Stories indexed with the term ‘economic development’

Ann Arbor to County: Levy Econ Dev Tax

At its Aug. 15, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council passed a resolution urging the Washtenaw County board of commissioners to use Act 88 of 1913 to levy a tax to support economic development in the county. For the last two years, the county board has levied the tax – at a rate of 0.043 mill. (One mill is $1 for every $1,000 of a property’s taxable value.) The council resolution was brought forward by Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5), Margie Teall (Ward 4) and Sandi Smith (Ward 1).

Because Act 88 predates the state’s Headlee legislation, the board does not need to put the issue before voters in order to levy the tax. The county board could, by the Act 88 statute, levy such a tax up to 0.5 mills, or more than 10 times the amount it has chosen to levy the last two years.

Last year in November, the county board approved the Act 88 tax with just a six-vote majority on the 11-member board. Kristin Judge, Mark Ouimet and Wes Prater dissented. Jessica Ping abstained, and Rolland Sizemore Jr. was absent from that Nov. 3, 2010 meeting.

For 2011, the allocation of the roughly $611,266 raised by the countywide Act 88 tax broke down as follows: $200,000 to Ann Arbor SPARK; $50,000 to SPARK East; $100,000 to the Eastern Leaders Group; $144,696 to the county’s department of economic development and energy; $15,000 to fund a Michigan State University Extension agricultural innovation counselor for Washtenaw County; $27,075 to fund horticulture programming for the Washtenaw MSUE horticulture educator; $59,229 for 4-H activities, including allocation to the Washtenaw Farm Council for operating the Washtenaw County 4-H Youth Show & 4-H agricultural programming for the 4-H extension educator; and $15,000 to support the work of the Food System Economic Partnership (FSEP).

SPARK is also supported by Ann Arbor taxpayers through a contract with the city of Ann Arbor for business development services. At its June 20, 2011 meeting the city council authorized the city’s annual $75,000 contract with SPARK. That translates to the rough equivalent of 0.017 Ann Arbor city mills. (Each mill levied within the city of Ann Arbor translates to roughly $4.5 million.) Together with the countywide Act 88 millage, direct Ann Arbor taxpayer support of economic development translates to the equivalent of at least .06 mills (0.043 + 0.017) or roughly $270,000.

Ann Arbor SPARK is also the contractor hired by the city’s local development finance authority (LDFA) to operate a business accelerator for the city’s SmartZone, one of 11 such districts established in the early 2000s by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC). The SmartZone is funded by a tax increment finance (TIF) mechanism, which in the current fiscal year captured around $1.4 million in taxes from a TIF district – the union of the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority districts, though revenue is generated only in Ann Arbor’s district. The specific taxes on which the increment since 2002 is captured are the school operating and state education taxes, which would otherwise be sent to the state and then redistributed back to local school districts.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

Washtenaw County Board Gets Budget Update

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Aug. 3, 2011): A second-quarter budget update and final approval of a major multi-department consolidation were highlights of Wednesday’s meeting.

Dan Smith, Verna McDaniel

Washtenaw County commissioner Dan Smith (R-District 2) and county administrator Verna McDaniel. Smith is vice chair of the board’s ways & means committee, and led the meeting in the absence of the committee chair, Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5). (Photos by the writer.)

The budget update showed the impact of higher-than-anticipated property tax revenues, which had first been announced in April. Because of higher revenues than originally projected, the county now expects to use only $2.9 million from its fund balance during 2011 – previously, the budget called for drawing $5.3 million from the fund balance to cover a shortfall between revenues and expenditures.

Without the $2.9 million transfer from the fund balance, however, there would be a projected $2.5 million deficit for the year, on a general fund budget of roughly $100 million. Among several shortfalls on the expenditure side, about $1.034 million in anticipated non-departmental lump sum reductions have not materialized.

Expenses for attorney fees are higher than budgeted, but the county’s corporation counsel Curtis Hedger noted that there’s at least one case that won’t be costing the county in the future. It was an allusion to the end of a 2006 lawsuit against the county over the cost of police services. Hedger later told The Chronicle that the two townships still involved in the case – Ypsilanti Township and Augusta Township – paid the county this week the nearly $750,000 recommended by a court-ordered facilitator.

There was little discussion about most of the action items that the board approved. Most notably, a final OK was given to creating a new office of community & economic development – the result of merging three county departments. The new unit, to be led by Mary Jo Callan, will employ about 31 full-time workers, compared to 40 that are now employed in the three separate departments: the office of community development (OCD); the economic development & energy department; and the employment training and community services (ETCS) department. Other jobs within the county government have been identified for all but one employee so far. The consolidation will take effect in 2012.

Commissioners also set public hearings for their Sept. 7 meeting to get input on two millages: one levied under the Veterans Relief Fund Act, and another collected under Public Act 88 to be used for economic development purposes. Because Act 88 and the veterans relief act predate the state’s Headlee Amendment, they can be approved by the board without a voter referendum.

The Act 88 millage of 0.05 mill would be an increase from the 0.043 mills currently levied. It would generate an estimated $688,913 annually. In previous years, it has been used to fund several entities, including Ann Arbor SPARK. The veterans relief millage of 1/40th of a mill does not represent an increase, and is estimated to bring in $344,486 to provide services for indigent veterans in Washtenaw County through the county’s department of veterans affairs.

