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

Michigan’s comeback tied to sustainable communities

Capital News Service

LANSING—Sustainable communities will be a hot topic in the next 50 years, according to a coalition of environmental groups.

That movement will include activities such as the East Stadium Bridges Improvement Project in Ann Arbor, a new master plan in Grand Traverse County and a job training plan in Southeast Michigan.

The long-term vision outlined by the Michigan Environmental Council includes energy, water, great cities, sustainable communities, transportation, agriculture and natural resources.

Sustainable communities are designed to minimize transportation costs, support local businesses and schools, eliminate waste and produce more local food and renewable energy, said Hugh McDiarmid, the council’s communications director.

Different regions will pursue their own ways to reach those goals, he said.

In Ann Arbor, the replacement of two East Stadium Boulevard bridges is the city’s priority project to build a sustainable community, according to Michael Nearing, the senior project manager.

The bridges, built in 1928, are one-quarter mile from University of Michigan’s football stadium and Crisler Arena and near a high school and two middle schools.

“The bridges are functionally obsolete and structurally deficient,” Nearing, a city engineer said. “They only have one lane in each direction.”

After replacement, the new bridges will have two lanes in each direction, plus bike lanes and wider sidewalks.

Construction of the $23 million project is scheduled to begin in October and be completed by November 2012, Nearing said. The project will help local business and better connect U-M and other schools with residential and commercial areas.

In Grand Traverse County, the sustainable community plan has four parts: a housing information inventory and analysis, a new county master plan, revitalization plans for five corridors and development of an affordable housing trust fund.

John Sych, the director of the county’s Planning and Development Department, said, “People want development to occur in rural places, so this project makes that happened. And this plan will provide affordable housing for people to live and work.

“The biggest challenge we face is to get support from everybody,” Sych said, because the citizens need to be convinced of the program’s value.

The project will be done within two years, he said.

Livingston, Macomb, Monroe, Oakland, St. Clair, Washtenaw and Wayne counties, which belong to the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), will implement a three-year sustainable community project.

Jennifer Evans, a senior planner with SEMCOG, said, “This project has three comprehensive issues, which focus on educating the workforce, stabilizing neighborhoods and providing livable communities, as well as protecting and restoring the environment.”

Components include job training for workers to transition to new jobs and careers, safe streets for all users – pedestrians, bicyclists, transit riders and motorists, more use of green resources and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, according to Evans.

As for difficulties of facing the project, she said, “Getting local communities to focus on the long view is an issue. What we need to do is bring people together.”

Elsewhere in the state, the Community Sustainability Partnership in Grand Rapids aims to restore environmental integrity, improve economic prosperity and promote social equity, according to the partnership.

In Marquette, the Sustainable Community Ad-Hoc Committee says it focuses on preserving the environment and cutting energy consumption.

In Muskegon, the sustainability of community is embodied in controlling urban sprawl, revitalizing urban centers and strengthening population centers, according to Muskegon Sustainability Coalition.

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

Filed under: Economy, Environment

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

Threat of foreclosure creates more “accidental landlords”

Capital News Service

LANSING—There’s no question that home ownership is down in Michigan. And property managers and the U.S. Census Bureau report the number of owners renting out their homes is up because of a poor housing market.

Jared Bundgaard, owner of Michigan Property Managers in Berkley, blames the trend in part on people losing jobs and moving out of state. Because homeowners can’t sell their property for as much as they paid, he said, they’re renting to have a better chance of recouping their investment.

He calls such individuals “accidental landlords.”

While living in another state and paying mortgages in Michigan, the homeowners are essentially going broke and are forced to rent out their house to avoid foreclosure, Bundgaard said.

“Homeowners have no other choice but to rent,” he said. “The only buying that’s going on is more or less investors and people looking for opportunities.”

Charles Ballard, a professor of economics at Michigan State University, said there are two main reasons that more people are becoming tenants rather than buying.

First, he said, lenders’ standards for issuing mortgage loans have gone up.

“Credit conditions are tighter than they were before,” Ballard said. “The meltdown of the credit market led to a recession, and that really hurt the labor market.”

Second, Ballard said, homeownership isn’t as appealing as in past.

“It’s lost some of its luster,” he said. “Renters have the advantage of not being tied down to that home.”

