Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Historic barns lure tourists, build economy


Capital News Service

LANSING — Preserving historic barns does more than maintain the beauty of the state’s rural landscape — it has economic benefits as well, preservation experts say.

Steve Stier, president of the Michigan Barn Preservation Network, a Mount Pleasant-based advocacy group, said barn preservation adds to the economy because it often creates new businesses, agritourism destinations and jobs.

The organization promotes the rehabilitation of old farm buildings for agricultural and other uses.

Stier said that since most historic barns require a lot of expensive upkeep, the network encourages an entrepreneurial spirit so owners think of new uses for their buildings and ways that their barns could generate revenue to cover maintenance costs.

“We’ve had barns converted to all sorts of different uses from churches to homes to feed stores to rental buildings where people can have weddings,” he said.

He said that while non-traditional uses for old barns such as office space conversion are popular, many historic barns are still used for their original purposes on farms.

He said that with increased interest in local food sources, wineries and agricultural practices, farms no longer exist solely to produce crops or raise animals, but as an educational resource for people who don’t live in rural areas.


“It’s an attraction because folks from the city bring their kids to the farm to see how agriculture and their food is actually produced,” he said.

That interest in agricultural practices has promoted a number of innovative agritourism destinations across the state, said Amy Seng, director of the Ludington Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

She said people like to experience things, so embracing the experience of a community’s agricultural assets is important.

For the past three years, the agricultural heritage of old barns has been showcased in the Barns & Byways Tour. Participants visit a number of historic barns in the Mason County area.

Seng said the event has been a success, which she attributes not only to its 400 average participants but also to barn owners.

“The barn owners are very open and they’re very excited and passionate about showing their property and their barn. Whenever that happens, the passion alone helps the success of the event,” she said.

A similar passion among owners in other counties has led to the success of another type of agritourism destination that celebrates rural lifestyle and historic barns — quilt barn trails.

A quilt barn trail is a leisurely touring excursion that self-guides visitors to barns throughout a region.

A quilt barn is distinguished by a large wooden block painted to resemble a traditional quilt pattern and mounted on the side of the structure.

The first quilt barn trail was created 10 years ago in Ohio, according to Cindi Van Hurk, vice president of the Alcona County Quilt Trail, the first in Michigan.

Since then, trails in the Old Mission Peninsula near Traverse City and Osceola County have been established.

Evelyn Johnson, creator of the Quilt Barn Trail of Old Mission Peninsula and author of Barns of Old Mission Peninsula (Eladybug Publications), said there’s no financial incentive for owners to participate in the program, but they do so out of passion.

“Sometimes it’s kind of a pain when people are driving in their yards to look at their quilt, but they love it. They’re all extremely glad that they’ve got this and are just plain proud of it,” she said.

Both Johnson and Van Hurk said there’s no way to count how many visitors tour self-guided trails, so the only way the can measure the trails success is by the number of maps printed.

Johnson recently printed 10,000 maps for the Old Mission Peninsula Trail and Van Hurk said the Alcona County Quilt Trail ordered 3,000 brochures and they plan to order another 3,000 this year.

Considering the volume of brochures distributed and the number of positive reactions, Johnson predicted that barn quilt trails will grow in popularity.

Stier agreed and said the emphasis on showcasing barns will have positive impacts on heritage preservation and the economy.

“In these times people, want to think about things that are more simplistic and more back-to-the-earth and having the simple life. The farmsteads and barns represent that, so I think more people are inclined to give that more thought,” he said.

He added that agritourism events benefit small economies by inspiring owners to fix their barns, which requires hiring people and buying materials.

Van Hurk also said that while the trails increase awareness of agricultural preservation heritage, benefits for local economies are just as good, if not better.

“We have businesses on the trail — we have one place that was a honey farm and the owner said it’s been terrific for her business.

“One of the goals was to promote small businesses along the way, and it’s worked very well. We’re pretty pleased,” she said.


Filed under: Economy

Volunteers called to find plant invaders, sturgeon poachers


Volunteers called to find plant invaders, sturgeon poachers

Capital News Service

Lake Sturgeon, Credit: DNR

LANSING — It sounds like an exotic, almost-always fresh seasoning or must-have condiment with bright green heart-shaped rosettes and beautiful white flowers.

