Rick Haglund: Fate of Pure Michigan ad campaign unclear

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Mackinac Center for Public Policy economist Michael LaFaive for years called on policymakers to end the Pure Michigan tourism promotion campaign, considered among the best in the country.

Despite a state-sponsored study that found Pure Michigan advertising influenced 2.1 million visitor trips to Michigan and more than $2.5 billion in spending last year, LaFaive said his own work has found the campaign to be largely ineffective and “deserves, perhaps more than any state-run program, to be zeroed out.”

That’s exactly what Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did in a budget battle with Republicans. She eliminated the entire $37.5 million budget for Pure Michigan advertising, which lured travelers with ads featuring gorgeous state scenery, narrated by actor and Michigan native Tim Allen with theme music from “The Cider House Rules.”

The loss of Pure Michigan represents the end of a marketing campaign that was praised by advertising experts, admired by Michigan residents and deemed crucial to the future of state tourism by industry leaders.

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“What took a decade and a half to achieve could be destroyed in a matter of months,” said Justin Winslow, president of the Michigan Restaurant and Lodging Association.

If you’re not familiar with the Mackinac Center, here’s something you need to understand. It’s a Midland-based conservative think tank that promotes limited government and letting the free market take over many government functions. 

You’re about as likely to find a Democrat agreeing with the Mackinac Center on policy issues as you are to spot Madonna at a Trump rally.

But LaFaive said he wasn’t surprised that a Democratic governor killed Pure Michigan, a campaign launched in 2006 by another Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm.

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“I haven’t thought that it needed to be a Republican. The incentive debate has been bipartisan for years,” he told me. “Marry that to the end-of-the-fiscal-year chaos that took place and something interesting was going to come out of the final budget. This was one of the big pieces.”

In total, Whitmer vetoed 147 line items in the 2020 fiscal year budget totaling $947 million. She said she did so as a way of restarting negotiations on a budget plan, which Republicans have so far rejected. 

The budget sent to her by the Republican-controlled Legislature threatened public health and safety, she said, and was larded with pork-barrel spending.

At a news conference following her veto announcement, Whitmer said she loves Pure Michigan, but that she is “always going to put public safety . . . ahead of an ad campaign.”

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Republicans also appear willing to sacrifice Pure Michigan in favor of other priorities, including reversing funding cuts to charter schools, rural hospitals and autism services. 

Restoring Pure Michigan funding was not among supplemental spending bills introduced by Republican lawmakers last month.

That’s curious because Republicans represent much of northern Michigan and other parts of the state heavily dependent on tourism. Among them is House Speaker Lee Chatfield, whose district encompasses Petoskey, Harbor Springs, Mackinaw City and Mackinac Island.

Officials in Traverse City, one of the top travel destinations in Michigan, say the loss of Pure Michigan is a huge blow to the entire state.

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“If we turn off Pure Michigan, it will take decades to build it back to what it is today,” said Trevor Tkach, CEO of Traverse City Tourism, the local convention and visitors bureau. “It will hurt Traverse City. It will hurt Detroit. It will hurt Sault Ste. Marie. It will hurt everyone.”

Winslow said word is already spreading that Michigan is “unilaterally disarming” in the tourism marketing competition. Canada, for instance, has stepped up tourism advertising in the Detroit market, he said.

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More than 800 letters from members of the Winslow’s association have been sent to Whitmer and lawmakers, asking them to restore Pure Michigan funding.

LaFaive and other free marketers say if Pure Michigan advertising is so successful, then tourism-related businesses should fund it themselves.

It’s a fair point, but ignores the hundreds of millions of dollars a year the state spends to promote and support its other major industries, namely agriculture and manufacturing.

Despite a larger debate about the effectiveness and fairness of economic development incentives, that spending isn’t going away anytime soon.

And while he’s pleased Whitmer killed Pure Michigan, LaFaive isn’t convinced it will stay dead.

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LaFaive told me he thought Republicans would have proposed restoring Pure Michigan funding in their budget talks with Whitmer. And he said he wouldn’t be surprised if the program receives funding in the 2021 fiscal year, if not sooner.

That seems like a good bet. Michigan has promoted tourism for decades. Even former Gov. John Engler, a conservative Republican, bragged about the effectiveness of his administration’s “Great Lakes, Great Times” tourism advertising campaign in 2001.

And Engler, as some may recall, was a co-founder of the Mackinac Center.