Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Study highlights fragility of Lake Michigan dunes

Capital News Service

LANSING – New information about sand dunes along Lake Michigan is expected to improve protection of archeological sites, researchers and planners say.

The fragile dunes in Southwest Michigan are a coveted natural resource and rival other great dunes across the globe, said Alan Arbogast, a Michigan State University geographer.

“I’ve seen dunes along Australia and New Zealand, and the ones you find on Lake Michigan are just as nice as those places,” he said.

The Department of Natural Resources and Environment calls the Michigan dunes the largest assemblage of freshwater dunes in the world.

The first archeological report on Michigan dunes found that coastal ones were highly active in two time periods in the last 5,000 years, which was when they became dunes, said MSU anthropology Professor William Lovis.

He said he hopes the report will make people aware of the fragility of the dunes.

The study, funded by the Federal Highway Administration, was done to give road planners a better knowledge about where archeological sites are located within sand dunes so they won’t be disturbed.

The project manager for the report, James Robertson, said, “The important thing in my perspective is to look at environmental impacts that our projects might have. And in this case, one of the many things we study is archeological sites. It’s good to know where they are early on.”

Robertson, a Michigan Department of Transportation archeologist, said projects must meet federal guidelines during the planning stages. One of the first things considered is archeological sites.

One location where researchers worked was a 19-mile section of US-31 between Torch Lake and Charlevoix.

The study found traces of human occupation in the form of specialized campsites dating as far back as 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. That find may advance studies about previous cultures, Robertson said.

Arbogast, who co-authored the report, has studied the evolutionary aspects of the Lake Michigan dunes.

There is a tension, he said, between the human desire to build and the natural behavior of a sand dune, which is to be mobile. “There are a lot of examples on the lakeshore where sand dunes are active and moving, and in the process of burying parking lots and campgrounds.”

Dunes are sensitive to landscapes and are prone to move, a fact that people tend to overlook, said Arbogast. “If they fill the landscape up with houses and buildings, sooner or later someone is going to have a problem.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Filed under: Environment

Push on for changes in criminal defense system

Capital News Service

LANSING– The state’s system for defending poor criminal suspects is under fire from attorneys and some advocacy groups.

They argue that the current public defender system fails to meet the constitutional guarantee of an adequate defense for those who cannot afford one.

Currently, counties cover most of the expense for representing indigent defendants. Michigan is one of just seven states with a localized system.

Laura Sager, executive director of the Michigan Campaign for Justice, said that a public defense system that is run differently by each county falls short of one operated by the state.

“It hasn’t done a good job ensuring that Michigan residents that need to rely on the public defense system have an effective defense as guaranteed under the constitution,” Sager said.

Sager said that the county-run system is underfunded and poorly administered, wasting taxpayer money and putting those accused of crimes at risk of unjust conviction.

Michelle Weemhoff, senior policy associate for the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, said the system needs to reach national standards.

“If you don’t have standards to ensure that the quality of service you are receiving from an attorney is effective, then you are going to differentially affect a person’s case,” Weemhoff said.

According to Weemhoff, public defenders aren’t to blame for the inadequate representation of indigent clients, Rather, their lack of enough resources is responsible.

“It’s not to say that public defense attorneys aren’t good at their jobs because they are,” Weemhoff said, “The problem is that if they aren’t given proper support to do their job effectively, then they can’t be expected to provide their best.”

Michael Chielens, executive director of Legal Aid of Western Michigan in Grand Rapids, said that state system would provide better funding, training and research to attorneys.

Chielens said lack of funding for public defenders results in large caseloads, causing attorneys to rush through cases.

“Efficiency often gets in the way of providing meaningful legal counsel to poor people in criminal matters,” Chielens said.

With the state’s budget deficit, advocates of a state system acknowledge that they face an uphill battle but justify possible spending increases with future savings.

Chielens said that such a change would help reduce “hidden costs” of a poor public defense system.

Defendants who aren’t properly represented “get more jail time than they necessarily would have and they get wrongful incarcerations. That costs taxpayers,” Chielens said.

Legislation to create a state-run system has failed to pass in the past.

