You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Sun, Jan 10, 2010 : 5:35 a.m.

Why the Detroit auto show matters to Ann Arbor

By Nathan Bomey

For the Ann Arbor region, an attitude of indifference to the Detroit auto show is relatively common.

Conventional wisdom has long held that the region - blessed with the University of Michigan and a vibrant startup scene - is mostly immune to the auto industry’s ups and downs.

Not so. In fact, the Ann Arbor region could not escape the implosion of the auto industry in 2009 - a reminder that dozens of suppliers and technology companies in this area rely heavily on the auto industry.

That, then, is why the Detroit auto show - still the most important automotive event in the world - is consequential to Ann Arbor.

“There are many manufacturers and engineering companies that supply componentry and brainpower, knowledge services to the auto industry. And they’re right here in Ann Arbor,” said Doug Fox, president of Ann Arbor Automotive and chairman of the North American International Auto Show. “There’s a significant impact to us. It matters a lot.” Auto Show Coverage

The global auto crisis was like a black light revealing the Ann Arbor region’s exposure to the plight of the auto industry. The incredible depth of the crisis was impossible to dodge.

A report released last week by the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth (DELEG) said auto manufacturing companies accounted for 1,700 of Washtenaw County’s 3,300 job losses from November 2008 to November 2009.

The auto crisis played a key role in inflating the region’s unemployment rate from 6.0 percent to 8.8 percent during that period.

At the start of 2009, Washtenaw County had between 7,000 and 10,000 auto-related workers, according to estimates from Ann Arbor SPARK. That included about 5,765 auto manufacturing workers, a figure that included more than 1,300 then employed by General Motors’ Willow Run plant, which is closing by the end of 2010.

Despite its contraction, the county’s auto industry is still about twice as big as its growing software industry, for example - and that ignores the fact that many non-auto companies in Ann Arbor have struggling auto clients.

Still, the Ann Arbor economy has weathered the economic crisis better than the rest of Michigan.

And Ann Arbor’s connections to the auto industry aren’t purely negative.

In fact, the region has some 30 companies dedicated to supplying engineering expertise and alternative energy technology to the auto industry, said Michael Finney, SPARK’s CEO.

Those jobs are much more likely to stay.

Those companies - including firms like U-M battery spinoff Sakti3 - can contribute advancements to the electrification of the vehicle, for example.

“We expect that this area will play a significant role in the future of transportation in this country,” Finney said. “It’s a real opportunity for the kind of R&D facilities that we have to continue to prosper.”

Prosperity starts with marketing - and that’s what the Detroit auto show is all about. It’s a chance for automakers to show off their best prospects to more than 5,000 media members and 700,000 visitors.

The Detroit auto show may feel distant. But it’s actually closer than ever.

Contact’s Nathan Bomey at (734) 623-2587 or You can also follow him on Twitter.