The journey from neighborhood advocate to state politician can take many forms, including growing a family, owning a small business, and COVID challenges.
In this episode, former SPARK board member and newly elected State Senator Sue Shink discusses with Paul Krutko, Ann Arbor SPARK president and CEO, what drives her passion for politics and how she will take action to further opportunities to help small, emerging businesses in Michigan.
Paul Krutko: Welcome to Ann Arbor SPARK’s CEO Podcast, Conversations on Economic Opportunity. My name is Paul Krutko, and I’m the President and CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK. Welcome to a series of conversations with key leaders from industry sectors.
Joining me today is Sue Shink, former chair of the Washtenaw County commissioners, and newly elected state senator. Sue’s a community advocate, public servant, and mother who has dedicated her adult life to building healthier, more resilient communities. A long-time board member of Ann Arbor SPARK, Sue was recently elected to the State Senate to represent the new Fourteenth District.
Sue, thanks for taking time out today. It’s really busy — we were just chatting about that, coming into the legislature as a newly elected senator. So, I just want to kick things off. You started your political career as a trustee for Northville Township. What motivated you at the beginning to enter the world of politics?
Sue Shink: Thank you, first of all, for having me. It’s a pleasure to talk with you. I’ll talk about what I did in Northfield Township, but to start with, my political career actually started before that.
I had lived in Grosse Pointe Farms previous to living in Northfield Township, and I’d been involved in a process called futuring, where the five communities that were in close proximity to each other there brought us together, and in a very non-partisan way, we talked about all the issues that we’re facing in the community, and the future we would like to see for us as a whole. And it was an incredible experience. We had people from all walks of life and all different perspectives coming together, working together in a really cooperative fashion, to come up with a shared vision and a shared goal. And of course, I have a law degree and a degree in resource policy from U of M. I’ve always been interested in politics and how government works in the community.
Then we move to Northfield Township to farm, and we’re coming into a community that has a lot of shared values around open space and natural preservation, and the ability for people to farm small farms or big farms, however it worked for them. But there was a plan to build over 5,000 homes, and in talking to the neighbors we learned that most of the community was really not happy or excited about this at all, but the Township officials didn’t care. And to go to a township board meeting and hear the officials very clearly not caring about what the community wanted, it didn’t jive with the experience I just had in Grosse Pointe. And so I became involved with that, and that was at the same time as there was a lot of effort behind the green belt. And really there was just a lot of synergy. And there were a couple of other projects that really didn’t work for the community, including an idea to have our little township of 8,000 people be the first ones in the State to ever bond for a freeway overpass. And that would have been $20 million dollars of debt for 8,000 people, right? And men, women, and children. And so that’s why I got really involved.
I ran for Township Trustee. I had my third child shortly after the election, and it was a pretty crazy time, but out of that we got our Township back on track. That also was a bipartisan effort. We had a lot of debt in the Township, got the Township back on to a good financial path, and although I think, you know, a lot of people would agree that Northfield Township politics are always interesting, they’ve been slightly less interesting than they had been before we came. And so I think Northfield Township’s finding that balance between development and open space preservation, and I think everybody feels pretty good about its future at this point.
Paul Krutko: Yeah, the thing is we need both, right? So that’s the trick of that, in having people who have been involved in a planning process like you were with our strategic plan last year, having all those viewpoints and coming to something that everybody can embrace is a great thing.
From there you move to the county and then from the county to State Senator. As you develop an agenda of things to work on at the county, what of those do you want to continue to pursue as you move to the State House?
Sue Shink: Well, thank you. At the county, one of the things that I love is that I was involved, it seemed like, in sort of every facet of community life, so economic development, housing, health, space preservation, parks, and transportation, right? So everything. And at the State now, I’ll be — not stepping back from the community, because, whatever our community needs, I’m there to help make happen — but in terms of my assignments for committees, a lot of that will be environmentally related. And so, taking advantage of some of that experience I do have around land use management and resource management. I’d served on brownfields, and was also involved in agriculture, and so I’ll be chairing the Natural Resources Agriculture Committee, which I’m very excited about.
But I’ll also be working on corrections and judiciary. That’s something that we had worked a lot on with our partners at the county, and I’ll be involved with that at the state in a really big way.
And then housing and human services. As we know in Washtenaw County, we have a huge problem with having enough housing — not just for affordable housing, but also entry-level homes. And so I’m hoping to make big impact there as well.
Energy environment — that’s a lot of clean energy. How do we leverage our move to reducing carbon emissions to create jobs and opportunities? And then, of course, local government, which I have quite a bit of experience in.
But again, like I said, anything that our community needs, I’m here for, and you and I have talked a lot about economic development. I’m involved in a lot of those ancillary issues around quality of life. And I know from talking to companies that have moved here that quality of life is very important. But then there are also some very specific economic development issues that we face as a state, and I will be supportive of our community there, too.
