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Michigan leaders gather on Mackinac amid deep divides, economic apathy

A view of the Grand Hotel, a giant white hotel
The annual policy conference brings business leaders and political power players to Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel. (Bridge photo by Lauren Gibbons)
  • Mackinac Policy Conference organizers hope to address disconnect between public perception and reality on economy, politics
  • Conference themes include economic development, education and infrastructure
  • Many politicians and candidates will make appearances, but planned U.S. Senate debate no longer happening

Organizers of an annual conference that draws many of Michigan’s top business executives and political power players say they aim to tackle deep partisan divides they view as impediments to progress. 

The 2024 Mackinac Policy Conference kicks off Tuesday and will focus on attracting business and new jobs to Michigan, improving the state’s education and workforce readiness and strengthening infrastructure.



Organizers hope to address what they see as a disconnect between public perceptions of issues facing Michigan and reality, pointing to a new statewide poll conducted by Glengariff Group that found persistent voter apathy on the economy, higher education and even the democratic process.

“In order to do anything together, Michiganders must start from a common frame of reference,” Detroit Regional Chamber President and CEO Sandy K. Baruah said in a statement.

“Businesses, and those employed by them, can only succeed in an environment of stability. Our polling shows this stability is beginning to fray.”  

Here’s a look at what to expect out of the conference this year. 

Attracting people to Michigan 

Many topics on the agenda for the conference — including growing the state’s economy, addressing the housing crisis, improving education and fixing Michigan’s crumbling infrastructure — echo the recommendations of a bipartisan population council that was tasked with finding ways to reverse decades of stagnant population growth.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is set to deliver a keynote address this week, announced the council’s creation at last year’s Mackinac conference.

The council released a report last December calling for education reforms, more public transportation and community investments, among other things. But so far, none of the suggestions have gained traction in the closely divided state Legislature. 

Michigan is still the 10th most populous in the nation, but has ranked 49th in growth since 1990, ahead of only West Virginia. The population stagnation has contributed to job shortages statewide, an aging citizenry and other looming financial and quality-of-life challenges.

Revving up the economy

Much of the conference will center around ways to improve the state’s economy and bring new business to Michigan. 

Conference guests are expected to hear from industry leaders about ways to make Michigan a high-wage state, develop a workforce that supports recent investments in electric vehicles and attract talent to Michigan.

Some of those discussions will incorporate the state’s educational system, including how quality after-school programs can benefit workers suffering from a lack of child care options and how universities can help fill talent needs of Michigan employers.  

A whole lotta politicking

The policy conference has long been a draw for politicians and candidates hoping to make a splash among potential supporters and donors, particularly during big election years like 2024. 

Several members of Congress and state legislative leadership will be in attendance. National guests include U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo and former U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan. 

Elected officials like Whitmer and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan have also been known to use the conference as a launch pad for major policy initiatives. 

Duggan, in a 2023 speech on the island, called on the Michigan Legislature to change state law and allow cities like Detroit to opt into a land value tax system, a move that would allow Detroit to triple the tax rate on open land while slashing taxes on homes and structures. 

That policy proposal has stalled amid legislative setbacks

Conference organizers see fostering bipartisan collaboration as a key aspect of achieving various goals and say they are concerned by ongoing political polarization and lack of trust in government. 

The Glengariff Group’s latest poll found 68% of respondents were dissatisfied with the condition of democracy in the United States, with only 67% of respondents agreeing that democracy is the best form of government. 

What not to expect: A U.S. Senate debate

The conference agenda initially boasted a bipartisan U.S. Senate debate featuring the top three contenders from each political party — but the debate was canceled after several top-polling candidates backed out. 

Chamber officials characterized the change as an unexpected and “deeply concerning” development prompted by Republican former Rep. Mike Rogers and Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin declining invitations.


“The leading candidates' refusal to engage in this vital forum… undermines our democratic process and hampers our state's progress,” chamber officials wrote in a statement last week. “This is a clear reflection of today’s political dynamics, which increasingly discourage candidates from directly addressing voters' concerns.”

Of the six candidates invited, only three — Republican Sandy Pensler and Democrats Hill Harper and Nasser Beydoun — agreed to participate, according to the chamber. 

Slotkin’s campaign said she had initially agreed to a six-candidate bipartisan debate but changed course after learning at "the last minute" that Rogers and fellow Republican Justin Amash would not participate. 

A Rogers spokesperson said Rogers is willing to debate Slotkin, but suggested sharing a stage with candidates he characterized as working against former President Donald Trump “is not a debate, it’s desperate.”

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