Paul Tait, executive director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) since 1998, has taken an active role in carrying out the mission of bringing together all of the region’s governments to solve the challenges they are collectively facing. Tait serves in a dual capacity as the president of the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition (MAC), a coalition of business, labor, government, and education organization that is a catalyst for addressing some of southeast Michigan’s most pressing issues. Tait earned a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and master’s of public health in health planning from the University of Michigan. He is a certified association executive through the American Society of Association Executives. Furthermore, he is a graduate of Leadership Detroit and the Institute for Organizational Management, a multi-year national program for leadership training and a graduate of the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government. He has been affiliated with numerous organizations and is a current member of the Urban Land Institute Detroit Chapter Steering Committee and several United Way community service committees.
What is SEMCOG’s primary roles in the region, and what is your role as executive director?
PT: SEMCOG has two primary missions. One is regional planning, looking off into the future and solving problems that go beyond the boundaries of any single local government — air quality, water quality, transportation, community and economic development, those kinds of things. The second is we are an association of local governments. Counties, cities, villages, townships, intermediate school districts and community colleges are eligible to be members in SEMCOG and we serve our members.
As executive director I work for an executive committee of 50 local elected officials and my job is to work with an outstanding staff of 65 planners, engineers, demographers to make sure we are adding value to the southeast Michigan region and its local governments.
What economic and transportation planning initiatives will you be rolling out this year?
PT: The biggest activity in which we are engaged in during the next year is updating our long-range regional transportation plan, and by that I mean we are looking to year 2040 because of the longevity of our roads and bridges and public transit systems. We have to look into the future and (ask) how do we use our limited taxpayer dollars to improve our transportation system. Far and away that will be our greatest focus.
You have been quoted as saying there is a need for the Detroit River International Crossing project. Please explain your position on this controversial project.
PT: I personally and SEMCOG as a policy body for a long time supported building an international crossing. Trade with Canada is so important to our region, our state, and frankly, the country that we have to make sure we are going to be able meet the flow of trade in the future. Over 40 percent of the trade with Canada, the state’s largest trading partner, comes through our seven-county region.
What are the latest steps being taken to expand mass transit service and options in the region, and how does SEMCOG assist in this process?
PT: Transit is a big part of our overall transportation planning because we have to treat transportation as a system. The roads and bridges have to support and connect with a regional transit system, so it’s very important to us. Unfortunately it’s been an uphill climb to get the kind of transit in southeast Michigan that we as a region and residents in this region want and deserve. There are two major thrusts rights now, one is in the (state) Legislature. They are looking at legislation to create a regional transit authority that would run a future transit system. The second is we have to look at how we are going to pay for it.
Tell us why you do or don’t believe the state will soon address the growing gap between road improvement needs and the available funding for new construction, in addition to ongoing maintenance and repair of existing roadways.
PT: The challenge we face with our roads and bridges and transit is that, with both the money we get from the federal government and the state government, the bulk of that is dependent on the gas tax. When we fuel up our cars at the pump, we are paying 19 cents a gallon to the state and 18.5 cents to the federal government. As we drive more fuel efficient cars, which is certainly a good thing, as the economy is down a bit and we’re not driving as much, we’re not getting enough money to even maintain what we’ve got — much less improve it.
According to a recent long-range analysis by SEMCOG, southeast Michigan is expected to gain jobs but lose population over the next decade. How so?
PT: Again for our long-range planning, we have to forecast for the region, for each county and for each community what the future is likely to hold for population, households and jobs. What we’re seeing — we had a terrible decade in the 2000s — we lost jobs, lost people. That trend is reversing, but it will be a very slow recovery for us. It’s going to take us to almost year 2040 before we gain the people that we’ve lost. We will have 100,000 fewer jobs in 2040 than we had in year 2000.
Share with us some of the employment trends SEMCOG is observing and what sectors are the best for Michigan college students to pursue.
PT: Manufacturing continues to be on the decline. We’re losing jobs in large part because of increased productivity. For our manufacturing firms to compete globally and compete with parts of the world where they’re not paying wages that really can support a family, we need to be more productive — more robotics in our factories, more efficient assembly lines and creating parts that go into the cars. We’re becoming more efficient and so we will continue to lose more jobs in manufacturing, but manufacturing is still a very important part of the economy. Long term, we’re going to be the brain side of manufacturing, particularly automotive manufacturing (and a) lot of engineering and design jobs. The single fastest growing area is health care. As we age as a population, in 2040, one in four of us will be over age 65. That results in the increased need for health care and increased need for workers to take care of us.
There’s been a concern in Michigan about migration patterns and people leaving the state as we lost more than 128,000 residents from 2000 to 2010. Is this tapering off or is it going to continue to occur?
PT: As our economy is turning around, we see the patterns for “out migration” — people moving out of southeast Michigan slowing. Actually, (it’s) a really good thing for the economy and for the folks looking at college education and skills trade education. By 2020, we aren’t going to have enough workers of working age to fill the jobs that we’ll have. So there will be a lot of job opportunities for our younger folks, and that in and of itself will help reverse that trend and get more “in migration.”
You have also been quoted as saying there’s a “balanced optimism” in regards to the region’s future. What do you mean by that?
PT: On the negative side, we’re not going to grow as fast as other parts of the country. The south, southwest, the east and the east coast are growing at about twice the rate that we are, but what I see in particularly the jobs growth and type of jobs that we’re likely to be attracting and building on, are better paying jobs, again particularly on the brain side of manufacturing and the auto industry — the design, the advanced manufacturing. Beyond the auto sector, we’ve got a growing defense industry here in southeast Michigan. So there are a lot of opportunities to attract high-paying jobs. The other part of it is, by not growing so fast, we will be able to concentrate on rebuilding of roads and bridges and certain water systems we have in the region to make them absolutely world-class. And, we will be able to invest in the amenities that make our communities and our region so great — improving access to our waterways and taking advantage of us being the Great Lakes state and having 20 percent of the world’s fresh water around us in Michigan.
There’s just so much we have going for us, and having growth, but slower growth, will allow us to take advantage of those amenities and really capitalize on our assets in the region, so I’m optimistic. It just won’t be the dynamite growth that some people think we may need to have.
You also serve as president of the Metropolitan Affairs Coalition. Please tell us about this coalition and its focus, what makes it unique, and how it works to improve the region.
PT: MAC is truly a unique partnership in southeast Michigan. It’s the only place where business and government leaders and labor leaders come together and look at the challenges and opportunities with which this region is dealing. I’m not aware of any organization like it in the country that has all of those sectors plus the education community coming together, sitting around the table, getting to know each other better and working the tough problems out that we have — whether that’s public transit or property taxes or education reform. Those are the kinds of issues MAC looks at. Again, having that unique table where we come together is really a strong asset for southeast Michigan.