Since the depths of the “great recession” almost eight years ago, the national economy has rebounded remarkably well. Stocks are up. Unemployment is down. Corporate profits are up. Wages are also showing growth. According to the U.S. Commerce Department, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth hit 2.9 percent in the third quarter of this year, the best in two years. And, in general, the national outlook is much more positive than it has been for quite some time.
But what about the future? Will the economic growth of the past half-dozen years last? In particular, what lies ahead for Michigan, especially Flint and Genesee County? Will the good news of the past continue into the future? The Business Leaders for Michigan, (BLM) a group dedicated to “making Michigan a Top Ten state for jobs, personal income and economic growth,” is looking to the next six to 18 months with a careful, cautious view.
In their most recent quarterly survey, they project modest, but slower growth over the next year and a half. Doug Rothwell, BLM president and CEO, looks to the future with caution. He said that “Michigan’s business leaders believe that the economy will continue to improve, albeit more modestly, into the new year, but the longer-term view has gotten more pessimistic over the course of 2016.” He feels that many of the concerns are driven by factors beyond Michigan’s borders, such as slower growth in a number of foreign economies, growing regulations on businesses and the uncertainty over this year’s very heated, partisan election. However, he feels that Michigan’s growth will continue. He said, “Despite these factors, however, many of our largest job providers continue to hire and expand in Michigan.”
According to the BLM survey, the majority expectations are that both the U.S. and the Michigan economies will remain about the same for the next six months. About 15 percent of the group expects to see some modest growth over the same time frame. Though this might seem to be a negative forecast, it is more positive than the same survey conducted in May of 2016.
Over the next 18 months, just a little over half (54 percent) of the BLM leaders expect to see little change in the national economy. About a third expect it will get worse and only 13 percent hope to see an improved economy. Michigan’s economy is expected to do a little better, with 24 percent of the BLM members expecting an improvement, 26 percent fearing a decline and about 50 percent expecting no change at all.
Nearly half of the Business Leaders for Michigan (BLM) expect to add jobs and make increased capital investments in the next six months. However, in the view of several economic experts at the UM-Flint, that guarded outlook shouldn’t cast a gloomy cloud over the area’s economic future, and they are taking action to make that future a brighter one.
Recently, the Flint-based university has been awarded a five-year $400,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to create the University Center for Community and Economic Development. The project will assist prospective entrepreneurs in a seven-county region and will serve Genesee, Shiawassee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Huron, Sanilac and Tuscola counties. Led by director Paula Nas, program manager Sara McDonnell, program assistant Nic Custer, and David Merot of the Flint & Genesee Chamber of Commerce, the program plans a major economic outreach to the region in three ways.
First, they expect to develop a “Regional Asset Mapping Initiative” which will collect data on the region’s major economic assets and economic climate, and make that available to potential businesses or governments.
Second, the center will be a training ground for UM-Flint students who will aid in collecting, analyzing and disseminating the data. The students will not only assist local entrepreneurs but will gain valuable experience as they move beyond the classroom to the economic world. So far, between seven and 10 students have been chosen to be interns as a part of the initial project. “Student researchers learn skills that will translate into many fields,” Nas says. “This project will open up a whole new world to the students chosen to work with this project.”
Third, the program will create an interactive web portal where interested businesses and entrepreneurs can collaborate, share information, learn of new economic developments, and share ideas. The website, to be developed with the aid of UM-Flint students, will be particularly important because of the wide geographic reach of the project—which covers counties along the I-69 corridor as well as parts of Michigan’s Thumb.
Nas said the goal of the whole project is “to find a way to expand on the work of the Innovation Incubator, another part of the UM-Flint’s University Outreach programs. The Innovation Incubator, which has been part of the university for nine years, has offered a variety of services and counseling to new businesses and nonprofits in the region. Nearly 6,000 people have made use of the Innovation Incubator’s advice and information.
The Innovation Incubator is located at the Northbank Center, (Room 207, 432 N. Saginaw), in downtown Flint. It is a free service that offers individuals a chance to network with other entrepreneurs, share office space, use free wi-fi, meet clients, hold board meetings, and get startup help from both experts and an in-house business library.
The Innovation Incubator has offered, and will continue to offer, a series of panels, presentations, lectures and workshops around the community. The subjects include such diverse topics as “The Business of Creativity,” “The Intersections of the Arts and Technology”, “Intellectual Property and Technology Law,” “Grant Writing,” “Funding your Startup,” “Finances for Women” and “Business and the Arts,” among many other subjects. The Innovation Incubator also plans to take its show on the road and offer a number of small business workshops in neighborhoods around Flint. It has also sponsored a competition for students to show their ability to create technological products.
According to Nas, another major goal of both programs is to build trust with the community and strengthen local ties between UM-Flint and the diverse population within our region—from the north end of Flint to rural Brown City. The hope is also that the programs will increase ties between the regional Michigan communities they serve and the growing number of international students at UM-Flint.
So while there are some who look to the future with caution and doubt, others embrace the future with optimism and plans to make the economic future of Flint and the surrounding region stronger than everyone expected. The real answer, as it usually is for the American economy, is to be prepared. There will be opportunities for those who are ready and able to meet future challenges. By all indications, the University of Michigan-Flint is meeting those challenges with its Innovation Incubator and its new University Center for Community and Economic Development.
So while there are some who look to the future with caution and doubt, others embrace the future with optimism and plans to make the economic future of Flint and the surrounding region stronger than everyone expected.