Republicans Dan Smith and Alicia Ping led the back-to-back ways & means committee and regular board meetings on Wednesday – as vice chairs of those respective bodies, they were filling in for chairs Rolland Sizemore Jr. and Conan Smith. Both Democrats were out of town. [Full Story]

County Departmental Merge Gets Final OK

At their Aug. 3, 2011 meeting, Washtenaw County commissioners gave final approval to a major consolidation of three county departments: the office of community development (OCD); the economic development & energy department; and the employment training and community services (ETCS) department. An initial vote of approval had been taken at their July 6, 2011 meeting, though some commissioners had asked for more details about the proposed changes, which would take effect on Jan. 1, 2012. [.pdf of responses to commissioner questions]

OCD director Mary Jo Callan will lead the new office of community & economic development. The goal is to cut costs by eliminating duplicated services in the face of declining revenues, while finding ways to deliver those services more efficiently … [Full Story]

County Departmental Reorg Gets Initial OK

A major consolidation of three county departments – the office of community development, the economic development & energy department, and the employment training and community services (ETCS) department – was given initial approval by the Washtenaw County board of commissioners at their July 6, 2011 meeting. A final vote is expected at the board’s Aug. 3 meeting. The changes would take effect on Jan. 1, 2012.

If the reorganization gets final approval, Mary Jo Callan, director of the office of community development, will lead the new office of community & economic development. The goal is to cut costs by eliminating duplicated services in the face of declining revenues, while finding ways to deliver those services more efficiently to citizens. Several personnel changes are part of … [Full Story]

Washtenaw Board Previews Consolidations

Washtenaw County board of commissioners briefing (June 28, 2011): At a briefing this week to preview agendas for their July 6 meeting and July 7 working session, county commissioners focused most of their questions and comments on a proposed departmental merger and trial court consolidation.

Ronnie Peterson Verna McDaniel

Washtenaw County commissioner Ronnie Peterson, right, and county administrator Verna McDaniel before the start of the chair's briefing on Tuesday, to preview agendas for the July 6 board meeting and July 7 working session. (Photo by the writer.)

Generating significant conversation was an item on the planned consolidation of three departments: The office of community development, the economic development & energy department, and the employment training and community services (ETCS) department. Commissioners wanted clarification on the status of the employee count listed out on the agenda: 11 positions eliminated, 3 jobs created, 20 reclassifications, 5 title changes and 1 position held vacant. County administrator Verna McDaniel told commissioners that while that seems like an extensive set of changes, in terms of people, all but one person had been given a “soft landing” within the county’s organization.

Another item that generated interest among commissioners was the second phase of the trial court consolidation project. Phase two will renovate the first floor of the downtown Ann Arbor courthouse to consolidate some trial court operations, as part of a restructuring that included moving the juvenile court from its Platt Road location earlier this year to the courthouse at Main & Huron. The consolidation was made possible in part due to the relocation of the 15th District Court from the downtown courthouse to the city of Ann Arbor’s new municipal center at Fifth & Huron. Commissioner conversation centered around the purview of the board’s space committee (consisting of Rolland Sizemore Jr. and Rob Turner) in connection with the future of the Platt Road building.

The board’s July 7 working session agenda led to an extended conversation about prioritization of the three items listed: (1) the split of the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO) from Washtenaw County; (2) the Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority; and (3) the Ann Arbor Skatepark. Chair of the working session, Yousef Rabhi, did not attend Tuesday’s briefing, but with the consent of the working session’s vice chair, Rob Turner, the order to the agenda items was revised to put the WCHO item last. The rationale was to allow an open-ended time for adequate discussion – commissioner Ronnie Peterson figured he might need at least an hour for discussion on that item alone.

The presentation that commissioners will hear on the skatepark is likely to be similar to the one presented by Friends of the Skatepark at the Ann Arbor city council’s June 20 meeting.

Tuesday’s “chair’s briefing” was in a format similar to administrative briefings used in the past to preview upcoming adendas. Those administrative briefings were abandoned due to concerns expressed by some commissioners about accessibility. The June 28 briefing was conducted in the county boardroom and was video-recorded. It was the second in a series of three such briefings scheduled for the summer – the next one takes place on July 26, starting at 4 p.m., to prep for the Aug. 3 board meeting. [Full Story]

Ann Arbor Cannabis Laws Done, For Now

Ann Arbor city council meeting (June 20, 2011): Two ordinances regulating medical marijuana businesses were finally approved by the council on Monday night, following more than a year of discussion in some form.

Sabra Briere, Carsten Hohnke, Christopher Taylor

Before the June 20 meeting started, Sabra Briere (Ward 1) handed out amendments she'd be proposing to the medical marijuana licensing ordinance. From left: Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) and Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5). (Photos by the writer.)

The first local law stipulates where medical marijuana businesses can be located in the city – it’s an addition to Ann Arbor’s zoning code. The second law establishes a licensing board for medical marijuana dispensaries and sets up an application process for the award of a maximum of 20 licenses to dispensaries in the first year of the program.

On Monday evening, the council undertook amendments to the licensing ordinance that were few compared to massive changes that have taken place at several council meetings dating back to January 2011. On Monday, the labeling requirements for marijuana packaging were changed so that dollar amounts are no longer required.

The council teetered on the edge of postponing the legislation, when city attorney Stephen Postema encouraged councilmembers to delay voting until the Michigan Court of Appeals issued an opinion on a case (Michigan v. McQueen) for which oral arguments were heard on June 7. Despite the support for postponement from mayor John Hieftje, an initial vote to postpone achieved only two other votes. A second vote achieved a total of five votes, leaving the postponement one vote short of the six-vote majority it required.

As some councilmembers observed that the council had invested a disproportionate amount of time on the medical marijuana legislation, Hieftje contended that it had not prevented the council from handling its other work.

On Monday, that other work included a collective bargaining agreement with its police service specialists union, which was an item added just that evening to the agenda. The council also heard public commentary critical of the recent budget approved on May 31 by the council, which includes the layoff of some firefighters and police officers. The meeting was preceded by a demonstration by the city’s public safety employees, at Fifth and Huron streets just outside city hall

The council  also approved two contracts in connection with the East Stadium Bridges replacement project and three purchase orders related to tree care. And the council gave final approval to sewer and water rate increases and a revision to its landscaping ordinance.

