Complacency is Our Fork in the Road

There’s a consistent – and important – message emanating these days from business and political leaders across the state: Keep Michigan’s economic comeback moving forward.

Michigan’s economy has gotten to a much better place in the past decade. It’s evident in traditional barometers like economic growth, jobless numbers, property values, population trends and others. Michigan earned national headlines as a “comeback state,” gaining accolades from various organizations for its economic reforms – specifically for its changes in business taxation that helped drive its turnaround.

But if we’re being honest with ourselves, there is still plenty of room for improvement. As organizations from Fortune 500 companies to professional sports franchises know very well, it’s relatively easy to pull an operation up from the bottom rung to the middle of the pack. It’s a lot more challenging to take it to elite status, where an entity is considered among the best. That’s what we face in Michigan today. We’ve dug out of the economic basement, but we’re still middle of the pack in important indicators – so how do we keep the elevator moving up to the penthouse?

There’s a wide range of ideas on how to keep the comeback surging ahead. In a major election year there will be no shortage of opinions on the best path forward from the individuals seeking to lead our region and state.
But there’s one option that must be avoided at all costs: the false sense of comfort and security that stems from complacency.

More than 2,500 years ago Aesop warned of being “ … swallowed up by the great chewing complacency.” The threat is real because complacency seems so non-threatening: Life is good, things are well – don’t rock the boat. The relative success of our region offers up plenty for the complacency monster to chew on. After all, who wants more traffic jams, tall buildings (don’t get me started!) and strained infrastructure? Decision makers have a much easier path when they’ve convinced themselves that their primary objective is to maintain the status quo.

Fortunately, the Grand Traverse region is home to a new and growing chorus of voices with no use for the complacency mindset. There’s an emerging group of community leaders who view our region as a magnet for 21st century growth opportunities in technology and digital sectors. They’re initiating new economic development efforts, tackling long-festering problems like our workforce housing shortage and turning our region’s collective vision to future challenges.

Recently the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce’s economic development sister organization, Venture North, welcomed Doug Rothwell of Business Leaders for Michigan to present the keynote address at its annual meeting. Rothwell’s organization has spent a lot of time and resources tracking Michigan’s economic trends over the past decade and developed a roadmap for making Michigan a top 10 state for economic development, job and personal income growth.

Rothwell’s message is clear and direct: Yes, economic conditions in Michigan are better – but still not where we need to be.  In many instances, not even close.

Rothwell also offered some interesting insight about the economic evolution of the Traverse City area. He noted that the growth and development that the community is seeing today – including Hotel Indigo, where the meeting was held – is the result of plans, decisions and investments made by community leaders 10 to 15 years ago.

Where we’ll be 10 to 15 years from now is less clear. As the community struggles to reach consensus on acceptable development standards – much of the conflict created by vague and undefined criteria such as “small town character” – property developers find themselves bogged down in court or sitting on the sidelines hoping for clear direction from local government officials.

Meanwhile, complacency silently seeps in, like a bayside fog rolling in to cloud our region’s economic future.

The West Michigan region – from south of Grand Rapids north to Traverse City, Petoskey and beyond – has played a major role in Michigan’s economic Renaissance. It provided leadership in the 2013 bail out of Detroit, drives the state’s tourism engine and has generated hundreds of million in private and public investment that helped pull Michigan from the ranks of the country’s least productive states. To lose that drive and focus to the trappings of complacency would not only keep our region and state from being its best – it would put us back on the road to a place we worked so hard to escape.

The Chamber welcomes the new voices to the chorus for progress and applauds new leaders in the unyielding quest for the region to go from good to great. Meanwhile, it still needs businesses to band together under its business banner and to support efforts like those the Chamber has offered for 103 years, never settling for complacency.

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