Even so, Sager said, “This is a great time to tackle this longstanding problem when you reinvent and restructure government.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Filed under: Uncategorized

More public job applications skip felony conviction box

Capital News Service

LANSING—Public employment job applications in Detroit, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo and Saginaw County no longer ask potentially discriminatory questions such as, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?”

The so-called “Ban the Box” initiative started in mid-2009 and is intended to give ex-felons an equal opportunity at landing an interview and potential job.

Participating local government can ban the “boxes” on initial applications asking about previous criminal records rather than automatically weeding out qualified candidates.

Removing such questions gives former convicts a chance to get their foot in the door when searching for a job, said Beth Arnovits, executive director of the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency (MCCD).

Erica Hicks, Kalamazoo human resources assistant, said “Banning the Box” makes applicants feel more comfortable, but not many ex-felons have applied since the initiative began in April.

She said the city hasn’t yet reviewed the ban’s effectiveness.

Those cities prohibit such questions for government prospects through local ordinances. Private businesses can choose to do the same.

Eric Lambert, the Wayne State University criminal justice chair who researches felons’ post-release behavior, said many businesses don’t conduct detailed criminal record checks if they’re needed or required for a particular type of work.

In some work forces, ex-felons are at a disadvantage because employers are required to run a criminal search history, as with jobs working with children.

Lambert said, “There’s a stigma attached to being criminally convicted even if it has been many years ago.”

The need for background checks varies by the company, and employers can be legally liable for employees’ sexual or violent behavior, Lambert said.

And Arnovits said, “Cities or counties ban for their own purposes, leading by example.  Similarly, you can’t ask if someone is pregnant on a job application.”

Arnovits said it‘s a hard time to get ex-prisoners employed because of the economy, and a criminal background hurts their prospects even if re-entry programs such as job training certify them in special skills, for instance asbestos removal.

John Cordell, a public information specialist at the Department of Corrections, said Michigan releases an average of 12,000 prisoners a year, and now has 21,000 ex-inmates under supervision.

Cordell said, “Prisoners should not be excluded from competing for a job, but many employers do screen out people who mark the box, ‘yes.’”

Lambert said the “Ban the Box” initiative is part of a push for “restorative justice” that helps ex-offenders benefit their communities and bring them back into society instead of ostracizing them.

Lambert said many businesses automatically reject applicants who were convicted of a crime, though employers may not know who the person is, what skills he or she has to offer, and why or when the arrest or conviction occurred.

Applications have two kinds of questions.  One asks if the applicant has ever been arrested for a felony, and the other asks if the applicant has been convicted of a felony. Lambert said questioning arrests is misleading since charges may have been dropped or are no longer on one’s record.

So far, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico and Connecticut have banned the box statewide and five states are looking into their own ban.  More than 20 cities have adopted the initiative.

Ann Arbor has not passed an ordinance, but its applications say that checking ‘yes’ on criminal background questions “is not an automatic bar to employment.”

After the initial application, a job interviewer can ask questions regarding criminal records or background checks.

According to the State Bar, Michigan law doesn’t allow questions about misdemeanor arrests that didn’t end in conviction, but employers can question applicants about felony arrests and convictions.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.



Filed under: Uncategorized

Ex-cons get green work as first step to new life


Capital News Service

LANSING–Traverse City is among the communities in the country exploring green job initiatives as an opportunity for ex-prisoners to rebuild their lives.

Programs such as Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative (MPRI), a statewide effort led by the Department of Corrections that does job placement for former prisoners, provide a pathway out of the incarceration cycle for an increasing number of former prisoners.

Growing Connections, a project of MPRI’s Northwest, is one initiative bringing change to the lives of ex-inmates and the community, according to Kirt Baab, MPRI’s Northwest region’s community coordinator.

Mary Ann Hendricks, who supervised a project last summer at the community-based Grow Benzie, a gardening project in Frankfort, said she would work again with Growing Connections if she had the chance.

She managed a crew of former inmates on a project to reorganize and clean the farmstead’s greenhouses, getting them ready for the planting season.  The crew also rebuilt a stairway on a steep slope and filled the slope with stones to prevent further soil erosion that was damaging the greenhouses.

“I wasn’t so sure at first — I expected to see a lot of personality problems,” she said.  “But when I saw what the crew had done in a couple hours, I was like ‘I can’t believe this.’”