Michigan historically has had one of the highest rates of homeownership in the country. When ownership peaked nationally in 2004 at 69 percent, the state was at 77 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

But the number of homeowners in Michigan has dropped about 1 percent annually for the past five years, the agency said.

RealtyTrac reports that in October, one of every 235 Michigan homes was in foreclosure, while the national rate was one in 389.

Among the 10 counties with the most foreclosures were Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Genesee, Kent and Ingham, said RealtyTrac, a national online marketplace for foreclosed properties.

Meanwhile, the proportion of homes rented out has risen about 1 point each year, it said.

Property management companies attribute the change to more foreclosures in a rough housing market.

Kelly Pangburn, a broker for Pangburn Properties in Grant, said she’s seen an increase of clients seeking to rent out their property in the last six months.

Pangburn said she understands why they’re coming to her, although she normally doesn’t handle property management.

“They just don’t know where else to turn,” she said. “We don’t have a facility or some kind of website for someone to look up for rental property.”

Many owners want to rent their property either because they can’t sell it or because they can’t afford it, putting them on the verge of foreclosure, she said.

The Michigan Association of Realtors said home sales in October were down 23 percent from the same month last year.

“For the last two years, that’s when it started getting more intense,” Bundgaard said.

In the last month, about 20 people asked Bundgaard about renting their homes because they can’t sell them, a larger number than usual.

“It’s becoming more common today because their houses aren’t selling,” said Pangburn. “And if they are empty, they are considering renting.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Economy

Some say foreclosures can be good for economy

Capital News Service

LANSING – Foreclosure numbers are often used to show how poor an economy is, but stopping foreclosures, even temporarily, could undo the Michigan housing market’s progress, some experts say.

But other experts are calling for a halt in foreclosure practices while they are under scrutiny.

The state Mortgage Lenders Association and the Association of Realtors say that blocking or slowing foreclosures would make the housing situation worse for residents.

It would exacerbate problems that Michigan is already experiencing with falling home values and empty homes because lenders could no longer afford to make loans, said Murray Brown, legislative consultant for the Mortgage Lenders, based in Shelby Township.

“The supply of mortgage credit would dry up” if foreclosures were officially suspended, Brown said. That would make it harder to fund loans, causing home sales to plummet.

“Unless you are a portfolio lender, you wouldn’t have the available supply of funds from the markets to make the loans,” Brown said, and lenders would be unwilling to give mortgages during a moratorium.

“We would not support any kind of foreclosure moratorium,” said Brad Ward, director of public policy and legal affairs for the Association of Realtors.

“I think it would definitely halt the recovery that we are just starting to see in Michigan,” he said.

Unit sales are up and prices are just starting to stabilize, Ward said. Those developments influence a lender’s willingness to loan money.

“We don’t have as many of the concerns as other states,” he said of questionable foreclosure practices.

Attorney Gen. Mike Cox, and other state attorneys general are currently investigating mortgage foreclosure processes said, Joy Yearout of his communications office.

As a result of that inquiry, Gov. Jennifer Granholm is has called for lenders “to temporarily suspend foreclosures until the fraudulent activity has been investigated,” said Katie Carey of the governor’s communication office.

That investigation is helping Michigan because it is intended to reverse wrongful foreclosures, Carey said.

Ward said many lenders voluntarily stopped foreclosures temporarily when the lawsuit began, but have resumed them, Ward said.

Brown said, “The improprieties that have been highlighted nationally have not been highlighted in Michigan because Michigan has a different system of foreclosure.”

Michigan has a six-month redemption period, which most other states don’t have, Brown said. That gives homeowners time to sell their house or get financial assistance to keep their property.

“We did pass legislation that imposed a pause in the process of 90 days to allow people to meet with their lender to work out a modification of the loan,” Brown said.

The goal of the legislation was to keep people in their homes, Brown said. It had some success, but not as much as lenders would have liked.

“Many people did not opt to request mediation with their lender,” he said. “When they did opt to meet with their lender, they did not supply the proper documentation to make it possible for the lender to modify the loan.”

Carey said new legislation has been proposed that would stop foreclosures unless the lender participates in the Michigan State Housing Development Authority’s (MSHDA) Help for Hardest Hit program.

