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Gov. Jennifer Granholm says the National Governors Association conference in July will give the state a chance to showcase itself. But it won't be as lavish as when Michigan hosted the annual event 20 years ago

Detroit Free Press

State scales back governors conference

Nation's governors to gather near Traverse City in a low-key affair

The nation's governors plan to meet near Traverse City this summer, but their July 20-23 conference will bear little resemblance to the razzle-dazzle that greeted the chief executives 20 years ago.

In 1987, the state's economy had emerged from the recession of the early 1980s. It was Michigan's 150th birthday and then-Gov. Jim Blanchard was determined to show the nation's governors a good time.

Back then, the state paid $500,000 to put on the National Governors Association conference. There were parades, concerts at Interlochen, fireworks, a tall ships regatta and a Motown revue.

A little-known Arkansas governor, Bill Clinton, who was chairman of the group, showed his musical chops, joining the Four Tops with a riff on his tenor saxophone.

Twenty years later, Michigan's economy is skidding and there's no state money to promote gala events. There will be parties and plenty of chances to show off Michigan's splendor, but the money will come from private donations raised by the state's NGA host committee, said Liz Boyd, spokeswoman for Gov. Jennifer Granholm. Last year, Charleston, S.C., raised $1.2 million in private money to host the annual meeting.

Even with Michigan's economic travails, Granholm will be propelled into the national spotlight as the host of the event.

"Hosting this year's NGA annual meeting in Traverse City is a terrific chance for us to use a national spotlight to showcase Michigan and all we have to offer -- from our new economy, high-tech businesses to our spectacular natural environment," Granholm said. "The state is feeling some challenges, but it's the perfect time to highlight the work we are doing to implement our economic plan."

While Blanchard whisked his Democratic colleagues and Democratic candidates for president to the governor's sweet summer digs on Mackinac Island for a meeting after the official event, Granholm has no such plans."We're going to promote Michigan, but it's a different time and we're approaching it as a business meeting," Boyd said. "It's not a time for lavish parties."

The NGA host committee is lining up corporate sponsors to pay for the parties and the security needed to keep the 35-40 governors expected to attend the conference safe. That's appropriate, given the economic times, Blanchard said.

"We were trying to show people a Michigan they had never seen, so we used it to promote tourism and manufacturing in Michigan," he said of the 1987 conference. "It's a great way to show off the state's assets."

The tentative schedules of both the NGA and the state host committee will be released later this week, but there are plans for social events for the 1,200 people expected to attend the conference on Friday and Saturday. And the Chateau Chantal winery on the picturesque Old Mission Peninsula is planning a corporate-sponsored party and dinner for the governors on Sunday evening, featuring a strolling dinner and wines of the region.

"I know what they're hoping to do is give people a flavor of what Up North Michigan is really like. People have a very industrialized image of Michigan," said Liz Berger, operations manager for the winery. "But we're rather idyllic and pastoral."

The event is to take place about sunset and the governors will then be bused to the tip of the peninsula for a bonfire "and maybe some marshmallows," Berger said.

Governors, their staff, and representatives from the federal and state governments, White House, think tanks and the news media covering the event will encounter a newly renovated Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, with $12 million in upgrades done in the last four years."The renovations would have been done regardless of the convention," said J. Michael DeAgostino, spokesman for the resort, which is owned by the Grand Traverse band of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. "But we'll turn over the entire facility to the NGA."

Traverse City also is a different place than it was 20 years ago, when the NGA conference was one of the biggest events hosted in the city to date.

Now the hotels are filled most of the summer and big events are commonplace. Running the same time as the NGA is the three-week Horse Show by the Bay, a national equestrian event that is expected to attract 750 horses and 1,500 spectators.

"It's July in Traverse City and I'm right on the beach. We would be full without the NGA conference," said Chris Gorence, general manager of the Sugar Beach and Grand Beach Resort hotels. "The positive effect it will have on us is that it will drive people to come here on other weekends in the summer."

The four-day event, however, isn't all fun. The governors will get down to the business of electing new leadership. Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican of Minnesota, will take over as chairman from Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat of Arizona. And they will focus on the theme "Innovation America."

"It's a good fit for Michigan," said Jodi Omear, spokeswoman for the NGA. "It's all about revitalizing the economy with things like alternative energy."

The star power among governors isn't high, unless you're talking about former movie star and current California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and his attendance isn't a sure bet.

While the NGA likes to keep the conference nonpartisan and won't host any presidential forums, wherever a group of elected officials gather, politics is sure to follow. When the meeting was held in Charleston last year, there were four sitting governors considering a run for the White House -- Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, George Pataki of New York, Tom Vilsack of Iowa and Bill Richardson of New Mexico. Political events were as plentiful as policy discussions.

Richardson is the only sitting governor still in the race, though Romney, also still in the race, could attend as a former governor.

"We discourage them from doing anything during the meeting," Omear said. "But I'm sure there will be things before and after the conference."

Contact KATHLEEN GRAY at 313-223-4407 or

Copyright © 2007 Detroit Free Press Inc.

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