Another major project was landscaping the 3.7 acres where the farmstead is situated.

Jane Sage, operations manager of Northwest Michigan Works! said the number of former prisoners returning to prison within the first 24 months has been greatly reduced since MPRI started.

Before the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative was launched, about 1 in 2 parolees returned to prison within three years. That rate has improved to about 1 in 3, according to Chris Andrews, a communications consultant for MPRI.

MPRI works closely with other agencies, including Michigan Works! and regional economic development groups, to determine the kinds of training needed in the job market, according to Sage.

Another successful project last summer was at the Little Traverse Conservancy in Emmet County.

“The crew members repaired decks, cleared land and removed unwanted buildings from the property,” said Baab.

Doug Fuller, director of stewardship at the conservancy said an associate referred him to MPRI.  After giving a description of the work needed, the program assigned a three-member crew to help with four projects at a value Fuller said could have cost about $10,000.

Because nonprofit organizations like Grow Benzie and the Little Traverse Conservancy aren’t expected to pay for such services, the MPRI uses federal funds to pay participants minimum wage.  The initiative has also provided wage subsidies as an incentive for employers to hire ex-felons.

Although such jobs are seasonal and last only a short period, they help former prisoners gain work experience, earn income and get work references as they apply for longer-term jobs, according to Baab.

Over the past few years, MPRI has diversified its range of job skills training to include light-duty construction, welding and hospitality.

“Unfortunately, most of these jobs are at the entry level but at least they give our returning citizens a start into employment and a chance to gain the trust of the community,” Baab said.

Grow Benzie, which distributes its fresh vegetables to Benzie County school districts, said it hopes to work again with Growing Connections.

“They are just normal people who have made mistakes in life,” Hendricks said.

In fact, Grow Benzie is already in contact with a summer crew member and hopes to hire him full time when it has more greenhouses set up, according to Hendricks.

In the future, Hendricks said she would like help from Growing Connections to install an irrigation system at the farmstead.

“I would give them a 10 on a scale of 10,” she said.  “Everything they did was so professional.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Environment

Governor draws praise for Urban Initiatives plan


Capital News Service


LANSING—Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan to create an Office of Urban Initiatives will help development in cities like Detroit and Grand Rapids, experts in Southeast and West Michigan say.

It will be a “frontline” office to assist communities with grant applications and urban planning, as well as redevelopment of downtown areas and brownfields, Snyder’s office said.

“This is a very positive step for Michigan,” said Andy Schor, assistant director of the Michigan Municipal League.

Focusing on development of cities is a great way to bring young people into the state and keep those who are already here, said Schor, whose Ann Arbor-based organization represents cities and villages.

He said cities now have to deal with too many state agencies.

“We want this office to be a one-stop shop that communities can go to for help,” Schor said.

While many urban areas share similar problems, he said each city has its own issues that the proposed office should deal with.

“There is no distinct urban agenda,” Schor said, “Alpena has different needs from Detroit or Grand Rapids.”

He said the league wants the office to function as a “catch-all for urban issues” and looks forward to collaborating with the state to improve urban areas.

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell said he is enthusiastic about an office allowing the city to work directly with the state to solve problems.

“We are excited to have a state office that will be good at public policy and do more than just scheduling,” Heartwell said.

According to Heartwell, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm had staff in Grand Rapids but no one who dealt directly with the city’s policy issues.

“It’ll be great to have a public policy pipeline from the state to west Michigan,” Heartwell said.

Paul Tait, executive director of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, said he’s excited to see a new unit to address key urban issues.

“Right now, Southeast Michigan and Detroit are struggling to provide core services, especially in places that struggle with low-income families and a high population of elderly,” Tait said.

He attributed that struggle partly to a 32-percent drop in property tax revenue and a 20-percent drop in revenue sharing from the state, among other economic problems.

The office should address the economic prosperity of cities as its main priority, Tait said.

“Our urban areas have the greatest concentration of jobs, which makes them very important to our future,” Tait said.

To grow, cities need to attract 25-to-35-year-olds but a lack of urban amenities pushes them out of the state, he said.