So garlic mustard must be a delight.

Not. It’s an unwanted spring beauty and officials want it stamped out of state parks and recreation areas because the non-native invader thwarts the growth of Michigan’s treasured diversity of native wildflowers.

The Department of Natural Resources is urging park visitors to look for and report the weed so employees and volunteers can uproot and eradicate it.

The worst hit areas are in Southeast Michigan, according to DNR officials.

“It’s crucial that we find invasive plants when they first arrive,” said Ray Fahlsing, DNR Parks and Recreation stewardship unit manager. “If we respond rapidly with control measures, we may be able to eliminate the invasive plant before it damages wildflowers and other natural resources.”

DNR’s enemies’ list also includes Japanese knotweed and black swallow wort.

Garlic mustard is described as an “early riser.” Its low-lying leaves take advantage of the first rays of spring sunlight after snows melt to flourish ahead of other plants in the woods.

And it’s highly adaptable.

The alien species was brought to the U.S. by European settlers as an herb and is spreading across the continent at a rate of 2,471 square miles per year – an area 10 times the size of Toronto, according to the Nature Conservancy.

It produces many seeds which remain viable for five to 10 years, has no known natural predators and excretes a chemical from its roots that prevents other plants from developing.

“We do have a lot of park visitors who are concerned about nature conservation, and it makes sense to tap that interest,” said Lindsay Ross, a DNR steward assistant. “Visitors also get to see areas of the parks we don’t get to see.”

A number of environmental organizations are enlisting the public’s help to protect native species and get rid of suspicious invasive ones.

For example, Sturgeon for Tomorrow, based in Cheboygan, is committed to the survival and repopulation of the threatened lake sturgeon.

Since 1999, from late April through May, the group has collaborated with volunteers to guard the fish while it spawns along the shorelines of Cheboygan County’s Black River.

Garlic Mustard, Credit: Steve Mayer

“We can always use extra eyes and ears to guard the fish along the 6-mile stretch of the river,” said Brenda Archambo, president of the group’s Michigan chapter.

Any fish that needs up to 20 years to reach sexual maturity and reproduces only once every four years is in danger of population decline or extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warns.

In 2009, a Grand Rapids man was jailed for 30 days, ordered to perform 50 hours of public service with the DNR and fined $2,298, after witnesses took cell phone photos of him hooking a sturgeon by the tail and dragging it to a waiting pick-up truck.

The incident occurred on the Grand River in Grand Rapids.

Overfishing and loss of critical habitat have reduced the population of the Great Lakes giant which can grow to up to 300 pounds and nine feet long.

Archambo said that, together with Michigan State University researchers, the sturgeon watch group has noticed a growing number of younger lake sturgeons since it started the vigil, “a good sign for its mission,” she said.

The sturgeon briefly leave their home in Black Lake to spawn in the Black River, which is clear and shallow, making them vulnerable to poachers who sell them on the black market.

Sturgeon caviar is the most expensive and is commercially sold worldwide as a delicacy.

Volunteers are usually campers or people visiting the area for the day or working in shifts at the river.

Volunteers are provided with cell phones and instructed to call and report to DNR enforcement personnel or the group’s conservation officers if they spot someone fishing.

“We don’t expect our volunteers to try and stop the poachers. We just expect them to report to our law enforcement officers,” Archambo said.

When it comes to invasive plants, DNR is asking park visitors to report suspicious plants by filling out an Unwanted Plants Detection Card or mark the location on a visitor map.

DNR predicts more reports this year than in the past.

“Last year we received several post cards – about 15 via mail – and about a hundred reports through our website,” said Laurel Malvitz-Draper, volunteer coordinator for DNR’s Southeast parks.

“It’s hard to keep an inventory of such species in every single area of every single park in the state,” she said. “We can always use park visitors – there’s a lot more of them in our parks than are our employees.”

Filed under: Environment

Small businesses face borrowing barriers


Capital News Service

LANSING—Michigan wants to rely on small businesses to rebuild its economy, but since the financial crisis, it is much harder for small businesses to borrow from banks, according to a new Michigan State University study.