The state program can distribute up to about $500 million in federal funds to help homeowners and is projected to benefit more than 49,000 households with payment assistance and principle reductions, MSHDA said. Eligible homeowners must be receiving unemployment compensation or unable to afford their payments because of reduced income.

However, the Legislature won’t act on the proposal this year, said Callie Collins, chief of staff for Sen. Tupac Hunter, D-Detroit, one of the lead sponsors.

The Mortgage Lenders’ Brown said many states have a process where lenders and borrowers try to work something out to avoid foreclosure. In many cases the lender doesn’t want the home in foreclosure because that means bigger losses, he added.

That approach would be a more effective than the legislation because borrowers would better understand their options and the lender’s position, Brown said.

“The foreclosure process is very costly for the lender and the homeowner,” he added.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Economy

Small businesses dive into online pool

Capital News Service

LANSING – When Ryann Lambay, owner of the Grand Rapids boutique Lamb, decided to feature a selection of her store’s products online two years ago, she intended it mainly as a tool to inform customers.

Now, Lambay estimates that close to 30 percent of this year’s sales came from the online store, which features less than one-third of Lamb’s merchandise.

“I never expected it to be this popular,” she said, adding that many of her Internet shoppers are from the Grand Rapids area and live close to the actual store.

“People want to shop local but don’t always have the time to. Now the convenience factor is very high,” Lambay said. “A lot of orders come in Sunday at 11 p.m. People come home from work, unwind and want to shop.”

Tom Scott, senior vice president of communications and marketing for the Michigan Retailers Association, said more local retailers do business online because they realize that customers want to shop from the comfort of their own homes.

“It’s almost become a given that if you’re in business, you need to have an online presence,” he said.

Michael Rogers, vice president of communications for the Small Business Association of Michigan, said while it may be tricky for small businesses to balance the cost of starting an online business against potential success, it’s a booming arena.

As a tourist state, it’s likely that specialty retailers selling gifts, handcrafted items or unique Michigan products succeed with online sales, he said.

“A lot of tourists come here in the summer and then want to re-buy products later in the year. It’s a way for small businesses to supplement their summer sales,” Rogers said, adding that it’s a trend among food suppliers such as American Spoon Foods in Petoskey and Cherry Republic, which has stores in Traverse City, Glen Arbor and Charlevoix.

But an online store may not benefit all types of businesses, Rogers said, noting that small hardware suppliers would have difficulty competing with Home Depot’s online store.

Scott said that retailers expanding to online sales may encounter barriers such as technology, shipping and finding the time to manage the site.

“The big problem they face is being able to make the time to put the resources into an online presence. One retailer said that having a website is like having another store, which it basically is,” Scott said.

April McCrumb, owner of Catching Fireflies, a gift shop in Rochester and Berkley, said she expects her online business to outsell one of the brick-and-mortar stores within the next year.

Since bringing her boutique online, Lambay hired another employee who spends six or seven hours each week on website maintenance.

Jay Fowler, executive director of the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority, said even with the online success of local retailers, Internet shouldn’t hurt downtown businesses.

“It expands their sales,” Fowler said. “These smaller businesses have an opportunity to be aggressive and online.”

Scott agreed that a strong online store promotes the physical store, and the two venues “reinforce each other.”

Yet online shoppers expect the same level of customer service they receive at the local, family-owned store.

“Customers enjoy being able to buy something on the Internet and pick it up at the store the next day, or return it directly to the store instead of shipping it back,” Scott said.

Lambay said her store ships products within 24 hours of an online order, and unless an order is placed in the middle of the night, the customer will receive a thank you e-mail and status update within three hours of the sale.

Besides working out kinks along the way, Lambay’s advice to boutiques looking to enter the Internet is to start small.

“It took a little bit to get into the groove of things,” she said. “But it’s definitely better this year.”


Filed under: Economy

Home energy loans offered in 36 counties

Capital News Service

LANSING—Homeowners can save money this winter with help from a new program that makes loans to increase energy efficiency.

Since September, the Michigan Saves Home Energy Loan Program has approved 50 loans for energy improvements, said operations manager Laura James.

Eligible improvements include replacing windows, adding programmable thermostats, installing furnaces and replacing faulty heating systems.

Participating contractors are also pre-approved by Michigan Saves.

The home improvement loans are available in 36 counties, including Allegan, Macomb, Clare, Lapeer, Montcalm, Gladwin and Ottawa.