Tait also said that while Southeast Michigan needs attention, the Office of Urban Initiatives should also work with other urban areas to fuel growth.

“Its not just Detroit,” Tait said. “We’re all in this together.”

Snyder’s deputy press secretary, Ken Silfven, said the office will advance programs and opportunities across the state.

“We want people to look forward to living and working in Michigan’s cities,” Silfven said.  “Our urban areas are crucial to the health of our entire state.”

Silfven also said the state will partner with private and nonprofit organizations to revitalize cities.

Silfven said the proposal “has piqued a lot of interest in our cities, which bodes well for Michigan’s future.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Filed under: Politics

Snyder wants to lure well-educated immigrants


Capital News Service

LANSING—Michigan may have more well-educated immigrants in a couple of years.

Gov. Rick Snyder said the state should encourage immigrants with advanced college degrees to work and live in Michigan.

Political controversies about immigrants last year raised fears among legal immigrants that the business climate would be unfavorable for them.

But this year the situation may be different.

Immigrants with advanced degrees, Snyder said in his State of the State address, “make a tremendous difference in creating a positive economic activity environment,” but he revealed no details about how Michigan might attract more of them.

Susan Reed, an attorney from the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center in Kalamazoo, said legislation that targets immigrants for enforcement creates an unwelcoming atmosphere.

Reed said, “Unfortunately, people’s discussion about immigration problems is always negative. There is little significant legislation about encouraging immigrants to come to Michigan. I hope Gov. Snyder will take a new approach to it.”

Reed said options to attract well-educated immigrants include preventing racial profiling, enhancing community policing efforts to decrease mistrust between immigrant and law enforcement and expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

“To immigrants who lack or cannot afford insurance coverage, this is a welcoming policy,” Reed said.

A Global Detroit Study by David Egner, the executive director of New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan in Detroit, cites the advantages of attracting more well-educated immigrants.

The study found that immigrants predominate in sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics — fields that are critical to technologies, innovation and business that power “new economy” jobs and firms.

The U.S. Small Business Administration reported that immigrants started 15.8 percent of all Michigan businesses launched between 1996 and 2007.

Professor Wei-Chiao Huang, an expert on labor economics at Western Michigan University, said, “The well-educated immigrant will bring the state new economic recovery.

Huang said many immigrants with master’s degrees or Ph.D.s lead in engineering and science fields.

“These highly skilled immigrants certainly will help boost the economy. We need more additional highly skilled immigrants to come and live here,” Huang said.

If Snyder wants to attract more well-educated immigrants, the easiest way is to keep talented international students who study in Michigan, Huang said.

Wenbo Qiao, a PhD student at Michigan State University, said he “really likes to live in Michigan” because of the natural landscape and low cost of living.

“But Michigan doesn’t like me. There is no suitable job position here,” Qiao said.

He said if he has a chance to open his own business in Michigan, he would hire local residents, because they could help the company better communicate with customers and the media.

Qiao said that two things would encourage well-educated students to stay; cutting business taxes and shortening the time it takes to process applications for permanent residency.

“If the new governor provides more work opportunities to me, I will stay here,” Qiao said.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Filed under: Social Policy

Homeless pets put added burden on animal shelters

Capital News Service

LANSING – Homelessness affects people during an economic downturn —  and hundreds of thousands of their pets as well.

The economy has driven people who would normally otherwise care for the animals to abandon them, according to Homeward Bound Animal Shelter board president Sharon Monnot.

“A lot of people are moving around and they can’t take their animals with them,” Monnot said. Homeward Bound in Manistee is the primary shelter in Manistee County.

In such situations, former pets become homeless. Those that end up at no-kill shelters like Homeward Bound remain until they’re adopted.

Homeward Bound is one of 13 shelters to receive state grants to control animal populations. Homeless pets are spayed and neutered before being put up for adoption.

Other funded programs are in Allegan, Berrien, Benzie, Eaton, Genesee, Ingham, Isabella, Muskegon, Missaukee, Newaygo and Wayne counties.

To encourage the adoption process and reduce over-population, many shelters provide spay and neutering services to new owners.  For nonprofit shelters, this can be expensive.

