If there is one issue Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel would like to see discussed at the Mackinac Policy Conference, it is regional focus.
“In other words, how do we brand the region?” he asked, saying he deals with the same question at the county level.
Macomb is comprised of 27 varying municipalities. Hackel’s job is to figure out how to brand the county — based upon the unique assets of the individual communities within it — so that people get a perspective of what the county is all about.
He believes the same concept should be expanded to the region, because Southeast Michigan is competing with other regions throughout the world for resources, assets and attractions.
“We have some unique things in this region that we don’t cross-promote as regional leaders,” Hackel said, adding that they need to figure out how to come together to get people to understand the importance of this region.
He also noted that Macomb and the region are ignoring the recreational opportunities and quality of life assets that also are economic opportunities.
“Lake St. Clair and the Clinton River,” he said. “It’s the mainstream main street.”
Hackel’s eighth floor office overlooks the Clinton River, which he said ties into Oakland County.
“How do we make that connectivity as regional partners?” he asked.
He said the Clinton River runs through Mt. Clemens, and asked why there isn’t a vibrant downtown, with investment from the private sector building on that riverfront.
“How come we don’t see canoe rentals?” he asked.
He also said the Clinton River is greater in size than “little creeks” that have been developed by other states.
Hackel said that near the mouth of the Clinton River, there are businesses, such as restaurants, where people on the river can stop.
But these are far fewer than there once were. There used to be a great boating industry, with riverboats coming up and down the Clinton River all the way into Mt. Clemens.
He asked why they don’t do that now.
“Did we ignore it? Did we not realize? Did we not capitalize on it?” he said
He also wonders why the region doesn’t play off of the “Pure Michigan” promotions, which he called great branding for the state.
“You’ve got the Detroit River, you’ve got the Clinton River, you’ve got the St. Clair River, you’ve got Lake St. Clair, which is the busiest freshwater lake in the entire country during the summer months,” he said.
He emphasized that Macomb County has 31.5 miles of a coast line and 41 miles of a river running right through the county.
He is, however, playing off the “Pure Michigan” branding in Macomb County.
“And we’re making some huge advancements with our Planning Department and our Water Resources Advisory Council, to do just that,” he said.
Many towns have riverfronts, but don’t have access by boat. On the other hand, they have huge development opportunities.
“Because people just like to locate around water,” Hackel said, adding that he’s kayaked the Clinton River from Yates Cider Mill on down.
“You’re just looking at trees,” he said. “You think you’re up north somewhere.”
Where is there development along this riverfront?
“It’s a tremendous opportunity for them to have that same kind of environment where people are saying, ‘We’re going to grab something to eat’ or ‘We’re going to go to that restaurant.’”
Hackel mentioned that Utica is probably the closest thing Macomb County has to that right now; there are restaurants, bars and trails all along the riverfront.
Hackel also said there’s more boating and fishing activity, more marinas and more sporting opportunities on Lake St. Clair than elsewhere.
“In fact, it’s been recognized as the greatest bass fishing lake on the entire planet,” he said, adding that the “Super Bowl” of fishing tournaments — the 2013 Bassmaster Elite Series — is coming to Lake St. Clair.
One of the forums at the Mackinac conference will focus on is the role the private sector plays in urban development. Asked what he’d want conference attendees to know about private sector development in Macomb County, Hackel said a great example of such development is what’s happening in downtown Detroit.
He praised George Jackson and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, calling the DEGC a great example. He’d like to mirror that in Macomb County.
“How do you let the private sector come in and figure out what do we need to do to drive economic development and opportunities within the County?” Hackel asked, pointing out that all the various planning departments have their separate rules about how people get permits.
He mentioned how they “pull it together” to let the private sector have more of a say in helping to make those things happen.
Hackel said that because there’s such a hunger for new development and investment in Detroit, city leaders are accommodating the needs of the private sector developers and investors. He believes Macomb County needs to start looking at doing the same thing.
Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano cited municipal finance as the main issue he’d want discussed at Mackinac. Asked if Macomb County is weathering things better than Wayne County in that respect, Hackel said it’s a balance.
He said we’re over-governed to begin with, and asked if we need all these various police departments, different dispatch centers and different school districts.
“The question becomes, is that a reason why a lot of the tax dollars are being dispersed among many entities?” he asked. “Is there a way of capturing those dollars that are out there, to consolidate, and do more with less?”
As an example, he said Macomb is creating a unique dispatch center that can take on every municipality in the county.
Asked if he’d have welcomed the county-wide dispatch center when he was sheriff, Hackel said he’d have welcomed it. It’s something they’ve been talking about for well over 20 years, he said, and that in 10 years of his talking about it as sheriff, nobody would listen.
When he became county executive in 2011, it was one of the first things he worked on.
“I pulled people together and said, ‘Let’s do it for our needs, internally,’” he said. “Because there were separate silos within county government that were doing the same darn thing.”
He said when they created it, it was with the mindset that they weren’t going to force municipalities to do it.
“But when they start realizing money is tight from the revenues and that tax structure, and they’ve got to start giving up certain things, one of those is going to be dispatch.”
He added that it’s already happening. Sterling Heights and Clinton Township are on board, and Shelby Township is talking about it.
He also said there will be a far greater level of service from this enhanced facility in dispatching alone.
Hackel was elected Macomb’s first county executive in 2010. Mayor Bing attended his first State of the County address in 2011, the first time a regional leader was in attendance at such an event.
“And the reason he came here was because he realized, early on, how much of an impact we’re trying to make in promoting the city of Detroit,” he said, adding the major sporting venues and the urban center in Detroit add tremendous value to Macomb county.
“And we want to make sure they understand how we add value to what goes on in the city of Detroit,” he said.
Last year, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano joined Bing as attendees
“Never before have we ever had a regional leader come to State of the County address in Macomb County,” Hackel reiterated. “And within two years, we have all of them coming together as we’re cross-promoting one another.”
Hackel said he’s not interested in partisan politics, and that he doesn’t care about the bantering going on in Washington or Lansing. His job is to figure out how to succeed as a region, noting that if the region succeeds, so does the state.
But it’s not just him, he pointed out.
“Our staffs, whether it’s IT, finance departments or planning departments, are working together to try to figure out, ‘How do we lift the region up?’ So Macomb is making it regional.”
Asked what Macomb County’s best kept secret is, Hackel said they always talk about blue collar and automotive, but unique high tech jobs are being offered in the county.
“The research and development that occurs in Macomb County, particularly in that corridor or cluster that we have in the city of Sterling Heights and in the city of Warren, many people don’t realize and they don’t understand.”
He cited the defense industry as an example, saying billions of dollars are invested in the county in defense.
“I would never have guessed that as the sheriff,” he said, adding that Macomb County is the defense capital of the Midwest.
He said 600 companies that do defense work in Michigan are located in Macomb county.
He also said they sometimes lose sight of the fact that Macomb also has a huge agricultural industry, particularly on the north end.