“Our primary goals are to make energy savings sustainable over the long term and provide local jobs to Michigan contractors,” she said.

Loans range from $1,000 to $12,500. So far, the average is about $6,500, James said.

The program was initially financed through the Public Service Commission’s (PSC) Low Income and Energy Efficiency Fund, but has since received four additional grants. The home loan program was allocated $3.4 million, James said.

James said the money will keep building because repayments cycle back into the program.

She said the improvements generally pay for themselves through savings on energy bills within five to 10 years.

Judy Palnau, media and public information specialist at the PSC, said it’s too early to tell how much money participants will save, but it will lower their bills.

The cost per unit of heating energy is expected to be lower this winter than last. But Palnau said it’s expected to be slightly colder. That means the demand for heat might be higher, costing homeowners more than last year.

According to Palnau, about 80 percent of homes in the state are heated with natural gas.

However, she said Michigan uses propane for heating homes more than any other state, which can get costly.

The state used 372.6 million gallons of propane last year, down 5.8 percent from 2008. But propane prices are projected to be up from last year, she said.

Overall, Palnau added, homeowners will likely to pay the same or slightly more for heating than last year.

Before the loan program, the state already offered some incentives to get rid of inefficient appliances, Palnau said.

Michigan Saves hopes to lower the costs and need for new energy sources.

“The real benefit here is that you’re delaying the need for additional electric generation and delaying building new power plants,” she said.

“People are overpaying,” said Andy Knaut, energy auditor for Home Energy Answers in Grand Rapids. “It’s not just the cost of energy, it’s the homes.”

Home Energy Answers is one of the contractors approved to work on projects in seven counties including Montcalm, Allegan and Ottawa.

Knaut said so far he hasn’t done any work for Michigan Saves.

“It’s a good program, but it’s part of an industry that’s very slow in getting going,” he said. “There has to be better marketing.”

James said loans aren’t available everywhere in the state is because the limited coverage of banks involved with Michigan Saves, but the program intends to expand statewide.

James also said a loan program for businesses to improve energy efficiency is in the works for next year.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Economy

Shoppers challenged to head downtown

Capital News Service

LANSING – With the start of the holiday season, small businesses across the state are coming together to get their piece of the holiday spending pie.

Holiday spending “continues to be a really crucial part of making a profit for the entire year,” said Michael Rogers, vice president of communication for the Small Business Association of Michigan (SBAM).

Tom Scott, vice president of communications for the Michigan Retailers Association, said, “Industry-wide, it probably accounts for about 20 percent of sales for the year.”

For retailers that sell merchandise such as toys, games and gifts, that percentage could be as high as 40 percent, Scott said.

That’s why SBAM, Michigan Municipal League, Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA) and downtowns are participating in a program called the “ShopMIDowntown Holiday Challenge,” Rogers said.

The program encourages shoppers to do 75 percent of their holiday gift shopping in their own downtowns rather than in big stores, malls or online, he said.

The idea came from Sparta, which challenged its residents to do all their holiday shopping there this season, said Joe Borgstrom, director of the STARS revitalization division of MSHDA.

“Eighty-five to 95 percent of downtown businesses are independently and locally owned,” Borgstrom said. “We’re hoping to raise their awareness.”

Shoppers who post a picture or video of themselves shopping at downtown businesses are automatically entered into a drawing for a free overnight stay at one of five Main Street establishments, MSHDA said. Participants are the Doherty Hotel in Clare, Ramsdell Inn in Manistee, National House Inn in Marshall, Water Street Inn in Boyne City and Courtland Carriage House Bed & Breakfast in Hart.

The challenge lasts until Dec. 31, Borgstrom said. So far, it has 784 fans on Facebook, and 83 photos were submitted as of Nov. 22.

“We’re huge fans of downtown,” said John Hankerd, chair of the Owosso Main Street Board and a small business owner himself. “We try to shop locally.

“We understand you can’t find everything downtown, but we try to do that first,” he said.

Holiday spending can make or break some downtown businesses, Hankerd said. Some merchants have already gotten comments about the challenge, but a lack of awareness about the program has impaired shopper participation.

That’s why Hankerd’s business printed shirts for downtown merchants, he said.

SBAM’s Rogers said, “Shoppers are looking for interesting and rewarding holiday experiences. You don’t get that online at Amazon or fighting the crowds.