The council revised its debt/fund balance policy, and revised its budget to reflect the blending of its economic development fund back into the general fund. Also related to economic development, councilmembers approved the annual $75,000 funding for Ann Arbor SPARK and set a public hearing for a tax abatement for Picometrix.

The council established an affordable housing lien policy and gave initial approval to technical revisions to the city’s pension ordinance. They confirmed appointments to the new design review board, but postponed a vote on setting the design review fee. The council added a work session for July 11, which is likely to include an update on the planned Fuller Road Station.

The council also heard a presentation on a skatepark planned for Veterans Memorial Park. [Full Story]

Economic Development Goes to General Fund

At its June 20, 2011 meeting, the Ann Arbor city council authorized the blending of its economic development fund – with its fund balance as of June 30, 2010 standing at $967,161 – into its general fund. The move had been planned as a part of the fiscal year 2012 budget that the council adopted at its May 31, 2011 session.

The economic development fund was established on June 18, 2007 by a unanimous vote of the city council by transferring $2.18 million from the general fund to the new economic development fund. It was set up to meet the city’s commitment made to Google to pay for up to 400 parking spaces for its employees, for up to four years for an estimated total cost of approximately $2,029,017. Google’s hiring was not as rapid as it had initially projected, and that left a bit under half of the money untapped.

The Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) No. 54 has also changed the definition of what funds qualify as special revenue funds – the city’s economic development fund was established as such a fund, but no longer qualifies under the new GASB 54 definition, and thus needs to be blended back into the general fund.

The council’s resolution also amended the current fiscal year 2011 budget in some other ways as well, so that expenditures from funds that exceeded budgeted amounts are appropriately covered. Among those expenditures covered were: the International City/County Management Association fire protection study ($54,000); higher maintenance costs for Superior Dam ($35,000); higher snow removal costs and cleanup from the recent Plymouth Road mudslide and pavement markings ($500,000).

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link] [Full Story]

Three County Departments to Merge

Washtenaw County board of commissioners working session (May 5, 2011): A consolidation is underway for three county departments that share similar missions and programs: providing services to low-income residents; support for low-income housing; help for job seekers; and projects designed to spur economic development.

Conan Smith, Barbara Bergman, Mary Jo Callan

From left: Washtenaw County commissioners Conan Smith and Barbara Bergman, and Mary Jo Callan, director of the county/city of Ann Arbor office of community development, at the May 5, 2011 working session of the county board of commissioners. (Photos by the writer.)

County commissioners were given an update on these plans at their most recent working session. They’ll be asked to give initial approval to the consolidation at their June 1 meeting, with final approval on July 6.

Mary Jo Callan, who is expected to lead the new office of community & economic development, made the presentation and fielded most of the questions from commissioners. She is currently director of the office of community development, a joint department of the county and city of Ann Arbor, and one of the three departments slated to merge. The goal, Callan said, is to provide a more coherent approach to the broad spectrum of community development, from providing for basic needs to helping people get jobs. And in a climate of reduced resources, they’ll be eliminating duplication and cutting costs, she said, while making it easier for residents to get the services they need.

The three departments – the office of community development (OCD), ETCS (the employment training and community services department) and the economic development & energy department – employ nearly 60 people with a combined budget of about $16 million. Staff cuts will likely result from the changes – those and other details are still being worked out.

Most commissioners expressed support for this effort, though some wanted more information – including a business plan for the new department – before their June 1 vote.

The working session also included a presentation and discussion on the Packard Square brownfield redevelopment, an issue that was initially debated at the board’s May 4 meeting. A Chronicle report on that part of the working session will be published separately. [Full Story]

UM Research Highlighted at Regents Meeting

University of Michigan board of regents meeting (Jan. 20, 2011): The university’s top research administrator, along with a faculty member who has successfully straddled the academic and entrepreneurial worlds, addressed regents at their January meeting about how university research is aiding economic development.

Stephen Forrest, David Lampe

Stephen Forrest, left, talks with David Lampe before the start of the Jan. 19, 2011 University of Michigan board of regents meeting. Forrest, UM's vice president for research, gave a presentation on the university's research efforts. Lampe is vice president for communications. (Photos by the writer.)

Stephen Forrest, UM’s vice president for research and chair of the board for economic development agency Ann Arbor SPARK, described the concept of an “innovation pipeline,” with the input of funding and ideas yielding an output of jobs, prosperity and expanded opportunities for faculty and students. The process has leaks and clogs, he noted, but the university has strategically applied patches – citing as an example the Venture Accelerator program that launched this month.

And Jim Baker, director of the Michigan Nanotechnology Institute for Medicine and Biological Sciences, was on hand to embody the efforts of faculty who successfully translate research into economic development. Baker’s talk focused on the rewards of creating new businesses – he observed that one reason why students come to UM is to enhance their economic prospects and improve their lives. Baker talked about the importance of keeping those graduates in Michigan to aid in the state’s economic recovery – and doing that requires jobs. He noted that the four companies he has helped launch in Ann Arbor have brought in $160 million in investments and created 45 new jobs so far.

Regents took action on several items during the meeting, including approval of two projects related to the athletics department: A $52 million renovation and expansion of Crisler Arena – the second phase of a major overhaul of that facility, which was built in 1968; and a $20 million project to install video scoreboards at Michigan Stadium, Crisler Arena and Yost Ice Arena. David Brandon, UM’s athletic director, made a brief appearance at the meeting but did not address the regents publicly. And this month’s biggest athletic-related news at UM – that Brady Hoke was hired as head football coach – received only a mention as part of president Mary Sue Coleman’s opening remarks. He did not attend the meeting.