Money provided by the Companion Animal Welfare Fund helps cover some of the costs associated with reducing over-population, including spay and neuter programs and public education about animal welfare.

The fund, which gets its money from state tax return check-offs, began distributing grants last year.

State Veterinarian Steven Halstead, who helped establish the program, said that although he was a bit pessimistic in the beginning, the amount of donations is inspiring.

“People are demonstrating great civic responsibility and showing that they feel this program is important by putting their dollars to work and letting them speak for them,” he said.

This year, the fund generated more than $118,000 and gave 13 shelters $3,000 to $10,000 each.

Homeward Bound received about $9,500.

Other grants went to the Missaukee Humane Society ($3,000); Allen Park Police Department ($6,000); Eaton County Humane Society ($9,855); Allegan County Humane Society ($10,000); Benzie County Animal Control ($10,000); Friends of Michigan Animal Rescue in Wayne County ($10,000); Humane Society of Southwestern Michigan in Berrien County ($10,000); Humane Society of Genesee County ($10,000);  Ingham County Animal Control ($10,000); Isabella County Animal Control ($10,000); Newaygo County ($10,000); and Volunteers for Muskegon County Animal Control ($10,000).

Because 34 shelters requested more than $300,000, Halstead said priority went to those that demonstrated plans for programs that would increase the number of spay and neuter procedures for stray and adopted animals.

Halstead said the goal of the program is to “reduce the number of unwanted animals out there, reduce the burden on the shelters and ultimately reduce the strays and the health risks that they present.”

Kevin Hatman, the public relations coordinator for the Michigan Humane Society in Bingham Farms, said the fund allows a coordinated effort across the state in reducing animal population, regardless of the shelter or community’s size.

“The fund has had a large impact on smaller shelters that may not receive a lot of funding and that may not receive a lot of donations, especially in more rural areas,” he said.

His organization serves Detroit, Highland Park and Hamtramck.  It receives more than 100,000 animals and performs roughly 15,000 spay and neuter surgeries a year.

While Monnot said she’s grateful for the grant, she believes the state could do more to ease the costs associated with running a shelter and adopting animals.

Homeward Bound’s board of directors is working to get funds to keep the shelter going.

Monnot said her shelter has applied for numerous grants, but they’re not easy to come by.

“When funds get low we just have to work a little bit harder on fundraising,” she said. “We talk to people and let the community know where we’re at. “

Halstead acknowledges the economy’s effects on animal facilities, both public and nonprofit, and like Monnot, says community support is the ultimate solution.

“Because county animal control agencies and the Department of Agriculture are less able to be involved and to respond, there’s more grassroots effort,” he said. “It says that people are going to be passionate and are going to make sure that animals are cared for, regardless of what the agency response is.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Filed under: Economy

With tight state budget, will working poor pay more?

Capital News Service

LANSING — While House Republicans push to eliminate the Earned Income Tax Credit as a way to cut the state budget, defenders of the 3-year-old tax break say it benefits the economy.

The credit refunds some taxes for more than 780,000 low-income workers. In 2009, it cut $338 million from state revenues.

The Michigan League for Human Services, an advocacy group, argues that lawmakers should cut other tax credits instead.

The group has written to all lawmakers, letting them know how much their district economies would lose by eliminating the credit, said league communications director Judy Putnam.

Ramona Spencer of Lansing is one of many low-paid workers who claim the credit. She said losing it would significantly hurt her ability to take care of her disabled 26-year-old son and make ends meet.

“There’s been less support by the state when we need it most,” she said, citing cuts to many public services.

“Every dime counts and every little bit helps,” she said. “Having extra money helps balance things out.”

Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, said he hasn’t seen a legitimate reason for removing the tax credit.

The government should protect eligible families in tough economic times, Johnson said. Effectively raising taxes on them is “not acceptable at this point.”

And Charles Anderson, president of the Detroit Urban League, said its elimination would “bring more pain to the people suffering most in our state.”

But Ari Adler, the press secretary for House Speaker James Bolger, R-Marshall, said the state must look at all tax exemptions and credits, including the earned income tax credit.

Adler said Republicans are examining how existing tax laws impact the state’s competitiveness.

No legislation to eliminate the credit has been introduced yet, he said.