The report by J.D. Snyder at the MSU Center for Community and Economic Development showed that the number of small business loans under $100,000 dropped nearly 20 percent between 2007 and 2010 in Northern Lower Michigan.

Snyder said although the study looked at a 21-county region, it’s relevant to all rural areas in the state.

Startup companies and small businesses have suffered the most from reduced access to credit because they rely on loans to hire people and expand, he said.

Michael Rogers, vice president for communications at the Small Business Association of Michigan, said it is difficult for some small businesses to borrow money, so the association provides information about loans.

“We give them some magazines and websites to make them familiar with how to apply,” Rogers said, “and we also talk with the credit union industry and bank industry and hope they can increase the chances for small businesses.”

He said the association encourages small business to apply for loans and wants banks to simplify the application process and reduce paperwork.

Sridhar Sundaram, a finance professor at Grand Valley State University, said, “Part of what happened in 2008 was the economy went down and business became more risky, especially small business which is exposed to lower revenues.”

When talking about banks tightening the restrictions on loans, he said, “Banks are under pressure themselves.”

Sundaram said banks suddenly found themselves holding bad loans because the value of real estate went down and owners could not afford their loan payments.

On the one hand, banks saw some of loans were not being paid so they were under pressure to tighten the standards, he said.

On the other hand, banks are looking to see how they can protect their loans.

“There should be more funds available for small business,” he said. “The only solution for developing the small business while preventing banks from going back into crisis is that either government or other groups guarantee the funds that the banks gave to small businesses.

“It is a difficult and controversial program because it is risky,” Sundaram said.

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) provides loan guarantees.

Allen Cook, an assistant district director at the SBA in Detroit, said the agency plays an important role for people who want to finance or grow their business. SBA provides a guarantee to banks or credit unions to show the small business will repay the loan as promised.

Cook said SBA has several loan programs.

• 7(a) program: It provides financial help for businesses that handle exports to foreign countries, operate in rural areas and meet other requirements.

• Microloan program: It provides small, short-term loans to small businesses.

• 504 program: It encourages the development of community-based small businesses.

Michigan also has business resource centers in Macomb, Jackson, Alpena, Grand Traverse and Marquette counties that aim to help small businesses get more access to loans.


Filed under: Business

Record number of school districts have expired labor contracts


Capital News Service

LANSING – About a third of public school districts have teachers, office personnel, maintenance staff or custodians working without contracts.

Workers at one Genesee County district have been without a contract for almost eight years, and contracts expired in 2005 or 2007 in two Wayne County districts.

And in the Upper Peninsula, the teachers’ contracts with Chassell Township Schools ran out in August 2008.

With the struggling economy, many contracts last only one year rather than two or three years as in the past, said Rosemary Carey, Michigan Education Association (MEA) communications consultant.

The MEA is the state’s largest union of school employees.

Most agreements go unsettled because of disputes over salary and benefits and uncertainty about upcoming budget cuts and state aid, Carey said.

“Now we’re in a limbo until the governor and legislators complete the state budget. Unsettled contracts are primarily based on uncertainty of funding for the districts,” Carey said.

And when bargaining drags on, it doesn’t mean it’s an ugly dispute – it means the parties are still meeting, she said.

According to the MEA, non-teaching staff in the Beecher Community School District near Flint have worked without a contract since 2003.

It’s been more than a year since contracts expired in the East Jackson, Harper Woods, Redford Union, Richmond, Royal Oak, Trenton, Flint and Woodhaven districts, the union said.

Todd Biederwolf, superintendent of the Harper Woods School District said the two sides have settled every contract except for the teaching staff.

Historically, districts received an increase in revenue to cover rising health and transportation costs, but funding has declined in the past few years, so districts need to reduce personnel costs, he said.

Biederwolf said he is confident that his district’s teachers remain professional and dedicated in the classroom, with or without a contract, although he said some have stopped attending evening events they were never required to support but had.

He said contracts are still being negotiated in good faith so teachers can plan accordingly.

The MEA’s Carey said the lack of labor agreements hasn’t changed instruction for the most part.