Seven people spoke during public commentary on a variety of topics. Among them were: (1) a call to reassess Fuller Road Station, a proposed parking structure and possible train station near UM’s medical campus; ( 2) questions about the medical leave of Ken Magee, executive director of UM’s Department of Public Safety (DPS); (3) thanks from the leader of the Ann Arbor Summer Festival for the university’s support of that annual event; (4) criticism of the use of live animals to train survival flight nurses; and (5) a plea for financial support for The Loyal Opposition to the Status Quo (LOSQ), a nonprofit launched to address disparities between African-Americans and Caucasians. [Full Story]

Ward 5 City Council: List Making

About 30 people gathered in the cafeteria/auditorium of Wines Elementary School on Oct. 21 for The Ann Arbor Chronicle’s Ward 5 city council candidate forum. Two of the three candidates participated: Republican John Floyd and Newcombe Clark, who’s running as an independent. Carsten Hohnke, the incumbent Democrat, chose not to participate.

 John Floyd (left) and Newcombe Clark (right) during the Ward 5 candidate forum held at Wines Elementary School.

John Floyd (seated) and Newcombe Clark (standing) during the Oct. 21 Ward 5 candidate forum held at Wines Elementary School.

Rather than a standard Q&A, candidates were given 10 specific topic areas in advance, and advised that on the night of the event, they’d be presented with list-making tasks on some of these topics that they’d be expected to complete collaboratively. The Chronicle offers a separate opinion piece about the format of the event and candidates’ participation in it.

In this article, we report the interaction of Floyd and Clark as they worked their way through the tasks, which began with a warm-up: Winnow down the 10 topics to four, to be tackled in 10-minute chunks. They settled on these topics: (1) development of downtown city-owned surface lots, (2) economic development, (3) appointments to boards and commissions, and (4) quality of life.

The two men arrived at a strategy for the winnowing task that persisted through the roughly one-hour event: Each proposed some list items relatively uncontested by the other, followed by a consensus check. In each case, the list-making per se was dispatched relatively easily by the candidates. Then with a list of items written on the white board, they used it as a starting point for a related conversation. [Full Story]

Zingerman’s Project Seeks Brownfield Status

The major renovation and expansion in the works for Zingerman’s Deli cleared its most recent major hurdle in May, gaining site plan approval from the Ann Arbor planning commission. While the site plan now moves on to city council, the business is taking action on another front as well: Applying for support from the local and state brownfield program.

Grace Singleton

Grace Singleton, a managing partner with Zingerman's Deli, talks about plans to apply to the local and state brownfield program as part of the deli's renovation plans. The business hosted a public meeting about the plans on June 21. (Photos by the writer.)

On June 21, Zingerman’s hosted a public meeting to answer questions about their plans for the brownfield application. Matt Naud, the city’s environmental coordinator, was on hand as well, and distinguished between this project and those that are typically associated with the term “brownfield.” In the case of Zingerman’s Deli, “it’s economic development,” he said, “It’s not about environmental cleanup.”

Specifically, brownfield status would allow Zingerman’s to be eligible for tax increment financing (TIF), a mechanism that would let the business recoup certain qualified expenses related to the project – possibly as much as $817,000 over 15 years.

It’s a different approach than the brownfield application most recently approved by city council for the Near North affordable housing project on North Main. In that case, the site’s need for environmental cleanup qualifies it for a brownfield status. Zingerman’s application also differs from Near North’s in that Near North isn’t seeking reimbursement through TIF. Both projects plan to apply for Michigan Business Tax credits. [Full Story]

Michigan Dems Primary: House 53rd District

On Saturday, June 12, the Ann Arbor city Democratic Party hosted a candidate forum for the primary races for the seats in both the 52nd and 53rd districts for state representative. Although the forum, held at the Ann Arbor Community Center on North Main Street, was a joint affair for all four candidates in both districts, The Chronicle has split its coverage of the one event into two articles, one for each district’s candidates.


Democratic candidates for the 53rd District state House seat at the June 12 Ann Arbor city Democratic Party forum: Jeff Irwin, left; and Ned Staebler, right. (Photos by the writer.)

The Democratic primary in the 53nd District of the Michigan House of Representatives is contested by Jeff Irwin and Ned Staebler. The 53nd House District covers the majority of the city of Ann Arbor, and parts of Scio and Pittsfield townships.

The seat is currently held by Rebekah Warren, who was elected to that position in 2006, and is eligible to seek re-election – but has chosen instead to run for the 18th District state Senate seat, currently held by term-limited Liz Brater. In Michigan, state senators are limited to two four-year terms, and state representatives are limited to three two-year terms.

This coverage of the June 12 candidate forum consists of the questions that candidates were asked, with answers given by the candidates in paraphrased form.

The order of the remarks as presented here reflects the same relative order as they were made at the candidate forum. For each question, the order was randomly chosen among all four candidates. The remarks of 52rd District candidates are presented separately: “Michigan Dems Primary: House 52nd District[Full Story]

Michigan Dems Primary: House 52nd District

On Saturday, June 12, the Ann Arbor city Democratic Party hosted a candidate forum for the primary races for the state representative seats in both the 52nd and 53rd districts. Although the forum, held at the Ann Arbor Community Center on North Main Street, was a joint affair for all four candidates in both districts, The Chronicle has split its coverage of the one event into two articles, one for each district’s candidates.

Christine Lee Jeff Lee

Democratic candidates for the 52rd District state House seat at the June 12 Ann Arbor city Democratic Party forum: Jeff Lee, left; and Christine Green, right. (Photos by the writer.)

The Democratic primary in the 52nd House District is contested by Christine Green and Jeff Lee. The district covers the better portion of western Washtenaw County and small parts of the city of Ann Arbor.