Paul Krutko: Yes, and obviously as you come into your role, and as the leadership looks across, you know, at everybody’s background, they try to create an alignment with things that you’ve worked on, where you have that expertise. But you know the other part of the role that I wanted to ask you about is, what are you trying to make happen specifically in your district? The boundaries have changed for the Fourteenth recently. What kind of things do you see your office and SPARK potentially working on in the district?
Sue Shink: I’m excited about being able to work with the University of Michigan and being able to work with SPARK. I want to support our economic development. You and I have talked a lot about how Michigan needs to have a comprehensive economic development policy, and a vision that stays consistent across administrations, across legislatures. And I want to work hard and in a very bipartisan way to make sure that this is something that’s stable, that companies can rely on. I’m looking to increase opportunities for tech and for young people, but also for people who have a dream that they want to make happen, and just maybe aren’t quite there yet. I know, because of Covid, things have changed in people’s lives, and also in our economy, and so we have a lot of people who are looking to follow that dream that they may have been holding off on for many years.
I want to leverage our tech and education capabilities. I say that because I live in Washtenaw County. And then in Jackson County, there’s such an incredible manufacturing background, and know-how here. I feel like we have a lot of synergy there, and that we can do some great things together. And since now our communities are in one district, we can take that strength and say, hey, come here and do your business here because we can offer you quality of life, all the tech and education capability you could ask for, proximity to transportation and airports, and we’ve got a manufacturing know-how that rivals anybody’s.
Paul Krutko: Well again, you know, thinking about your role, one of the things that I always enjoy in working with legislators is you also have a convening role in the sense that you can bring people together from the variety of sectors and say, “Hey, we want to talk about and think about how we should move things forward.” And then the other thing that is always really important with our elected officials is that you can be a tremendous salesperson for us as we are talking to companies that are here already, or companies that might want to come here, or talented people, and all those kinds of things. So, we’re we’re definitely going to look for those opportunities.
There is another question I wanted to ask you, and you talked a little bit about it, but we can maybe go into a little more detail. As you look back on your time on the Board of Commissioners, what did you feel were the biggest challenges and successes during your tenure?
Sue Shink: Well, when when I came into office in 2018, I was not expecting a pandemic. And so that was a challenge. We went from, just, you know, trying to to keep our county steady and push forward some policies that would benefit the community. They didn’t have a whole lot of money to work with. A lot of it was already allocated to a situation where we were in deep crisis, and we really didn’t know what was going to be at the other side of it. And of course, SPARK played a huge role in keeping our businesses afloat. The county participated in that, and we were able to do a pretty good job. But still, at the same time, there’s a lot of change in the community, a lot of empty storefronts that weren’t there, people who faced some turmoil.
But during the depth of the crisis, we were also focusing on how do we save lives? So, making sure that we got testing out to the people who needed it. And one of the things I learned is sometimes the people who need it most aren’t speaking—they’re not going to speak up. We actually need to go out and look for them and make sure. And it turned out that the elderly, and particularly elderly people of color, were just, they didn’t have the computer skills that other people had to access. And so we had to pivot real fast and work with community leaders to make sure that we were getting out to the elderly. We even had a nurse going out into people’s homes to make sure that they’re getting testing and vaccination, and that’s actually spawned some models of taking healthcare and social services out to the people who need them.
And then, I think, in another way, it was a wonderful opportunity, but also an incredible challenge. We received $75 million dollars in the American Recovery Plan and it was a lot of money, and so it it created so much opportunity because we could again go out to the community and hear what people needed and wanted, and then build out programs or fund programs that already existed. But one of the things that’s a real challenge there is just to make sure that all that money is appropriately spent in the right amount of time, and without bringing on a ton of staff that would then be fired at the end of it. So those are challenges that are are ongoing because I left, and those programs are still being executed in the community. But I’m excited about it. It’s going to create some more opportunity and address some of the root causes of poverty, and then also create more economic opportunity. And so that’s a pretty exciting thing to have been able to work on.
Paul Krutko: Yeah, it was a challenge for many, many communities in the sense that it’s one-time money. So there are lots of people who have had ideas or things that they’ve always wanted to accomplish, organizations or people, and they bring those ideas forward, but you want to, like you said, you want to be able to use the money in a way that it will have impact far after it was initially spent, right? Sort of the legacy side of that. So I think we’re going to see a lot of that in some of the investments. Not only what the county did, but other jurisdictions in the state as well, you know, investments in infrastructure, and other things that would potentially have long-lasting, “Oh, that’s the impact.”
