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Macomb Innovates Too!

The common wisdom, for what it's worth, is that Macomb County is Metro Detroit's blue collar laundry basket, filled with punch  clock employees, weekend boaters, and rabid Red Wings fans. Overshadowed by its neighbors - suit-and-tie Oakland, white collar Wayne, and casual start-up-wear Washtenaw - its innovations and evolution are all too-easily overlooked. Which is the problem with the common wisdom. It's often wrong.  

Manufacturing may have been the law of the land once upon a time, but in this "new" economy, Eastsiders have shown a tenacity and adaptability that should be the envy of their sister counties (who haven't been met with quite the same challenges). From a growing culture of arts and entertainment to advances in education and business development, as well as topnotch outdoor recreational opportunities, a closer look at Macomb County proves that it is undeserving of its red-headed stepchild status.

The business of education (and vice versa)

It wasn't long ago that when a person grew up in Macomb County, he or she would ultimately end up in a manufacturing job. And why not? Jobs were plentiful and well-paid. A college education wasn't seen as necessary and, in fact, only seemed to delay the process of career and family. Ah, how times have changed. And still, it's impressive to see the community's advances toward reinvention.

Lacking the presence of a public four-year college, Macomb County Commissioner Ed Bruley and State Rep. Fred Miller have spearheaded The Education City Initiative, which aims to attract university satellite campuses with the long-term goal of developing a local four-year institution, specifically in Mt. Clemens because of its housing and transit options. Wayne State University has already converted an old county library into a local campus, and next fall Oakland University is set to open another in downtown Mt. Clemens.

But perhaps the most ambitious undertaking is a growing relationship with China's Shanghai University under the Macomb Cultural Economic Partnership (MCEP), from which the Education City Initiative was born.  

The MCEP is a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating Macomb County's community leaders about the need for economic development and cooperation. It has already sent two trade missions to China and will be sending another this year in order to build a relationship with the world's fastest-growing industrial economy.  

"China is coming whether we like it or not," says Mt. Clemens DDA Executive Director Arthur Mullen, who participated in last year's trade mission.  "We need to learn to take advantage of their national economy of 1.3 billion people, [and the fact] that it's rapidly expanding with a middle class that is nearly as large as the entire United States population. There are great opportunities there to be taken advantage of, and the MCEP is working to develop the connections necessary to help Macomb County be able to do so."  

As an area that has learned from the school of hard knocks that it must be able to roll with the punches, the efforts being made by Macomb County's government to adapt and diversify demonstrate our growing global marketplace.

Participants in the trade missions are fully immersed in Chinese culture, learning Chinese business practices and also gaining a better understanding of how the different cultures perceive one another, and demystifying their own pre-conceived notions.  

"My entire worldview has drastically changed after my participation on the 2009 trade mission to China with the MCEP," declares Mullen. "We are more similar than most recognize, and both countries have great opportunities to grow together."  

"Macomb County is definitely global," agrees Katie Mullin, marketing and communications Coordinator for Automation Alley. "I don't think people realize that; they overlook it for what it is and just compare it to a number three county." 

While tremendous efforts are being made to diversify, Macomb hasn't entirely lost its manufacturing roots. The Macomb-OU INCubator and Automation Alley recently became the core of a new regional alliance for economic development - the Business Accelerator Network for Southeast Michigan. The INCubator's purpose is to create jobs and advance the development of advanced manufacturing and alternative energy businesses as well as defense and homeland security.  

Troy-based Automation Alley has nearly 100 manufacturing-based members in Macomb County. The city recently became involved with the federally-funded Diminishing Manufacturing Sources and Material Shortages program, which assists manufacturing companies in diversifying its products to include replacement parts for military machinery that is no longer in production. In fact, military investment is a fast-growing sector in Macomb, which is home to the GM Tech Center (which invests millions into technology R&D with their military-class Hummers), the United States Army Detroit Arsenal, the Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, and TARDEC (the Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center). The auto industry may not have the foothold here that it once did, but thanks to funding for military technology, Macomb retains a formidable and cutting-edge manufacturing base.

