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Automation Alley grows with mission

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TOM WALSH: Automation Alley grows with mission

April 23, 2004

BY TOM WALSH

FREE PRESS COLUMNIST

Visit the Web site of Automation Alley, and you will find it devoted to two things: technology and the glorification of Oakland County.

The smiling face of L. Brooks Patterson, the Oakland County executive, welcomes you to the "About Automation Alley" page of www.automationalley.com.

In his message to visitors, Patterson mentions Automation Alley 10 times and Oakland County 13 times. Oakland, he notes, is the nation's "second most-affluent county," a place with a "pro-business atmosphere and progressive leadership" . . . and "450 lakes and 75 public and private golf courses."

Wednesday, look for that message to change, with more focus on the cluster of technology expertise and companies in southeastern Michigan and less focus on the wonders of Oakland.

That's because Automation Alley, created by Oakland in 1999, has finally emerged as our region's dominant brand identity from among a pack of other catchy names -- IT Zone, Digital Drive and Digital Detroit -- also used to promote the area in recent years as a technology hotbed.

Reaching into region

In recent months, Automation Alley reached beyond Oakland's borders to include the City of Detroit's chief development agency, Detroit Economic Growth Corp., on its board, along with Macomb County. Significantly, the Washtenaw Development Council, which works closely with many technology firms in the Ann Arbor area, has joined Automation Alley, along with similar groups from Monroe, Livingston, Genesee and St. Clair counties.

"It makes a tremendous amount of sense for us to hitch our wagon to something with a lot of money and brand identity behind it," said Sue Lackey, president of the Washtenaw Development Council, about Automation Alley.

"We're not going to be successful as a technology area unless we cooperate," she said, noting that Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Oakland and other parts of the region have pockets of strong high-tech activity.

Since its inception, Automation Alley has grown to include nearly 500 companies and 17 educational institutions. It has conducted seminars, overseas trade missions and won $1.8 million in state grants and another $1 million in federal money to fund a headquarters building and tech center in Troy, along with seed money for research ventures.

"The vision, from the beginning, was to start slowly in Oakland but to build it into something that would have real value for the entire region," said Ken Rogers, executive director of Automation Alley.

Working with others

The big test now, in a region better known for sniping than collaboration among its leaders, is how nicely the Oakland County founders of Automation Alley will play with their new partners.

"I've told everyone this is not about politics. It's about business," said Rogers, who pulled 25 to 30 development leaders from different counties together Wednesday for a meeting to discuss Automation Alley's future.

Rallying around the Automation Alley banner can be a very good thing for the region, and it need not detract from the education and training work being done by Ann Arbor's IT Zone and other groups.

One thing's for sure: Silicon Valley and North Carolina's Research Triangle won't fret too much about competition from Michigan unless we do more of this.

Contact TOM WALSH at 313-223-4430 or [email protected]

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