The country’s economic troubles already were brewing when organizers announced in September that business and other leaders would gather here to craft a plan for keeping the U.S. competitive in manufacturing, energy, technology and environmental efforts.
But few predicted the plunge to follow: Banks failed, stocks tanked, homes foreclosed and two once-mighty U.S. automakers landed in bankruptcy court. Congress has poured billions into hopeful fixes, and the new president has made it a personal mission to right the nation’s ship.
So, where does that leave the three-day National Summit, which starts Monday and brings more than 90 leaders from the public and private sectors to the especially hard-hit Motor City? The answer: scaled back but no less determined to do something.
“The need is more crucial now,” said Tom Dekar, a vice chairman of accounting and consulting firm Deloitte LLP, which helped create the conference.
“I think we may be where we are because we did not have the right policy set in each of those topic areas,” he said. “Had we had a better set of policies in the industrial sector, had we looked at automotive market as a market ... we might not be where we are today.”
Conference organizers initially hoped to draw as many as 5,000 to Ford Field, home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions, but to cut costs they moved it to the Detroit Marriott Renaissance Center. Nearly 3,000 are expected to attend. The summit is being convened by the Detroit Economic Club.
Still, the vision hasn’t changed: assemble leaders from business, government and academia to discuss issues facing the four sectors and come up with recommendations for increasing the nation’s competitiveness. Organizers hope the summit’s nonpartisan approach offers credibility to the ideas among policy-makers.
The conference includes dozens of top executives from corporations such as Microsoft Corp., Delta Air Lines Inc., ConocoPhillips Co., Citigroup Inc., Dow Chemical Co., General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. Members of the Obama administration expected to attend include Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Van Jones, special adviser for green jobs, enterprise and innovation.
Dekar said the government’s heavy involvement in the government-led restructuring of GM and Chrysler LLC doesn’t dissuade conference leaders from offering recommendations. He said the U.S. auto industry illustrates what they can do beyond the scope of internal reorganization.
“They enjoyed 100 percent of the market share in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s ... then along came the transplants who didn’t have the same kinds of costs,” Dekar said. “Given we are where we are, what do you really want it to be in the future? How do we ensure the marketplace is fair to all participants?”
The focus on the marketplace concerns organizers of the People’s Summit, a simultaneous alternative gathering consisting of marches, rallies and workshops.
“The whole thrust of the summit, in our opinion, is misguided,” said spokesman Abayomi Azikiwe, a Detroit community activist. “The financial community, as well as the industrialists, have created the conditions for the worst economic crisis we’ve faced in 75 years. We don’t feel they have a solution.”
He said the People’s Summit is advocating for foreclosure and eviction moratoriums, full-employment programs and national health insurance.
Dekar said backlash based on the current economic condition is understandable but the National Summit’s attendees and agenda are important to finding ways out of it.
“We need a set of policies to remain competitive and be leaders in the world,” he said. “We’ve got to cure ourselves first, before we can be of benefit to the rest of the world.”