LANSING — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants to bring back the Pure Michigan advertising campaign she vetoed last fall, but she wants the tourism industry to help pay for it.
The first-term Democrat on Thursday proposed $15 million in state funding for the award-winning advertising campaign as part of her $61.9 billion executive budget recommendations for fiscal year 2021.
That’s less than half of the $37.5 million in funding Whitmer vetoed for the current fiscal year as part of an aggressive budget negotiation tactic with the Republican-led Legislature.
Beyond that, she’s “inviting” the tourism industry to help foot the bill for a program her administration says “encourages travelers to experience Michigan’s four-season natural beauty, its unique urban destinations and its world-class cultural attractions.”
“I’ve always supported Pure Michigan,” Whitmer told reporters Thursday during a roundtable media event in her Lansing offices. “The tourism industry thinks there should be additional dollars there, and I’m eager to work with them in terms of where those dollars might come from.”
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The state has continued to use the Pure Michigan brand on social media accounts and websites but wound down the television and billboard campaign when contracts with private advertising and public relations firms expired in late 2019.
Budget director Chris Kolb said the state envisions Pure Michigan as a $30 million campaign, with half the funding coming from outside sources.
“We do believe it’s been a successful program,” he said. “The tourism industry thinks it’s a successful program, so we’re confident that they -- to continue that success -- will join us in partnering” on the program.
What that partnership looks like remains to be seen.
“I find it difficult to have a discussion about the specifics of potential funding for Pure Michigan next year, while the tourism and hospitality industries are still coping with the unjustifiable elimination of Pure Michigan funding this year," said Justin L. Winslow, president and CEO of the Michigan Restaurant & Lodging Association.
"We are willing and ready to be part of the solution going forward, but the time for political theater is over. Fix the mistake, restore Pure Michigan, and let’s move forward together.”
Whitmer isn’t proposing to restore funding for the current fiscal year and didn’t include Pure Michigan in supplemental spending bill she also unveiled Thursday. But the advertising campaign remains a focal point of ongoing negotiations with the Legislature.
Several lawmakers — primarily in northern Michigan areas that heavily rely on tourism — have rallied around the program in an attempt to restore founding.
State Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann, introduced a $37.5 million spending bill that would immediately fund Pure Michigan this fiscal year. The proposal had just one co-sponsor and has not yet seen a vote in the House Appropriations Committee.
“Pure Michigan has been a fantastic way to promote everything our state has to offer – from the Upper Peninsula to Detroit and everywhere in between,” O’Malley said at the time.
“It benefits every region of our state, and this funding must be restored to help continue Michigan’s economic comeback.”
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has questioned whether the government should continue to pay for the program. He was the first official to publicly suggest the tourism industry pay for it instead.
“Taxpayers did a great service to the businesses of Michigan that enjoy tourism,” Shirkey said in December.
“We came up with a research and development project, a test to see if this would work. Taxpayers funded it, proved that it would work, so it took all of the risk out of that risky investment. And now I believe the industry should own most of it.
Pure Michigan ads, which promote local tourism destinations and feature the iconic narration of Birmingham-raised actor Tim Allen, began in 2008. The Travel Michigan tourism promotion office oversees the effort within the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.
Over more than a decade, Pure Michigan has emerged as a ubiquitous brand for the state. Its logo has been plastered on everything from license plates to private company billboards to clothing.
But experts have long debated the value of the campaign, and how far its reach extends beyond the feel-good pride it can instill in local residents. MEDC touts paid research to make the case for its effectiveness.
Most recently, Strategic Marketing and Research Insights of Indianapolis found the ads returned $9.28 in state tax revenue for every $1 spent outside the state in 2018.
As Bridge Magazine previously reported, skeptics have questioned those return-on-investment numbers, and they have not been independently verified. Pure Michigan is significantly larger than just out-of-state ads, which accounted for roughly $16.5 million in spending in 2018.
“The program is not only ineffective, it is unfair and expensive," Michael LaFaive, fiscal policy director for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, told Bridge last fall.
The free market firm conducted its own study in 2016 and found that every dollar Michigan spent on tourism promotion returned created only 2 cents of value for the state's hotel industry.
While Pure Michigan ads have stopped, spokesman Otie McKinely said the MEDC remains “actively engaged in conversation” to restore funding in the current budget year, “as we still have time to benefit the state’s economy through the critical upcoming spring and summer travel seasons.”
Whitmer’s proposal would support promotion efforts in 2021.
"In the meantime, the Travel Michigan team will to work with our tourism and economic development partners across the state to position Michigan as a premier four-season travel destination and to share the quality of life Michigan has to offer,” McKinley said.