The 52nd District seat is currently held by Pam Byrnes, who was elected to that position in 2004 and is term-limited. She is running for state senate in District 18, a seat now held by Liz Brater, who is also term-limited. In Michigan, state senators are limited to two four-year terms, and state representatives are limited to three two-year terms.

This coverage of the June 12 candidate forum consists of the questions that candidates were asked, with answers given by the candidates in paraphrased form.

The order of the remarks as presented here reflects the same relative order as they were made at the candidate forum. For each question, the order was randomly chosen among all four candidates. The remarks of 53rd District candidates Jeff Irwin and Ned Staebler, which are occasionally referenced by Lee and Green, are presented separately: “Michigan Dems Primary: House 53rd District[Full Story]

Heritage Row Likely to Need Super-Majority

Ann Arbor City Council meeting (June 7, 2010): Speculation that the vote on the Heritage Row project would be delayed was borne out on Monday night. Without discussion, the council postponed votes on the development’s rezoning and site plan until June 21.


Left in the frame, scanning through the protest petition documents, is Scott Munzel, legal counsel for Alex de Parry, developer of the Heritage Row project. De Parry is seated in the row behind with his arms resting on the bench back. In the foreground is Bradley Moore, architect for Heritage Row. (Photos by the writer.)

Councilmembers were also informed that a protest petition had been filed on Heritage Row Monday afternoon, which – once validated – would bump the requirement for approval from a simple six-vote majority to eight out of 11 council votes. Petition filers have calculated that they’ve collected signatures from 51% of adjoining property owners, weighted by land area. That exceeds the 20% required for a successful petition, but as of late Wednesday, the city had not completed its verification process for the signatures. [Update: Early Thursday afternoon, the city confirmed the 20% threshold had been met.]

In other business, the council approved increases in water and sewer rates and gave initial approval to changes in the city code language on the placement of recycling carts.

A wording change in the list of permissible uses for public land was also given initial approval, but not without discussion. Thematically related to land use was a presentation during the meeting’s concluding public commentary in response to a request for proposals (RFP) for the privatization of the city-owned Huron Hills golf course.

Also receiving discussion was an item pulled out of the consent agenda that authorized $75,000 for Ann Arbor SPARK, for economic development.

Criticism during public commentary on the appointment and nomination process used by the mayor to fill seats on boards and commissions stirred mayor John Hieftje to defend shielding individual members of those bodies from public demands.

Public commentary also elicited from Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 1) an update on the development of the Library Lot – he chairs the committee charged with overseeing the RFP process. [Full Story]

Ann Arbor DDA: Let’s Do Development

Friday morning before the Memorial Day weekend marked the first public meeting of the city council’s so-called “mutually beneficial” committee – first created and appointed back in July 2009.

wiping-off-code-enforcement Ann Arbor DDA

Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, erases "code enforcement" from the list of term sheet items the DDA wants to see discussed further. (Photos by the writer.)

And later in the afternoon, the board of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority met for a retreat to give direction to its own “mutually beneficial” committee.

The two committees are charged with the task of redefining the agreement between the city and the DDA that allows the DDA to manage the city’s parking system.

From the city councilmembers’ perspective, the ball was in the DDA’s court. They were hoping that the DDA’s retreat later in the day would reduce the items on the term sheet that is supposed to underpin the city-DDA conversation.

At their retreat, the DDA board did eliminate an item on the term sheet – code enforcement, other than parking regulations, was not something for which they wanted to assume responsibility. The remaining three term sheet items – parking enforcement, provision of services, and development of city-owned property – stayed on the white board. The clearest consensus among board members seemed to be around the idea that the DDA should focus on development.

But a couple of additional items were added into the mix – issues related to Village Green’s City Apartments project. That project, located at First and Washington, has previously seen its site plan approval option to purchase extended through June 30, 2010. City council action would be required in the next month, if it’s to be extended again.

Downtown police beat patrols were also left on the board as an additional item of discussion.

At Friday’s retreat, the board heard the same message from Susan Pollay, the DDA’s executive director, that she’d conveyed at a partnerships committee meeting two weeks earlier – the reason for the DDA’s existence was to spur private investment in the downtown.

But as a group, there was an uneven embrace of that message. Some board members preferred to identify “development” as meaning something broader than building new infrastructure, suggesting that a more general “economic development” approach might also be appropriate for the DDA.

And one other idea was thrown up on the white board, but did not stick: altering the DDA district boundaries. [Full Story]

Washtenaw Natural Areas Tweaked for Ballot

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners working session (April 22, 2010): At their Thursday meeting, commissioners were briefed on proposed changes to the county’s Natural Areas Preservation Program, which would help the county protect more land that’s being used for farming.

Bob Tetens, Susan Lackey

Susan Lackey, executive director of the Legacy Land Conservancy, confers with Bob Tetens, director of Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation, before the start of Thursday's working session of the county board of commissioners. (Photo by the writer.)

The proposal comes as the board prepares to place a renewal of the 10-year NAPP millage on the November ballot. The current millage, which raises about $3 million annually to preserve natural areas in the county, expires at the end of 2010.

Also at Thursday’s meeting, commissioners heard a report on internal controls used within the county government, both in finance and other areas. This has been topic that commissioner Wes Prater has pushed the board to address for several months.

Highlights from a draft report were presented by staff of the county’s new energy and economic development department. The report includes data on job losses, education, housing, transit and other factors, and presents four strategies for improving the county’s economy. Tony VanDerworp, who leads the department, explained that the report is required by the U.S. Dept. of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration so that the county can apply for grants from the EDA.

