Meeting Watch: County Board (6 Nov 2008)

Post-election working session focused on economic development

At their Nov. 6 working session, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners heard from leaders of the Detroit Region Aerotropolis initiative, the Ann Arbor Community Success project and Ann Arbor Spark, who all gave reports about their efforts to bring jobs to this area and who laid the groundwork to ask for funding and resources from the county.

Detroit Region Aerotropolis

First up was Wayne County executive Bob Ficano, one of the leaders for the aerotropolis project. Ficano is hoping Washtenaw County will sign on as a partner to help create the Aerotropolis Development Corp. (ADC). The county would pay $150,000 to become a member – a decision the board will make at a future board meeting.

The project is a push to develop the areas surrounding Detroit Metro and Willow Run airports. The corridor between the two airports, which includes parts of eastern Washtenaw County, would become a transportation hub, attracting businesses that rely on air travel and transport. The goal is to create as many as 64,000 jobs on roughly 5,000 acres. Ficano hopes to launch the ADC early next year, and anticipates needing a first-year operating budget of $1 million.

Questioning by commissioners revealed their concern about how the ADC would generate revenues after its initial startup phase. Some said they were generally supportive of the project, but worried that the $150,000 fee would be increased each year. Ficano and his staff said they eventually expect tax revenues to be the main source of income. They plan to set up a Local Development Finance Authority (LDFA), which captures taxes from new business development.

Community Success Project

Tony VanDerworp, director of planning and environment for the county, is one of the leaders for the Community Success initiative, a group that’s developing a strategy for coordinated economic development in this region. (More information about this effort, including a list of the roughly 70 people involved, is on the group’s website. The project is also referred to as Ann Arbor Region Success.) The broad goals are to create jobs, build a tax base that would fund community services, and bring support for the arts and social services.

Also at the meeting to talk with commissioners were Rick Snyder, a local venture capitalist who chairs Ann Arbor Spark’s board of directors, and Rich Sheridan, president of Menlo Innovations and a private-sector leader of the Community Success project. Sheridan said that although negative economic news is garnering headlines, his company and others he’s aware of are actually growing. The goal is to foster companies that are innovative, either in products or services. Sheridan cited Health Media as a great example of this kind of company – they were recently acquired by Johnson & Johnson, but are expected to stay in Ann Arbor and add jobs.

Sheridan talked about some of the things this community needs to do to attract and retain these kinds of companies: strengthen the educational system from early childhood through college, increase the amount and quality of workforce housing in urban centers, build a regional transit system, provide business support such as funding for business incubators or access to loans and grants, and attract and retain workers by mentoring young professionals and developing more “3rd places” such as nightclubs and recreational options (i.e. places to gather outside of home or work).

Snyder told the commissioners that the group was rolling out its strategy starting with this meeting, and would be speaking with other community groups and government entities in the coming weeks. He spoke about the importance of measuring their results, including jobs creation and the local unemployment rate as compared to the national rate. Each of the targeted areas needs a champion to further develop the action plan and make sure it’s implemented, he said. It’s a long-term process: “This is where you have to get that marathon runner approach.”

Regarding workforce housing, commissioner Leah Gunn said that often such projects are resisted by the same people each time something is proposed. She said it would be helpful if young people who actually wanted this kind of housing could make their views known. She also urged the Community Success leaders to be mindful of the needs of nonprofits in the community, and the services they might require.

Commissioner Jessica Ping asked if they were reaching out to the western part of the county. VanDerworp said they’d be meeting with groups in those areas, and that they recognized the importance of communities outside the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti core.

Ann Arbor Spark

Mike Finney, president of Ann Arbor Spark and another leader of the Community Success project, gave an update on his economic development agency’s work, which is funded in part by the county. Spark focuses on the industries of advanced automotive manufacturing and materials, aerospace engineering and manufacturing, “cleantech,” homeland security and defense, IT/software, life sciences, optics/measurement, and printing and publishing.

He said he’s been asked by state officials to be involved with responding to the current auto industry crisis, because of the model Spark developed when Pfizer announced it was closing its Ann Arbor research campus. He’s working on a white paper about “open source” economic development, a more collaborative approach that involves a broad range of community participation.

He described a new ad campaign being developed called “MichAgain,” which is focused on retaining and attracting talent. One print ad he brought as an example showed a large hand with logos from different companies – including Borders, Domino’s and Google – clustered in the southeast Michigan part of the palm. The text reads, in part, “Where are the up and comers going? Right back where you started from.” Finney estimated it would take $1 million over two to three years to fund the campaign. “We’ll be back to you looking for the first check,” he joked. He also showed commissioners a prototype of a marketing brochure designed to be customized by any community. He said the brochure is in response to calls for Spark to help market areas outside of Ann Arbor.

