Commissioner Conan Smith aims to improve opportunities for all residents in Washtenaw County, MI

Downtown Ann Arbor in Washtenaw County, MI. Photo by the Michigan Municipal League, via Flickr.

Washtenaw County, MI is located immediately west of the Detroit metropolitan area, with a population of just over 350,000 residents. A former manufacturing region, the county currently houses several major institutions that are playing a growing role in shaping the region’s economy and development patterns. The seat of Washtenaw County, Ann Arbor, MI, is home to the University of Michigan, which employs more than 30,000 people and has contributed to the growth of a vibrant, walkable business and entertainment district in Ann Arbor’s downtown. The county also houses Eastern Michigan University, Washtenaw Community College, and a major U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical center.

While Washtenaw County has seen significant job growth over the past several years—a recent economic forecasting study estimates that between 2009 and 2016 the region will have gained 31,147 additional jobs—economic inequality is a growing challenge for the community. County Commissioner Conan Smith, a member of Smart Growth America’s Local Leaders Council, is working to address this issue by promoting economic development strategies that provide all county residents with greater access to opportunities.

“Our area median income is double the average wage for public employees,” explains Commissioner Smith. “It’s pushing mid-range earners out of our downtowns. Our challenge isn’t about the quality of places we are designing. It’s about growing in a way that works for everybody.”

For Commissioner Smith, a native of Washtenaw County, working to improve opportunities for all residents is in his blood. His grandfather was the first African American mayor of Ann Arbor and his mother served on the Michigan state legislature—making him the third generation in his family to serve in public office. Smith currently lives in the home that his grandparents bought, a former gathering spot for community members who cared about social justice issues. “This house is one of my favorite places in Ann Arbor,” says Smith. “It was the site where the first fair housing ordinance for the state of Michigan got hammered out. The Michigan chapter of NAACP was founded in the dining room. And it’s still a place where residents can gather to engage in political dialogue.”

Commissioner Smith notes that many of the new jobs coming to Washtenaw County today are specialized or require higher education and do not align with the skill sets of a number of existing residents in the community, many of whom worked in manufacturing and are still feeling the impacts of the recent economic recession. The employment-to-population ratio for community members with only a high school diploma has dropped by 0.9 percent per year since 2005, according to the same economic forecasting study referenced above.

Washtenaw County Commissioner Conan Smith
Washtenaw County Commissioner Conan Smith

Meanwhile, the fastest growing sectors for jobs in the region include higher education, health services, and professional, scientific and technical services. Some of these jobs are part of a movement in the county to support and cultivate start-ups and new businesses, which has been led in part by Ann Arbor SPARK, an economic development organization that is promoting innovation and entrepreneurship in the technology industry through trainings, micro-loans, and a business accelerator program.

While this shift has been positive for Washtenaw County, contributing to a more diverse and resilient regional economy, Commissioner Smith argues that more work is needed to connect all residents to available employment and opportunities. “We need to design an economic development model that meets people where they are in terms of a skill set,” says Smith. “Today, economic development is heavily focused on the business community. Focusing on economic opportunity means looking more holistically at the system and the people within it to answer questions about investment priorities. We need to be thinking about housing and workforce development strategies that can create greater opportunities for everyone.”

This has proven especially true for the eastern side of Washtenaw County, home to the city of Ypsilanti, MI, which houses the largest population of current and former manufacturing workers and was hit harder by the economic recession than Ann Arbor. Smith notes that, while community leaders recognized the unique challenges faced by the eastern portion of the county when the recession hit, government agencies and major institutions initially lacked the coordination necessary to address these challenges, contributing to economic stagnation in the community.

Today, Eastern Washtenaw County is recovering thanks in part to the work of Eastern Leaders Group (ELG), a partnership forged between the County, Eastern Michigan University, and civic and business sector leaders to address economic and quality of life challenges in the community. ELG is taking a comprehensive approach to promoting the area’s recovery that includes providing incentives for businesses through a partnership with SPARK, helping professors and other employees of Eastern Michigan University move back into downtown Ypsilanti through the Live Ypsi homebuyer loan program, and more. ELG has also funded research to expand and modernize Willow Run Airport on the east side of the county in order to improve the region’s competitiveness.

Commissioner Smith points to the collaborative nature and generosity among many residents of Washtenaw County as a crucial factor behind the county’s economic recovery so far, as well as his own dedication to the work. “In Washtenaw County, people come to the negotiating table armed with what they can give or put on the table, rather than what they can take away. That generosity of spirit is transformational. It’s what I love most about Washtenaw. People care about other people, and they’re willing to think about how what they are building impacts human development,” says Smith.

Local Leaders Council