Growing up in a small town, newly appointed Michigan Economic Development Corporation COO Steve Arwood worked on a neighboring farm and wanted to be a dairy farmer.
“When I graduated from high school I almost didn’t go to college because I was going to be a dairy farmer. I was going to buy the farm, buy the herd, and at that point in my life all I wanted to do was farm. And my dad told me that I needed to go get an education,” Arwood said.
He ended up in the James Madison College at Michigan State University. Now he’s in charge of operations at the MEDC, working to grow businesses and the state’s economy.
Arwood has worn a lot of hats, but this job is somewhat of a homecoming for the former department head.
After spending time working for politicians such as then Senate Majority Leader John Engler and former Sen. Norm Shinkle, Arwood was part of a team that got the MEDC’s predecessor, the Michigan Jobs Commission, rolling.
“It had been the old Department of Commerce and there was economic development activity that was spread all over the state government. And so we put it all in one spot,” said Arwood, who served as deputy director for the Jobs Commission.
But after working for the commission, he spent some time in the private sector. He’s owned his own consulting company, led associations around town and helped develop commercial wind energy. He estimates he’s spent half of his career in the private sector and half in the public sector.
Most recently, Arwood served as head of the state’s Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA). He was at the department for several years as a deputy director and director, and helped tackle some big issues.
“I think the solvency of the Unemployment Insurance system is the thing I’m most proud about. It was awful. When we came in there was a $4 billion debt in that account to the federal government… we couldn’t pay the interest, had to borrow money from the general fund to pay the interest. It just was not an attractive situation,” Arwood said.
Employers were being penalized and faced a level of uncertainty, which he said hurt economic development because companies were hesitant to buy into a failing system. He was part of a team, along with members of the legislature and the Department of Treasury, that worked to resolve it.
In December 2011, Treasury issued what was then its largest bond deal ever at $3.3 billion. It reimbursed the general fund and allowed the state to pay back the federal government.
At LARA Arwood also replaced an outdated computer system and headed up the Reinventing Performance in Michigan (RPM) initiative, which gathers input from businesses in an attempt to better the regulatory agency’s customer service. He’s been touring the state with Lt. Gov. Brian Calley talking to business owners about LARA’s work.
“I’m not a guy that sits in Lansing and looks at my own statistics and says ‘gee I’m great.’ Because I know what it’s like to be regulated, I’ve been in that position before. So I want to go out and find out – is it hitting main street, do people feel it, is it making a difference, can we validate this?” Arwood said.
The agency handles regulatory issues as diverse as monitoring workplace safety and issuing liquor licenses. It’s the main government agency in charge of enforcing regulations on businesses. The MEDC, on the other hand, is in charge of courting businesses.
But Arwood said having worked in both departments gives him a unique perspective.
“You’ve got to have vibrant economic development programs and you’ve got to have a sound regulatory structure. And that’s why this is interesting, because I get to marry the two together,” Arwood said.
He replaces Steve Hilfinger, also a former director of LARA.
In his new position at the MEDC, he expects to spend some time reacquainting himself with the department and then hit the ground running.
“I think where we’re at right now is talent. I think from the Governor on down, obviously he’s been talking a lot about talent. We need to continue strong economic development of programs but we’ve got to get more invested in how we’re developing and keeping talent,” Arwood said.
He expects to be working on existing programs and scaled up versions of ones focusing on everything from career and technical education to re-training members of the workforce.
“We’ve gone to what I call the crisis of the moment to now, the economy’s growing so fast that now we’ve got to leap ahead and say ‘how are we going to keep this going in terms of talent development?’” he said.