She said, for example, students and parents walking into a classroom wouldn’t know that more than 300 Woodhaven teachers have gone without a contract since 2007.

No one wants to work without a contract because there is so much insecurity, but the effects vary throughout the districts, Carey said.

It hurts the teachers, parents, staff, everyone. Teachers don’t know whether they’ll have a job or not.

“It means kids are placed in classrooms of 40 rather than 30 students. There may not be enough money for essential resources such as books. Everything in schools impacts student education” she said.

Carey said school employees continue to work because they’re professionals on a mission to ensure good education, adding, “it’s amazing what people do because they care about the kids.”

Tom White is the Michigan Association of School Board associate director of labor relations. The organization advises and assists school districts in collective bargaining.

He said more districts than ever before have unsettled contracts, but most old contracts have provisions that allow the districts to carry forward until negotiations are done.

Common unsettled issues include health care and increased salaries.

White said 60 percent of teachers pay some portion of their health insurance, but when insurance premiums increase, so do costs for districts if contracts aren’t updated.

About 30 to 40 percent of districts in northern Michigan have dollar cap on how much they pay for health insurance, he said. In West Michigan, many districts have no cap and must pay more when insurance and other benefits increase.

White said health benefits, raises and the economy make it tough for unions and management to agree. And that can create tension between school boards and superintendents on one side and school employees on the other.

White said some districts report a decline in morale that negatively impacts teachers.

“For me, if we don’t settle a contract, it can be an issue that affects the ability to run our schools,” White said.


Filed under: Education

Let local governments charge sales tax, lawmaker says


Capital News Service

LANSING – Amid a political environment hostile to new taxes, a proposed constitutional amendment would give local governments the ability to charge their own sales tax on top the state’s 6 percent.

If the Legislature passes the proposal, it would go to voters statewide for approval or rejection.

The idea has sparked sharp criticism from the Michigan Retailers Association but garnered support from a group representing cities and villages.

The sponsor of the resolution, Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Detroit, said a local sales tax could help fund a regional mass transit system for Metro Detroit and increase the chance of federal loans for future mass transit projects.

“To get these funds, the local government needs to show it can match the amount of money coming from the federal government. This would be a useful tool for raising that money,” Johnson said.

That money would come through a 1998 federal law requiring a “dedicated revenue source to pledge as repayment on the loan” for transportation projects costing at least $50 million.

The constitutional amendment would give the option to cities, villages, counties and regional authorities and would cap any local tax at 4 percent. Local voters would need to approve the new tax.

Although the proposal would not limit the sales tax to transit projects, the local ballot question would need to specify how the money would be used.

According to Johnson, cities like Denver and New York have received federal aid for mass transit by instituting a local sales tax.

The general sales tax in Denver is 3.6 percent while the state sales tax in Colorado is 2.9 percent.

Johnson said he isn’t worried about possible negative effects on businesses that may come from a higher sales tax.

“I think small businesses understand the importance of having a mass transit system. If more people are able to get to the cities, more money will be spent at local businesses,” Johnson said.

He also said he is confident that a slightly higher sales tax wouldn’t dissuade people from visiting or shopping in cities like Detroit and that investing the extra revenue in mass transit would make it less expensive to travel to downtowns.

“Places like the Fox Theatre or Joe Louis Arena would still be attractive places to go, even if it costs a little more. If we can show that it would be a few more pennies spent in exchange for leaving the car at home, people would see it as a positive,” Johnson said, adding that people would save money on driving expenses like gas and parking.

But Jim Hallan, president of the Michigan Retailers Association, said he’s firmly against higher sales taxes.

“I am absolutely opposed to this. It makes no sense and I don’t see the rationale for increasing the sales tax,” Hallan said.

He said retailers would suffer from having to collect a higher sales tax and it could mean shoppers would take their money elsewhere.

“Not only would it be hard for store operators to manage, but consumers would just go to places with a lower sales tax,” Hallan said.

He said there are other ways for cities to increase revenue and that the sales tax should be left to the state government.

“Putting a sales tax on Internet-based companies is one idea. A statewide sales tax is already in place and that’s high enough,” Hallan said.

Summer Minnick, director of state affairs at the Michigan Municipal League, an advocacy group for local governments based in Ann Arbor, said she favors a local sales tax as an option.

