals or university cities around the country, the public sector is generally not a large economic driver. The prosperity and health of communities depends on the success of their private sector. The most desirable places in the country have a common trait in that their businesses are thriving, whether in technology, tourism, finance, manufacturing, energy, etc.

Successful businesses really don’t need anything more to thrive than what the average citizen needs from the government. But they will seek out the places they perceive as best able to help them operate efficiently and effectively. Pro-growth public policies attract businesses, as sure as burdensome or overreaching regulations and tax structures have them looking for greener pastures.

Downtown Traverse City is an example of the good that can happen when public officials and the business community work together. At its core, the city’s commercial turnaround was the product of public investment in infrastructure and in innovative economic development policy, which together helped generate massive and sustained private investment that rebuilt the city’s commercial base. Everyone across the city (and beyond) benefitted from increased property values, an expanded tax base to run the community, and new job opportunities.

The region continues to reap those rewards today through the ongoing national attention our area generates. It wasn’t the product of a particular political party or ideology. Community leaders and business people across the political spectrum came together on a vision and plan to rebuild the downtown, and they put the community resources and public policies in place to help make it happen. Business people responded with the private development needed to build the vision into reality.

If our local leaders purposely unwind years of progress by reversing effective economic development strategies simply because of the success of those strategies, business will react accordingly — and our community will pay a steep and lasting price.

Whether it’s in Traverse City, Lansing or Washington D.C., politicians who dismiss or ignore the role of business in building regional, state, and national prosperity will shortchange their constituents and their communities. If business “clout” is really shrinking, all of us will feel the pinch. Conversely, if business people neglect their traditional advocates and partners in legislative and policy advocacy — e.g., their local chambers of commerce and trade associations — they will eventually find themselves on the wrong side of a pendulum that has swung too far away from their interests and, consequently, the interests of their employees and the communities in which they live.

Doug Luciani is CEO of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce and TraverseCONNECT. Contact him at