My last question for you before we close out the the conversation, you know we obviously work in a very real way in the entrepreneurial space. And you talked a little bit about this already, but what do you think are the biggest opportunities for us to help small, emerging businesses in Michigan? Is it guidance? Is it training? Or is it just having more dollars to be able to support them? Where do you see that as we move forward?
Sue Shink: Yeah, I tend to be a big fan of all of the above. And I did have a small business when my kids were younger, and in the interim between being a township official and county official, where I had a small body care business, where I made body care products from scratch, and I sold them at the farmers market. And then at a point where I had to get big or get out, I got out, partly because of other family things happening: my husband started working crazy hours, etc. But it’s sometimes hard when you’re small to be able to find all the information in the right place at the right time, and then to have resources attached to it just makes it that much more powerful. And so I would like to support that.
But then, also, as we’ve talked about, having those steady policies, so that the rules aren’t changing on people, and people know that when they make a decision based on the way the laws are set up, that that is going to remain that way for the foreseeable future, so that they’re not getting surprised. And I think, in building that community, SPARK does an amazing job in Washtenaw County, and I know you’re in Livingston, too. And I think you’ve got a great model going, and I want to support that.
Paul Krutko: I think one of the things that’s really important is that we identify all that want to pursue that kind of opportunity. You know there are certain parts of our community, as you described with the elderly, but also, I would say, communities of color, women-owned businesses and the like, that we need to do even more extensive outreach to make sure that they’re aware of of what’s available, because there is a lot available, that’s for sure. The point is, how do you help somebody navigate that? You have to meet the small business entrepreneur where they are. What I mean by that is, you know, they’re working really hard during the day. They have family needs. Maybe the right time for them to interact with this kind of information is in the evening. “I’ve worked all day, I’ve put my kids to bed, and now it’s 9 o’clock at night, and that’s when I’m going to focus on this.” You’ve got to figure out a way through, maybe some of our new technology tools and things to meet them where they are and to help them that way.
And you also put your finger on it earlier in your comments, about the outreach in COVID, that there’s an assumption that everybody has these kinds of tools, and everybody has a computer and can do all that. And that’s not necessarily the case. And there are lots of people that have great ideas that potentially could turn into significant businesses or income for themselves that aren’t at that place yet, so you’re right about the effort to try new outreach. I know we’ve received,, in a partnership with the Department of Community Development at the county, some resources out of the ARPA money to try to begin to do that, and they created a coalition of us that do this to try to do it in a comprehensive way. So we’ll pilot it. Let’s see where it goes, and then maybe we’ll see how we can resource that moving forward. It’s kind of an experimental approach.
But, anyway, thanks so much for taking the time today. Looking forward to following what you do over there in Lansing. I know that for folks that represent Ann Arbor, they tend to do the drive back and forth of all the time, and you know that that gives you a lot of time to think, mull over what you’re involved in. But we really are very happy to have had you on our board, and also in having in the commissioner role. The county has been a strong partner ever since the beginning of SPARK, in terms of the public-private partnership that we have here, so really, really pleased to see that you’ve moved on to this new role and look forward to working with you as as time goes on.
Sue Shink: Thank you. And, you know, I loved being a County Commissioner, and so it’s, you know, bittersweet. But at the same time, I’m still serving the community, just in a different capacity. And I really appreciate my time on the SPARK board because I learned so much and met so many wonderful people who really love our community, and it’s invaluable. So thank you.
Paul Krutko: You’re welcome. Well, again, I want to thank our audience for listening and learning more about those leaders and organizations working hard to create the Ann Arbor region’s economic future. These conversations are brought to you by Ann Arbor SPARK. For more information about Ann Arbor SPARK, you can find us on the web at annarborusa.org, and also at Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
Before I let Sue go, is there an address where folks can contact you?
Sue Shink: Yes. Just grabbing my card, because it’s still a little fresh. So my email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and our phone number is 517-373-2426.
Paul Krutko: Thanks for sharing that information. I’m sure there are many people listening that will want to work with you on all the things you are trying to get done in the coming months.
Sue Shink: Thank you. You too.
Sue Shink Bio
Senator Sue Shink is a community advocate, public servant, and mother who has dedicated her adult life to building healthier, more resilient communities. She is serving her first term in the Michigan Senate where she is fighting for working families.
Shink believes that the government’s role is to serve the people with skill, honesty, and integrity. Hailing from a proud union family, she grew up in Southeastern Michigan and earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and law degrees from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Prior to being elected to the Senate, Shink served as Chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners and as a Northfield Township Trustee. She was also chair of the Agricultural Land Preservation Advisory Committee (ALPAC) and served as a member of the Huron River Watershed Council as well as the Washtenaw County Food Policy Council.
Shink lives in Northfield Township on a small farm with her husband, Tom, where they proudly raised their three daughters.