Finally, Verna McDaniel, incoming county administrator, said she plans to hold a meet-and-greet for candidates of the deputy administrator job on May 5 before that evening’s board meeting, to get commissioners’ feedback on a potential hire. [Full Story]

Budget Round 5: Economic Development

Last Monday night, the Ann Arbor city council held its fifth and possibly final meeting devoted exclusively to the city’s financial planning, before it adopts the city’s FY 2011 budget on May 17, 2010. The budget will be formally presented to the city council by city administrator Roger Fraser at its Monday, April 19 meeting.

Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) sets up his presentation on the LDFA.

Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) sets up his presentation on the Local Development Finance Authority (LDFA) before the start of the April 12 council budget meeting. Rapundalo sits on the LDFA board as the Ann Arbor city council’s representative, and currently chairs the board.

At the April 12 budget meeting, the council heard presentations on two related entities: the Local Development Finance Authority (LDFA) and Ann Arbor SPARK. The LDFA contracts with Ann Arbor SPARK for various business development services.

The two key themes that emerged from the LDFA presentation were consistent with the overall topic of the city’s budget: (i) Where does the LDFA get its money? and (ii) What does the LDFA spend its money on?

Part of the LDFA’s revenue goes towards economic development activities – a business accelerator – for which it contracts with Ann Arbor SPARK. The presentation to the council from SPARK’s CEO, Michael Finney, was followed by testimonials of companies who said they had benefited from SPARK’s efforts.

Development activities are just one kind of investment that the LDFA could make under its TIF (tax-increment financing) plan. It could also make investments in physical infrastructure. During question time, Sandi Smith (Ward 1) drew out from Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) the possibility that the LDFA could contemplate an investment in a fiber-optic network. Rapundalo, who serves on the LDFA board, indicated that such an LDFA investment might be possible, even if Google does not select Ann Arbor as a test community for its current fiber-optic initiative.

The council also heard from the economic development community about how the name “Ann Arbor” is perceived in the rest of the world.

The part of the council’s meeting dedicated to deliberations on its own budget was comparatively brief. Councilmembers were keen to portray in a positive light a couple of different issues, among them a potential increase in the city’s debt load resulting from a failure to complete a $3 million sale of property at First & Washington, as well as proposed increases in water rates. [Full Story]

County EDC: Money to Loan, But No Deals

Washtenaw County Economic Development Corporation board meeting (March 15, 2010): On Monday, the EDC board met for just the second time since 2005. On the agenda: A discussion about the availability of federal bonds that have been allocated to Washtenaw County, but not used, for projects by private firms.

Though federal legislation expanded the types of businesses that can use the bonds, a national credit crunch has essentially slowed potential deals to a halt. “We await the projects,” said John Axe, the EDC’s bond counsel. Unless extended by Congress, the program expires at the end of 2010. [Full Story]

Transit Forum Critiques Fuller Road Station

Chris Leinberger was blunt in his assessment of the proposed Fuller Road Station: If the parking structure is built as proposed, in 20 years it will be torn down.

Fuller Road parking lot

The city-owned Fuller Road parking lot, site of the proposed Fuller Road Station. To the south of the lot is the University of Michigan medical complex. (Photos by the writer.)

Speaking at a forum on transit-oriented development, Leinberger – a University of Michigan professor of practice in urban planning – said current plans for the joint UM/city of Ann Arbor project do a good job of incorporating different kinds of transit, from bikes and buses to perhaps, eventually, commuter rail.

But Leinberger criticized the project for taking some of Ann Arbor’s most valuable land and turning it into something that won’t generate revenue for the city. He told Eli Cooper, the city’s transportation program manager, that “whoever’s in your position 20 years from now will tear it down.”

Monday’s forum, held at the UM Art & Architecture building on north campus, was organized by members of the WALLY Coalition and the 208 Group, among others, to focus on local transit-oriented development efforts. Moderated by local developer Peter Allen, the event included presentations by Cooper, Richard Murphy of the city of Ypsilanti and Shea Charles, Howell’s city manager. [Full Story]

Column: Balanced Offense for Local Economy

A little over 13 years ago, I started work as a business reporter at The Ann Arbor News. And exactly 13 years ago today, as I hoisted myself out of a warm bed at four o’clock in the morning, I was beginning to grasp why the other business reporters might have welcomed me so warmly.

Best Buy

Best Buy on Lohr Road at 4:08 a.m. on Nov. 27, 2009. Doors opened at 5 a.m. (Photo not by the writer – she's not required to cover Black Friday morning stories at The Chronicle.)

They knew that as the newest hire, I’d be the one assigned to the morning-after-Thanksgiving Black Friday shopping story. Later that dark, frigid morning, I watched as a stream of cars disgorged expectant, even festive shoppers to stand in line waiting for the doors at Walmart to open.

My initial reaction: These people are slightly nuts.

Then: Downtown retailers would kill for this kind of crowd.

The dichotomy of large and small businesses is perhaps most visible on days like Black Friday, when more customers on a single morning might flow through Walmart than would shop at a Main Street merchant all year. But the tension between large and small is also reflected in our local public policy priorities for economic development. [Full Story]

County Reorganizes 911 Dispatch

Ken Weber

Ken Weber of Weber's Restaurant & Hotel, foreground, sits next to Kevin Gudejko of Main Street Ventures at the Nov. 4 county board of commissioners meeting. They were among the restaurateurs who spoke at a public hearing and questioned the need for a proposed food safety training program. (Photo by the writer.)

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners (Nov. 4, 2009): After removing a major item from their agenda – the 2010/2011 budget – county commissioners spent the bulk of their Nov. 4 meeting listening to presentations, reports, and a public hearing. Commissioners also voted and approved a new tax to raise roughly $603,000 annually for economic development. The 0.04 mills will be collected on the December 2009 tax bill.

Sheriff Jerry Clayton spoke about plans to reorganize the county’s central dispatch and emergency services operation. Changes include co-location of the county and the city of Ann Arbor’s central dispatch, which will both be housed in Ann Arbor.