Finney described the funding that Spark receives from the county – $200,000 annually, plus another $50,000 for Spark East – as “pretty modest,” and said it and other funding from local governments was used to leverage $19 million in investments into the community. “I think that’s the kind of leverage you want to get on every dollar,” he said.

Commissioner Ken Schwartz asked for an update on Spark East, a business incubator project in downtown Ypsilanti on West Michigan Avenue. Finney said he’d just done a walkthrough the previous day and that he’s confident they’ll have the renovation work done by late December or early January. They’d like to open with an anchor tenant, and they’re actively looking for one now. He also noted that the building will have a classroom that will be used for EMU evening courses, which will increase pedestrian traffic in that area.

Commissioner Ronnie Peterson said that while all the presentations tonight were important, they didn’t go far enough in terms of collaboration. He urged the county administration to bring all groups in the community together to better share information and collaborate.

Jessica Ping asked Finney to address the recent news reports of a dispute between Spark and the Ann Arbor LDFA resulting from an independent audit of Spark. [Background: Mike Reid, who served on the LDFA board until Oct. 7, resigned from that body citing his dissent over "recent LDFA board decisions that refused to demand immediate repayment for known instances of overbilling, instances where contemporaneous time records were never kept at all, and instances where employees or family members of employees were paid to consult for their own companies."]

The LDFA provides about $870,000 in funding for Spark. Finney said there was a disagreement about the terms of the contract between the two groups, and that Spark had submitted a recommendation to resolve the issue. He said they’d done nothing illegal or unethical, and that his team acted with great honesty and integrity. He did not want to talk about details of Spark’s recommendation to the LDFA until they’d seen and responded to it – the LDFA’s next meeting is Nov. 14.

Commissioner Mark Ouimet, who was chairing the working session, said that the LDFA audit had created a new level of interest in Spark and that people would be anxious to see the follow-up on it.

Congratulations to state House leaders

Finally, Conan Smith gave a shout-out to Democrats Kathy Angerer and Pam Byrnes, two state representatives from Washtenaw County who were recently elected to leadership positions in the House. Angerer is majority floor leader, and Byrnes is speaker pro tem. Smith’s wife, Rebekah Warren, and mother, Alma Wheeler Smith, are also state representatives, both re-elected on Nov. 4.

Present: Leah Gunn, Mark Ouimet, Ronnie Peterson, Jessica Ping, Karen Lovejoy Roe, Ken Schwartz, Conan Smith

Absent: Barbara Levin Bergman, Mandy Grewal, Jeff “New Daddy” Irwin, Rolland Sizemore Jr.


  1. By Jeff Irwin
    November 11, 2008 at 1:31 pm | permalink

    I was disappointed to miss this meeting because of the wealth of important topics on the agenda. However, at that time I was completely enthralled by my new baby girl, Sylvia Lynn Loomis Irwin. She was born that morning, 11-6-08 at 11:25am. Mother and baby are doing great! I am SO THRILLED!

    Regarding Aerotropolis, Washtenaw County needs to make sure that this opportunity blossoms in a way that supports our overall goals as a community to grow our economy and our population in concert with established infrastructure. Roads, sewer and water are critical; but we need to be especially vigilant with respect to transit opportunities (because that is so often neglected in SE Michigan). The proposed Aerotropolis region is right along the I-94 corridor and – if successful – could link right into the planned commuter rail line.

  2. November 11, 2008 at 1:34 pm | permalink

    Congratulations Jeff! (You all looked so ready on election night.)

  3. By Mary Morgan
    November 11, 2008 at 2:07 pm | permalink

    Jeff, I failed to mention in this article that Mark Ouimet told commissioners he was honored that you’d named your daughter Mark. Perhaps he was referring to her nickname.

    A hearty Chronicle congratulations to you and your wife!

  4. By Steve Bean
    November 11, 2008 at 7:33 pm | permalink

    Re: Detroit Region Aerotropolis, I hope the board will consider the relatively short expected lifetime for air travel (another ten years, maybe?), given that world oil production is peaking. Investing in a transit corridor for other reasons may be worthwhile, but “attracting businesses that rely on air travel and transport” is an unsustainable dead end. (I’m hoping Jeff sees this. Best wishes for your daughter, Jeff. I’m happy for you.)

    Re: Community Success Project, “The goal is to foster companies that are innovative, either in products or services.” And which help us become a sustainable community?

  5. By Sue
    November 12, 2008 at 10:10 am | permalink

    Now THIS is community journalism…Jeff – my congrats as well. Tell Mark he can buy naming rights on Sylvia’s college fund.

  6. By Sue Lackey
    November 12, 2008 at 10:11 am | permalink

    (oops – Just in case more than one Sue comments – Jeff, this is me.)