Beyond the Big Three: A Tough Love Search for Detroit’s Future

1/26/11Follow @xconomy

“Many people watching tonight can probably remember a time when finding a good job meant showing up at a nearby factory or a business downtown,” President Obama said during his State of the Union address last night. “You didn’t always need a degree, and your competition was pretty much limited to your neighbors.”

“If you worked hard, chances are you’d have a job for life, with a decent paycheck and good benefits and the occasional promotion,” he continued. “Maybe you’d even have the pride of seeing your kids work at the same company.”

For the people of Detroit and Michigan, this America of years past holds special resonance. Yet the once almighty automobile industry that has defined this region for so long is a shadow of its former itself.

As the new editor of Xconomy Detroit, I offer a simple message: Get. Over. It.

That’s not to say we should ignore the Big Three, which have recently shown signs of a sustainable turnaround. And I’m sure plenty of Michiganders, most way smarter than me, are already going about the business of getting over the auto glory days, pinpointing Michigan’s ills and working on creative ways to overcome them. Indeed, more often than not, it’s the rest of the country that identifies Detroit more by its past than its future.

But having spent the majority of my career in the Midwest, I’ve observed a natural tendency among its people to lament over yesterday, an almost inbred nostalgia that cripples ambition and reinforces inertia. In Minneapolis, where I worked at MedCity News and the Star Tribune, that nostalgia manifested in sometimes odd ways.

People stubbornly called companies by their old names: Target was Dayton’s, U.S. Bancorp was First Bank, Wells Fargo was Norwest. I (half) joked I would punch the next person who told me Medtronic founder Earl Baaken invented the battery powered pacemaker in his garage as if it had happened yesterday instead of five decades ago.

Minnesota, though, enjoys the benefit of a highly diversified economy that includes 20 Fortune 500 companies, including retailers (Target, Best Buy), banks (U.S. Bancorp), manufacturing (3M), food (General Mills, Cargill), healthcare (UnitedHealth)and most importantly, medical devices (Medtronic, St. Jude Medical).

Michigan does not have that luxury. Ten of the state’s 18 Fortune 500 firms … Next Page »

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