Dick Fleece, director of the county’s Public Health/Environmental Health department, gave an update on the H1N1 outbreak and vaccination clinics in Washtenaw County. [On Monday, Nov. 9, the county announced a new clinic for mass immunization of people in expanded priority categories. That clinic will be held on Saturday, Nov. 14 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor.]

Commissioners also heard concerns from local restaurant owners and managers – including Ken Weber of Weber’s Restaurant & Hotel, and Rick Strutz of Zingerman’s Deli – during a public hearing on a proposed new food safety training program. [Full Story]

Making Jobs for Former Prisoners

Larry Voigt stood in front of a crowd of social workers, nonprofit leaders, and members of the faith community on Friday afternoon, folded his arms, and declared, “No!” The president of Catholic Social Services of Washtenaw County was playfully addressing attendees of a jobs creation summit by illustrating the opposite of what they were there to do: Say yes.

man with arms folded, saying no

Larry Voigt, president of Catholic Social Services of Washtenaw County, demonstrates the classic arms-folded posture of saying no. The job creation summit held last Friday was partly about getting people to say yes. (Photo by the writer)

Say yes to what?

They were there to say yes to the idea of economic development through creation of self-sustaining businesses that would employ former prisoners making the transition to society. The jobs creation summit was sponsored by MPRI – the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative.

The first part of the program, which ran through the morning, lunch and the early afternoon, was dedicated to hearing from four panelists representing three organizations in other parts of the country that have successfully launched a variety of businesses that employ former prisoners and substance abusers.

Then, after hearing pitches for close to a dozen different business ideas, participants winnowed them down to three basic concepts for small group focus: a building weatherization business, a green cleaning enterprise, and an urban farming venture.

The working summit was meant simply to kick things off in a directed way, said Mary King, who’s the community coordinator for Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative of Washtenaw County. The summit allowed some of the specific challenges to crystallize that are faced by business startups, especially those that say yes to the idea of employing former prisoners. [Full Story]

How to Sustain a Local Economy

Panelists at the Sept. 23 Michigan Peaceworks forum on the local economy, from the left: Tom Weisskopf, University of Michigan economics professor; Ellen Clement, Corner Health Center executive director; Jeff McCabe, People's Food Co-Op board member; Lisa Dugdale, Transition Ann Arbor; Michael Appel, Avalon Housing executive director; John Hieftje, mayor of Ann Arbor.

Panelists at the Sept. 23 Michigan Peaceworks forum on the local economy, from the left: Tom Weisskopf, University of Michigan economics professor; Ellen Clement, Corner Health Center executive director; Jeff McCabe, People's Food Co-Op board member; Lisa Dugdale, Transition Ann Arbor; Michael Appel, Avalon Housing executive director; John Hieftje, mayor of Ann Arbor. (Photo by the writer.)

When The Chronicle entered the lower level meeting room of the downtown Ann Arbor library, the first things we noticed were three large trays of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cut into bite-sized wedges. As public forums go, this was an offbeat gnoshing choice.

It turned out that the sandwiches – and apples, soft drinks, potato chips and other food – were all sourced from Michigan, in keeping with the theme of Wednesday night’s event. The panel discussion focused on the state’s economic crisis, and how the community can respond to it.  Buying local products is one example.

Starting a local currency is another possibility – the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority is funding a study to look into that. Generating  electricity locally is also an opportunity – Mayor John Hieftje told the group that he didn’t think the dam at Argo Pond would be removed, in part because it might be used for hydropower in the future.

The forum – “Michigan’s Economic Situation: Crisis or Opportunity?” – was hosted by Ann Arbor-based Michigan Peaceworks and Washtenaw Voice, a coalition of local nonprofits that are working together to increase voter turnout and bolster the community in other ways. Michigan Peaceworks is the lead agency in this effort, part of the broader Michigan Voice initiative.

State and national issues were part of the discussion, but most of the six panelists focused on how the local community can take action in specific areas, including food, health care, housing and the environment. [Full Story]

4-H Fans, Others Lobby County for Funds

The overflow crowd in the lobby of the county administration building arrived too late for a seat in the boardroom.

An overflow crowd in the lobby of the county administration building arrived too late for a seat in the boardroom, and watched Wednesday's Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting on TV. (Photo by the writer.)

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners meeting (Aug. 5, 2009): As Washtenaw County grapples with a staggering budget deficit, 4-H supporters – including local farmers, teens and club leaders – packed Wednesday’s county Board of Commissioners meeting, urging commissioners not to cut funding for that program. They were joined by many others who use master gardening, financial counseling and other services of the county’s MSU Extension program, which could see dramatic funding cuts as the county tries to balance its budget.

As The Chronicle previously reported, the county faces a $30 million deficit over the next two years. Last week, county administrator Bob Guenzel released a list of options for cutting another $12 million out of the budget, and eliminating up to 181 jobs. Those options – which he stressed are not his recommendations at this point – target non-mandated services, ranging from Head Start to a variety of mental health programs. On Wednesday, Guenzel gave a formal presentation about the options to commissioners, who will be the final arbiters of any budget decisions. The discussion following Guenzel’s presentation could aptly be summarized by this statement from commissioner Conan Smith: “It sucks.” [Full Story]

Bernstein to Leave Ann Arbor Chamber

Jesse Bernstein, Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce president

Jesse Bernstein, Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce president, has resigned his post. His last day in that job is June 30.

On a downtown street corner recently, The Chronicle had occasion to witness an informal idea pitch from Hal Davis to Jesse Bernstein,  president of the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce: Busker Week for downtown Ann Arbor – where independent musicians would explicitly be invited to come perform in Ann Arbor’s downtown. Bernstein’s reaction can fairly be described as positive.