“What we’re hearing from small businesses across the state is that they are cautiously optimistic about this holiday season,” Rogers added.

Businesses are working together to provide decorating, advertising and billboards to raise awareness, he said. They want people to remember that there are a lot of local stores.

Owosso’s Hankerd said about 50 businesses downtown wired the Christmas lights on their storefronts together for a nightly light show. Stores stay open later to draw people who come to see the show, he added.

“They’re all very optimistic,” Hankerd said. “They’re expecting to be up 10 percent from last year.”

The Retailers’ Tom Scott said “Fifty-eight percent expect a better holiday season than last year.”

Averaged among all retailers’ projections, sales should increase about 6 percent this season, Scott said.

“We haven’t seen a number like that since 2004,” he said.

A strong holiday season also means more revenue for the state from sales tax, said Terry Stanton, public information officer for the Department of Treasury.

“We always go into a holiday season looking for strong results,” he said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.



Filed under: Economy

Web-based directories promote local buying

Capital News Service

LANSING—Some small businesses are doing more than just rolling with the punches of the economy—they’re stimulating it by encouraging potential customers and clients to buy locally.

An Oregon-based company is helping some of them in Michigan with local promotions, thus shoving tax dollars back into the pockets of locals.

“A significant amount of people that don’t understand that when you go do business somewhere else, it funds those schools,” said Geof Schuetz, owner of RelyLocal Rochester. “I just think it’s important that we try and keep as much as possible local within our community. “

Schuetz launched his RelyLocal branch around October.

It’s also more cost-efficient for businesses than advertising in the Yellow Pages, since Yellow Pages cost $500-20,000 a year and RelyLocal costs only $300 a year, according to the RelyLocal website.

It may look like a directory at first glance, but Ken Whitinger, owner of RelyLocal Lansing, said it’s much more than that.

Local-only businesses not only get a directory page, but can also post pictures, menus, coupons and branch off to social media like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

Whitinger said he promotes RelyLocal Lansing through networking, but mostly through social media.

“The big companies are putting money into marketing to promote their brand,” said Whitinger. “It’s a good thing for small people to do that too.”

Michael Rogers, vice president of communications for the Small Business Association of Michigan, said small businesses struggle with the need for marketing skills and promotions.

“Big companies, they have huge national marketing budgets,” he said. “That’s a huge hurdle for small businesses.”

Whitinger started his branch last February. He said he’s the first he knows to start a site promoting local business in Michigan and so far he’s seen results.

In April, he said, RelyLocal had just 100 hits, but in October, the site saw between 12-and-13,000 hits. Fifty-eight percent of those hits were from people returning to the site.

“It takes a few months to get yourself set up,” Schuetz said. “You can’t get the website going until you have 100 businesses on board.”

To open a RelyLocal branch, it must be registered with the state and with search engines. Schuetz is registered with 10 search engines, he said, and search engines alone are bringing in potential customers to listed Rochester businesses.

“We’re not doing anything but people are clicking the site,” he said. “We’ve gotten 70 hits in two weeks and we haven’t even gotten our marketing started.”

RelyLocal also offers job listings. Whitinger said job listings within a 40-mile radius of Lansing are on his website.

Rogers said the main reason small businesses are important is because they help create jobs.

“It’s really fantastic news when GM adds 600 jobs, but it gets a lot more attention than a lot of small businesses each adding a small number of jobs,” he said. “If 60 small businesses add 10 jobs a piece, that’s still 600 jobs.”

Schuetz said the Rochester area alone has 25,000 jobs available.

“It’s just another effort of somebody trying to spark the economy,” said Steve Eieff, a roofing contractor for Elieff Brothers Roofing Inc., who pays for a page in RelyLocal Lansing. “I really think that small business is going to be what’s pulling us out of this.”

Elieff not only encourages people to buy local but also buys local for his business.

“As a consumer and a businessperson, it’s important to keep money here, he said. “I try to lead by example.”

But RelyLocal doesn’t work for every community.

For example, Whitinger said a business owner tried to open a one in Coldwater, but wasn’t able to find enough businesses to be on board because residents already shop locally.

“Buying from big business doesn’t happen as much in less populated areas of Michigan,” he said.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Filed under: Economy

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