Gov. Rick Snyder hasn’t announced his position on the issue.

According to the Treasury Department, the average credit was $432 in 2009.

The amount varies depending on taxpayers’ income and how many dependent children they have. There are separate credits: one for federal taxes and one at the state level.

The state credit, equal to 20 percent of the federal version, ranges from about $90 to a maximum of about $1,100.

Putnam, of the league, stressed the effectiveness of those dollars in the economy. She called it a “great benefit to small business.

“When people who are struggling to make ends meet, when they get money, they tend to spend it and spend quickly,” she said.

Spencer, the Lansing mother, said losing the credit could make some extra things unaffordable, like the annual vacation she takes to Lake Michigan.

“Things are already uncomfortably tight,” she said. “It’s tough enough.”

But Adler asked, “Can the people of Michigan afford to be as generous as we once were, given the current economy? We think the answer is no.”

The league cites a study by the Anderson Economic Group in East Lansing that said every dollar of the federal earned income tax credit generated $1.67 in economic activity.

As an alternative to cutting the credit, the league proposed extending the sales tax to services and shifting from a flat income tax to a graduated one.

Putnam said the state offers billions of dollars in existing tax credits, leaving plenty of places to cut other than the earned income credit.

Johnson, the Highland Park lawmaker, said the state couldn’t justifiably pay for many of Snyder’s proposals, including lowering business taxes, by raising taxes on the “most vulnerable citizens.”

“There’s not enough money in the budget to pay for what’s on the table,” he said. “I’m not looking just to tax and spend.”

Still, he said, “We shouldn’t balance budgets on the backs of working families.”

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Filed under: Economy

Lights, camera, economic action at old truck plant

Capital News Service

LANSING — When the General Motors Pontiac Assembly Center opened in 1972 to build medium-duty trucks, there was no way to predict the diverse subsequent uses of the 130-acre site.

Neglected trees lie in an abandoned General Motors office; another section of the property will soon see new life as a movie studio. Photo: Courtney Morra

Now the latest transformation is construction of the new Raleigh Michigan Studios in Pontiac.

Ground broke last July on what was first named Motown Motion Pictures. Linden Nelson, the chief executive officer of the project, changed the name to align the studio more closely with film and with Raleigh’s international reputation.

As for motivation, the partners have said that Michigan’s 42 percent tax break for film production is “the best in the country right now.”

Raleigh, the country’s longest-running film studio, is expected to create 5,139 new jobs, including 3,600 directly and is among three studio projects that the former Granholm administration said are expected to create nearly 6,000 jobs.

The studio will be equipped for 3D animation and special effects. It will also serve as a learning center for film students from the Detroit College for Creative Studies and Oakland Community College.

The studio is being built on part of what used to be GM’s Centerpoint business campus. The project includes two new buildings. The finished studio will include the renovated office building that’s already there.

According to Mark Corey, a project manager for partner Walbridge, the first building will be completed on April 23 and the second will be completed sometime in the spring.

About 135 Walbridge employees are working per day, Corey said. “To have new construction, and a new industry, in this city that has been hit so hard by the auto company decline is very special.”

Indirect jobs have already been created. Curtis DeDobbeleer works with Mount Clemens-based New Image Building Services Inc., cleaning the facilities where Walbridge construction project managers and Raleigh Studios executives have offices.

“We just started, but there’s about 10 of us so far,” DeDobbeleer said. “We’ve been really busy.”

The site was vacant after heavy- and medium-duty truck production stopped in 1989. Then in 1993, GM announced that it would sell the property for development as a business campus and lease it back as the new Truck Product Center.

That rehabilitation created thousands of jobs and transformed a section of the lifeless manufacturing center into a workplace for GM engineers. It was home to the second-largest business office in Oakland County.

But the new facility was used only for a short period before becoming vacant yet again.

Mark Ellis was a GM engineering executive of crash worthiness at the Centerpoint building with about 4,000 other employees when it opened in 1996 until the division relocated nearly eight years later.

“It was great working there,” said Ellis, now retired. “It was the first time all of the engineering people were together like that.”

The expansive grounds were well-kept, he said. A tree was planted for every employee and the exterior color-coded to make it easier to navigate.

