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Flint water, city schools on agenda at Mackinac biz conference

LANSING — The water crisis in Flint is expected to spark conversations about urban policy and aging infrastructure during the upcoming Detroit Regional Chamber Mackinac Policy Conference taking place this week.

Urban education ‒ specifically the cash-strapped Detroit Public Schools and a proposed debt restructuring to help the district shed more than $500 million in operating debt ‒ is one of the themes at the conference, which runs through Friday on Mackinac Island. About 1,600 people are expected to attend.

Yet the public health emergency in Flint caused by lead contamination in drinking water also raises bigger questions about how Michigan invests in its infrastructure, chamber leaders said of the conference agenda.

"We have a lot to be excited about and proud about in terms of the progress we've made in this state," said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit chamber. "The Flint issue serves as a glaring exception to that narrative."

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who first drew attention to elevated levels of lead in Flint children's blood, was to speak Wednesday. She is assistant professor of pediatrics at Michigan State University's College of Human Medicine and director of the pediatric residency program at Hurley Children's Hospital in Flint. She also leads the MSU/Hurley Pediatric Public Health Initiative.

Conference attendees will have opportunities to donate to the Flint Child Health & Development Fund, which is hosted with the Community Foundation of Greater Flint.

A national political panel discussion on Friday ‒ led by former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., of Tennessee, and former CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien ‒ is also expected to touch on infrastructure and Flint, the chamber said.

"What we need to be able to do is talk about Flint in a way that is productive and forward-looking," Baruah said. "We're not going to be able to add much to the failure of what happened in Flint. What we can do, however, is provide a policy and business platform for the state to come together to work on solving the issues of Flint that involve public infrastructure, that involve fundraising."

The condition of Michigan's infrastructure underlines a number of panel topics at this year's conference ‒ from DPS reform, to mobility and connected vehicles, to growing Michigan's defense industry.

"The business community feels that we have been underinvesting in our key infrastructure for quite some time," Baruah said. "The crisis in Flint and the crisis in DPS are indicative of a lack of infrastructure."

For Michigan to attract industry and the talent to feed industry, he said, the state's infrastructure systems, from water to roads to schools, need to be working well.

Detroit schools and urban education

As one of the three conference themes this year, urban education will feature significant discussion about the challenges facing DPS.

In Lansing, the House and Senate have floated two different proposals to restructure the district. Gov. Rick Snyder has called for a $715 million plan to split the existing DPS into two districts, one to repay the debt and the other to educate students and handle all school operations. The plan also would create a Detroit Education Commission to oversee traditional public and charter schools.

The Skillman Foundation was to lead a session Wednesday highlighting DPS reform, the chamber said. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation and The Kresge Foundation jointly will host a lunch session Thursday, discussing business's role in investing in early childhood education. Kati Haycock, CEO of The Education Trust, a nonprofit that studies ways to raise achievement, particularly for low-income children and children of color, will discuss best practices when it comes to school funding.

"Today's schools, especially in urban cities, are being challenged to do more with substantially less," said Dennis Archer Jr., president of Archer Corporate Services and this year's conference chairman. "The education crisis in Detroit underscores one of the biggest issues we're facing: How to sustainably fund and provide our students a quality education?"

Also on the agenda: A conversation about the "Internet of Things," a keynote address by General Motors Co. President Dan Ammann followed by a panel discussion about connected cars and mobility, a panel on expanding Michigan's defense industry as part of the conference's theme of "investing in the future”; a session hosted by the Kresge Foundation about Detroit regional transit and a conversation about inclusion and economic prosperity in Detroit as the 50th anniversary of the 1967 civil unrest approaches next year.

New this year

The conference will highlight entrepreneurship. Daymond John, CEO of the FUBU clothing line who appears on ABC's "Shark Tank," will give a keynote address and judge a “pitch” contest June 2.

Detroit Ento, a company that produces edible insects, and Grand Rapids-based Fathom, which makes underwater drones, will vie for an unspecified cash prize and technical assistance. It will be the first time the conference has hosted a pitch contest, Baruah said.

The conference was also to host the first Mackinac Slow Roll, led by Jason Hall, the founder of Detroit's Slow Roll bicycle ride. That was set for Wednesday.

Watch the conference LIVE


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