But if Bernstein helps Busker Week to join Sonic Lunch on downtown Ann Arbor’s summer musical calendar, it won’t be as president of the chamber. Bernstein told staff at 4 p.m. Tuesday that his last day leading the organization will be June 30, 2009. It ends three year’s of Bernstein’s leadership of the area business organization. [Full Story]

Column: Limited Edition

Here we go again. After spending years trying to unsuccessfully prop up two stagnant automobile companies using various tactics, corrective action by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court has now sent Gov. Granholm and her economic team scurrying off on a new and different project.

Earlier this month, the politicos did a groundbreaking for the $44 million I-94/Westnedge Avenue road widening project. Vice President Joe Biden espoused the view that “we are quite literally paving the road to recovery right here in Kalamazoo.” From one lifelong Democrat to another: Say it ain’t so, Joe! $44 million won’t do it, and this project – while offering temporary construction jobs – is just another “plug the dike” tactic as Michigan searches for political leadership that will offer a sound long-term strategy for economic growth in Michigan. [Full Story]

Targeted Cuts for Washtenaw County Budget

A page of notes taken during Tuesdays county budget forum.

A page of notes taken by Andy Brush, the county's knowledge manager, during Tuesday's budget forum.

The handful of business people who attended a Washtenaw County budget forum on Tuesday morning stressed the importance of local investment, and heard a preview of areas targeted for cuts as the county grapples with falling revenues and a potential $26 million deficit over the two-year period beginning in 2010.

County administrator Bob Guenzel gave the small group, which also included several elected officials and department directors, a preview of budget recommendations that will be released later this week and formally presented to the board of commissioners at their June 3 meeting. Though he didn’t provide details Tuesday morning, he said the recommendations will include layoffs and a change in compensation for non-union employees. Meanwhile, union leaders from 17 different bargaining units are being asked to renegotiate contracts in talks that will continue through July. The county employs about 1,300 people – roughly 80% are union employees.

Guenzel outlined four general areas identified to close the $26 million budget deficit: 1) revenue generation, $3 million to $5 million; 2) department reductions, $7 million to $10 million; 3) employee compensation and benefits, $12 million to $14 million, and 4) structural changes, $3 million to $7 million.

He also laid out a wide range of possible cuts, including selling county-owned facilities – he noted that the Zeeb Road building was only half occupied, for example – and even the possibility of not opening the jail expansion when it’s completed in 2010. That expansion, which would provide an additional 112 beds, would cost at least $1 million extra per year to staff. He said that though governments in general are good at finding one-time solutions, “what we need going forward is primarily structural savings.”

Guenzel cited the Wall Street Journal in characterizing the economic crisis as the worst since the 1930s, with no end yet in sight. He said that though this area had the lowest unemployment rate in the state, the magnitude of the problem was dire. “We haven’t hit bottom,” he said. [Full Story]

UM Hosts Senate Hearing on Higher Ed

The room at the Michigan League

The Vandenberg Room at the Michigan League was packed for a state legislative hearing on funding for higher education.

The three presidents of institutions in Michigan’s University Research Corridor – backed by students and economic development leaders from each region – testified at a state Senate Higher Education Subcommittee hearing on Friday held in Ann Arbor, making a plea for additional state funding. But while legislators at the hearing acknowledged the importance of higher education, they also gave a bleak outlook for Michigan’s financial health, with one senator describing state revenues as “almost in a freefall.”

State Sen. Jim Barcia, a Democrat from Bay City, told the 50 or so people gathered at the Michigan League that a revenue estimate released earlier in the day was “worse news than anticipated.” The Senate Fiscal Agency estimated that revenues could be $2.1 billion lower than projected for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. Even in the current fiscal year, the state faces a $1.3 billion deficit that has prompted another round of cuts. Despite that, Barcia said the students who testified on Friday – including a recent University of Michigan graduate who has launched a new company – gave him reason for optimism. [Full Story]

Innovating out of an Economic Hole

Maria Thompson, General Manager, A123Systems Advanced Research

Maria Thompson, general manager of the advanced research and government solutions group for A123Systems in Ann Arbor. She was one of several panelists from the local business community at Monday's UM economic development forum.

More than 250 people from academia, business, government and nonprofits packed the auditorium Monday afternoon at the Partnership for an Innovation Economy forum, hosted by the University of Michigan at its newly renovated art museum.

Throughout the two-hour event, The Chronicle learned, among other things: 1) which former Pfizer executive is a rugby referee, 2) which local power couples have relied on each other for advice, 3) who hosts one of the best holiday parties in Ann Arbor.

Of course, there was also much talk of UM’s role in economic development. [Full Story]

“Obama Bucks” Boost Eastern Washtenaw

Layers of history are preserved on the wall of Spark East in downtown Ypsilanti.

Layers of history are preserved on the wall of SPARK East in downtown Ypsilanti.

On Friday, May 8, the renovated Ypsilanti storefront that houses SPARK East will be open to the public for a look at the business services offered there. The event is part of a larger economic development effort on Washtenaw County’s east side, an effort that’s getting a boost from federal stimulus funding – or what one county official called “Obama bucks.”

Last Thursday, about 40 members of the Eastern Leaders Group got an overview of the 2009 Recovery and Reinvestment Rapid Response Strategy Business Plan, which had been approved by the ELG executive committee in mid-April. Held at the brick-walled SPARK East office on Michigan Avenue, the meeting covered a lot of ground, from neighborhood revitalization efforts to a plan for microloans to businesses.

The Chronicle dropped by to hear about the plan too. Though the meeting was decidedly forward looking, there was an element of history at SPARK East as well – more on that later. We’ll start with a look at the three main topics covered on Thursday: 1) business development and employee training, 2) microloan programs, and 3) community revitalization and stabilization plans. [Full Story]