“We felt such pride and ownership over the building, with less extraneous corporate stuff going on,” Ellis said. “It was hard to move out after eight years.”

The 4,000 or so trees remain. Much of the grounds are grown over with shrubs and grass. Walkway lamps have rusted to the point of collapse.

But the building itself still appears eerily perfect and clean. Through the revolving glass door visitors can see the grandeur that once brought so much pride, but the hall is also littered with dead indoor trees.

The financial impetus for the project comes from state tax breaks for film projects.

“The infrastructure credit was put in place to encourage the building of film infrastructure projects, including studios, sound stages and post houses,” said Michelle Begnoche, a communications representative from the Michigan Film Office. Approved projects get a 25 percent business tax credit

Another state incentive offers a tax break of up to 42 percent for film productions projects.

Film incentives are designed to motivate producers to hire Michigan actors. But actor Jeff Stetson, who has been involved in Detroit film projects for several years, says it isn’t difficult for non-residents to work around the system. “Michigan film incentives have brought a lot of big business,” says Stetson, “but they often bring their own people.”

Many of the jobs that will be created “are transitory and highly specialized,” Stetson said.

Actors and extras can qualify for the full credit as residents if they’ve lived in the state for at least 60 days. Non-residents actors and extras get only a 30 percent credit. But writers and directors receive the full credit regardless of where they live.

When the recession struck the auto industry, a lot of doors closed in Michigan, the way GM’s did in Pontiac. But even Ellis, the retired engineer, agrees that the new project is good for the state.

“Oh yeah, this will help,” he says. “I don’t know what else could go there. It isn’t like we need any more shopping malls.”

Courtney Morra writes for Great Lakes Echo.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Filed under: Environment

Local businesses need more nurturing, Snyder says

Capital News Service

LANSING- Gov. Rick Snyder’s pledge to bolster economic gardening to rebuild Michigan means his administration will focus on encouraging in-state businesses.

Economic gardening through entrepreneurship is a development strategy highlighting in-state businesses that produce Michigan jobs instead of concentrating on recruitment of out-of-state companies.

Snyder said in his first State of the State address, “We need to put more emphasis on economic gardening as opposed to hunting. We’ll focus first and foremost on building businesses that are already here in the state.”

Rob Fowler, president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, (SBAM), describes gardening as an entrepreneurial approach to economic development.  It includes identifying expert talent and matching it with businesses that need it, he said.

SBAM’s economic scorecard benchmarks the state in the bottom five nationally.  Business Leaders for Michigan, an advocacy group, wants to move it up to a “top 10” state.

Rapidly growing industries in Michigan include alternative energy, advanced manufacturing, life sciences and homeland security and defense, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC).

Mike Shore, vice president of communications at MEDC, said there are a variety of programs and training sessions that help local businesses.           “We are empowered by the state to help businesses faster than they would on their own. We are ramping up efforts to help business owners and operators regardless of the circumstances,” Shore said.

According to Fowler, Snyder’s priorities for Michigan coincide with what many small business owners want.

Fowler said, “Of the seven candidates who ran for governor, none understand gardening better than Snyder.  Gardening is a blueprint for what Michigan companies can and will do.” Incentives do not create jobs like gardening will, he said.

Fowler said most businesses that would prosper from such an approach are second-stage companies that have a strong backbone but aren’t fully developed.  They have a staff of 10 to 100 employees.  However, incentives remain part of the state’s strategy.

The Michigan Economic Growth Authority this month awarded tax incentives to nine companies to come to the state or expand here.

They are Avon Protection Systems Inc. in Cadillac; Changan US Research and Development Center Inc. in Plymouth Township; Chemetall US Inc. in Jackson; Crain Communications Inc. in Detroit; Macomb Group in Sterling Heights; Macprofessionals Inc. in Novi; Martinrea Jonesville in Jonesville; MTU Detroit Diesel Inc. in Brownstown Township; and NU-VU Food Service Systems in Menominee.

“MEDC is trying to attract and help young people in school look forward to making career plans with growing Michigan companies,” Shore said.

Michigan is not the only state considering Snyder’s economic growth strategy. California, Florida, Colorado and Washington are exploring it as well, according to Fowler.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.


Filed under: Business

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