Interview by Noah Graff
Today’s Machining World Archives October 2006 Volume 02 Issue 10
James Epolito is President and CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), a 265-person operation leading Michigan’s economic development efforts. Prior to joining the MEDC, he served as President and CEO of the Accident Fund Insurance Company of America and was Senior Vice-President of Subsidiary Operations for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
What does your job entail?
Michigan Economic Development Corporation is about retaining jobs, attracting jobs and getting companies to consolidate their operations in Michigan.
What does Michigan’s economy have already that can help it thrive in the future?
I think number one is our able bodied and ready workforce, both skilled and unskilled. I think the brainpower we have because of our university system and the diversification of the economy is unbelievable.
What types of diversification?
The diversification into life sciences and health sciences, and advanced automotive and advanced manufacturing. Also, alternative energy and alternative fuels, wind energy, solar – and there’s great opportunities in the homeland security and defense area.
What does Google coming to Ann Arbor mean to Michigan?
People see Google as the coolest company in America to work for. Everybody kind of has a smile about it, and it really has had a tremendous psychological impact in a very positive way on our population and how people in Michigan look at themselves.
Aren’t the high-tech jobs just a drop in the bucket in comparison to how many people have lost their jobs in automotive?
If the metric that you define success for anything in Michigan or the MEDC is how many jobs you’ve lost in last few years and how many jobs you’ve gained as a state, we’re not going to fare very well. But at the same time, that’s part of the transformation that is occurring and that we have to live through and absorb. I think we’ve lived through it the last six years and we’re coming out on the other end of it now.
Do you see Ann Arbor as the “new Detroit?”
No. I see Ann Arbor as the new Palo Alto–the new really high-tech center. More young people are moving into Ann Arbor. Then you go to Grand Rapids Michigan, which is becoming the center of health sciences in Michigan and in the Midwest.
Does anybody want to come back to Detroit?
You know, it’s an amazing thing. Yesterday in the Detroit Free Press, they had this half page article of these people sitting out in a little bistro in downtown Detroit. All the loft apartments are growing like crazy in downtown Detroit. The twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings—that’s where they want to live. People are rediscovering the city, and I think people are rediscovering cities all across the nation.
What’s one thing you love about the state of Michigan?
I love the people. I think the people of Michigan have been through a lot. And I love their resiliency and their ability to bounce back.
What’s one thing you really dislike about Michigan?
I really dislike the negative perception of Michigan by people that don’t live here. All that those people have read about is the loss of automotive jobs and Michael Moore’s films.
What are you most optimistic about for the future of Michigan’s economy?
I’m most excited about this transformation. I believe Michigan is at a tipping point where it is morphing from this auto based rust belt economy into the high-tech mega-center.
What’s the worst case scenario?
The worst case scenario is just that it doesn’t happen fast enough. Because there are a lot of people suffering that were somehow left behind in this transformation.
If you could be any machine what would you be?
I’d be a money machine that can bring capital to our state.