“We support this idea as a way to give local governments a chance to generate revenue. There is a lot less money coming in now than there used to be,” Minnick said.

According to Minnick, declining property tax revenue and revenue sharing from the state have put municipalities in a precarious position.

“A local sales tax would help. It’s not the only answer but it’s definitely part of the solution,” Minnick said.

Minnick also said a local sales tax has worked for many cities around the country and hasn’t discouraged consumers.

“Places like Chicago have this and plenty of people still go there. People don’t shy away from places just because they have higher sales tax,” Minnick said.

Thirty-three states allow cities to charge a local sales tax, including Illinois and Ohio.

However, Minnick acknowledged that the tax wouldn’t work for every community and could lead to inequality among cities.

“It depends on what kinds of industry a community depends on. It may not work in industrial cities that don’t depend as much on commercial enterprises, which could lead to some disparities,” Minnick said.

Johnson’s resolution is pending in the Senate Finance Committee.

Filed under: Uncategorized

Trumpeter swans surge back, face mute swan challenges


Capital News Service

Credit: FWS

LANSING – Is it time to break out the brass band because trumpeter swans are surging back.

A 2005 Michigan survey, counted only 500, but wildlife experts say numbers are increasing.

Early settlers hunted the birds nearly to extinction in the 1800s — using them to make powder puffs and feathered hats. But lack of exact records makes it impossible to reliably estimate the original population.

Those settlers exported hundreds of thousands of carcasses, said Larry Gillette, wildlife manager of Minnesota’s Three Rivers Park District, where a successful restoration program started with five swans in 1973.

Standing up to 4-feet tall with an up-to-8-foot wingspan, trumpeter swans are the largest waterfowl in North America.

Their Great Lakes range includes neighboring Wisconsin, Ohio and Ontario, as well as New York and Minnesota.

There’s new evidence of the trumpeter come-back.

Preliminary results of a 2010 survey of Midwest states – from South Dakota to New York – are expected to yield 8,000 birds, said Joe Johnson, chief wildlife biologist emeritus of Michigan State University’s Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, who is compiling the findings.

The heart of their population is in the Great Lakes states, Ontario and Iowa, Johnson said, and numbers vary dramatically. For example, an early January survey tallied more than 5,000 migrating swans in Minnesota, but experts put the actual number at nearly 6,000 by taking migrating birds into account.

Yet the trumpeters’ continued resurgence faces a number of challenges, including competition in the natural world and habitat destruction.

In February, the Michigan Natural Resources Commission voted 3 to 2 to make it illegal to rehabilitate the invasive mute swan, a major rival of the trumpeter.

Johnson said mute swans were deliberately brought to the state “as ornamental birds, and they got away from us.”

The overpopulated invasive mutes compete with the trumpeters by taking up preferred nesting spots and bullying them, according to some experts.

A Department of Natural Resources and Environment report to the commission described the mutes as “voracious feeders, which has resulted in the disturbance and destruction of submerged aquatic vegetation, a valuable food source for native waterfowl and other wetland species,” including trumpeters, loons and Canada geese.

The report also cited state efforts to reduce the number of mutes, including egg and nest destruction.

Dave Sherman, a wildlife biologist at the Ohio Division of Wildlife, said, “They’re a definitely a problem and we’re trying to minimize their impact on the trumpeter’s success.”

However, MSU’s Johnson said the relationship between the two species is the other way around: “My experience has been that the trumpeter swans dominate the mute swan.”

In Michigan, Johnson said, trumpeters are intentionally released where no or few mute swans are present.

Another impediment is lack of sufficient trumpeter habitat – mainly wetlands.

Sherman said Ohio has lost 90 percent of its wetlands, limiting the swans that usually like large territories to themselves.

“We found that the birds are fairly adaptable and we’ve seen them in wetlands that are less than 20 acres,” he said, indicating they’ve adapted to the limited amount of suitable habitat in Ohio.

Ohio has listed the bird as endangered since 1996 and has about 150 to 200 trumpetersnow, including 30 nesting pairs, Sherman said.

Alice Rossignol writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Filed under: Environment

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