The art of evolution (and vice versa)

Perhaps it's the unconscious recognition that it'll probably never compete with the cultural riches that Wayne, Oakland, and Washtenaw counties take for granted, but Macomb county has a feisty DIY spirit that is seeding the ground with home-based arts amenities. Take, for example, the Anton Art Center. Housed in the historic Carnegie Library Building in downtown Mt. Clemens, the center recently underwent a $1.6 million renovation and is committed to the advancement of the arts through quality exhibitions, advocacy, and educational programs.  

The Center is also a regional regranting agency for the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, offering grants of up to $4,000 to nonprofit organizations in Macomb and St. Clair counties to help finance arts and culture programs.  

"These awards are very impactful at the local level," states Jennifer Callans, executive director of the center.  "We've funded programming at the Huron-Clinton Metroparks, for the Warren Symphony, at schools, libraries and churches, and much more. These grants enable programming that is usually free or very low cost to take place in our communities."

The Mt. Clemens Downtown Development Authority is also getting in on the action. Aside from hosting two annual arts and crafts fairs, there is also a glass-blowing studio in the DDA building, and the downtown promotes its own Bath City Art Walk, a self-guided tour of outdoor art installations, historic buildings, and other points of interest in downtown Mt. Clemens. A new live/work space for artists has also just opened above Fox Photography.

Mullen refers to his city as the entertainment and dining capital of Macomb County. But thanks to concentrated efforts by Mullen in conjunction with other local and county governments, it could also become one of the greenest … or rather, bluest. In fact, with its abundance of natural resources and agricultural land, the county itself is fast becoming a leader in sustainability.

Green Macomb

Long before the Dequindre Cut and Detroit Riverwalk were even a twinkle in Metro Detroit's eye, and before the region began to garner national attention for its cyclist culture, over a decade ago Macomb County unveiled the Metroparks Freedom Trail, a 21-mile hike and bike trail spanning from Stony Creek to Metropolitan Beach.  

Macomb was also the first county in Michigan to develop a county-wide trailway master plan in cooperation with all 26 local governments. This 72-mile regional trailway has been three-quarters completed since development began in 2004, and will loop around the county, connecting the Freedom Trail as well as major nodes in Mt. Clemens and along Lake St. Clair. It further connects the northern Macomb Orchard Trail to the county's southern trails, which tie into Oakland County's network of paths.

The Macomb County Department of Planning and Economic Development is also working in conjunction with local governments to develop "blue ways" along the Clinton River. In the southern portion of the county the river is deep and fast enough to support year-round paddling sports.  
"We're looking to have a full-blown paddling program in place in the next two years," says Gerard Santoro, senior planner for the department. In 2009, a brand-new lake tourism program was launched, the Lake St. Clair Tourism Initiative, a consortium of local governments and business owners surrounding Lake St. Clair that are committed to providing advocacy support as well as promoting long-term sustainable development of the lake.  

"Over eight million people live within a one-hour drive of Lake St. Clair," explains Santoro. "This makes it a hugely significant recreation and tourism destination." 

Thanks to Lake St. Clair and the Clinton River, Macomb County has the most populated watershed within the entire Great Lakes basin. Under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a bipartisan federal program which has allocated $5 billion over five years to clean up the Great Lakes, Macomb County has received large grants for the Clinton River Watershed Council and Health Department to conserve and protect the coastal marshlands around Lake St. Clair.  

"Watershed management has become a very significant issue in Macomb County with the changing industrial environment in the region," states Santoro. "There is a renewed focus on natural resources, specifically Lake St. Clair, which is one of the world's premiere recreational waterways, ranked in the top three nationally."

Santoro's department has also made significant strides in low-impact development, putting together a series of seven environmental ordinances to assist local governments with land development opportunities for smart growth.  

"The Great Lakes are the largest fresh water resource on earth.  Fresh water is a limited commodity worldwide and we need to look at it from that perspective.  Chesapeake Bay had its turn; the Everglades had their turn; now it's the Great Lakes' chance to have its turn to get the federal money we deserve." 

Thriving arts, eco-awareness and sustainable growth, and globally-minded education and economic development? These may not be the things that immediately come to mind when you think of Macomb County, but just as its citizens and leaders have fought to reinvent their community, so should you fight your preconceived notions about this little county that could… and does.

Nicole Rupersburg hearts Macomb County. She also likes Detroit, eating, and writing her blog diningindetroit.blogspot.com. Her previous article for Metromode was Hungry For Success.

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All Photos by Dave Lewinski
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