Jeff Mason: “This is a time to step on the gas and kind of see if we can’t really amplify some of the things we’re doing in terms of job growth.”
LANSING — Jeff Mason’s path back to the Michigan Economic Development Corp. began this past spring with a chance run-in with Doug Rothwell, who heads the powerful Business Leaders for Michigan, the state’s business roundtable.
Mason was nearly eight years into his role as executive director of the University Research Corridor, leading collaboration among the state’s major research universities — Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University — when Rothwell asked if he was interested in coming back to the MEDC as its CEO.
Rothwell told him that then-head of the MEDC, Steve Arwood, was thinking of leaving (Arwood would step down in June). “That kind of led to a number of conversations with (Gov. Rick Snyder) and others,” Mason said, “and ultimately the governor then recommending my name to the board.”
Mason, 58, was confirmed this month as MEDC CEO by the agency’s executive committee, led by Rothwell, who also once held the position.
Mason worked for the MEDC under two governors from 1999 to 2009, including as senior vice president for business development.
Bridge/Crain’s recently spoke with Mason about his vision for the agency, which he said includes opportunities in vehicle mobility, defense, information technology and agriculture. A condensed version of the interview appears below.
Bridge/Crain’s: What will be your approach to economic development as CEO?
I’m really going to get out across the state... and really listen to (community leaders) and understand kind of where they’re at. ... We’re more effective working together.
The governor made a point in my conversation with him about, this is not a time to coast or slow down. This is a time to step on the gas and kind of see if we can’t really amplify some of the things we’re doing in terms of job growth, community development, some of the activities that we already have underway.
We are very appreciative of the Legislature and the governor in terms of supporting that, and the local organizations around the state were very supportive of helping to get that legislation through. I think they’re both tools that are measured responses to what is taking place in the marketplace and will give us additional tools to really help, not only for the community development projects but also to go after some of those large attraction activities and not just compete, but hopefully win.
Do you think Michigan has been competitive with other states for those larger projects?
We were competitive to a degree. The efforts that have taken place over the last six years in terms of the changes to the tax structure and some of the business climate issues in terms of regulatory or energy costs — I mean, I think we have a solid foundation that has allowed us to compete and be successful, to a degree. I think the Good Jobs for Michigan package (of) legislation hopefully will allow us to compete and win some of the larger projects. And the landscape, as you well know, in terms of what other states are doing to compete for those projects is very competitive, whether it’s free land or sites or closing funds.
Are there other gaps in the incentives toolbox?
I don’t see any right now. If you look at kind of the competitive landscape, we are not going to compete on a lowest-cost basis, because I don’t think we should. The value we provide in terms of the talent, in terms of the workforce, the infrastructure in terms of the roads and transportation, the education system — we provide, I think, a competitive product at a reasonable cost. … That Good Jobs for Michigan package kind of is the icing on the cake, if you will.
How involved have you been with efforts to lure Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn Technology Group to Michigan?
I have tried to not engage or really get into the specifics on the deal flow for any particular project, really, until I was on board. … I really wanted to have that firewall.
Why, do you think, is the MEDC often in the legislative budget crosshairs?
It’s a healthy debate that occurs within our state and within democracy. I think, first and foremost, what this state has done over the last six years is really get its house in order in terms of fiscal management. … I think we’ve created that solid foundation. Then it’s a question of what other policies or programs do we put in place that help us to be competitive. … Incentives probably get a lot of focus and attention, and that’s fair. But I think there’s other things that are going on within the economic development organization here at the MEDC — things like the Pure Michigan Business Connect program, which is all about connecting large Michigan companies to smaller companies. … That’s not about incentives. That’s about creating the right opportunities to help our existing Michigan companies be more successful.
What are your thoughts on the MEDC’s community development side?
I think about creating the right environment within our communities so that people want to live in these communities and then go to work for some of these great companies. … There’s a lot more going on, I think, that has as much or maybe more impact than kind of the big Strategic Fund meetings and the deals.