Archive for January, 2011

A2: Business

The Detroit News reports that Borders Group has again delayed payments to some vendors, which some industry watchers think could signal that the Ann Arbor bookstore chain’s financial condition is getting worse. At the close of trading Monday on the New York Stock Exchange, Borders shares had dropped 14% to 73 cents. [Source]

UM: Health

The Detroit News reports on a University of Michigan study that suggests lifestyle choices, rather than genetics, contribute to childhood obesity. About 1,000 sixth-graders from the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area formed the basis of the study group. Researchers found that those who were obese ate school lunches as opposed to packed lunches and spent hours watching TV rather than engaging in physical activity. Yet Dr. Kim Eagle, director of the UM cardiovascular Center, expressed optimism for better health among children: “”Whether it’s genetic or not, we can attack it.” [Source]

Ann Arbor: Engaging the FY 2012 Budget

Editor’s note: On Jan. 31, the city council will begin a series of workshops on next year’s budget. The most recent status update from the city’s CFO, Tom Crawford, is that the city faces a $2.4 million shortfall if it does not reduce expenses. That figure assumes: (1) The city will receive around $2 million in parking revenue from the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority; (2) shared sales tax revenue from the state will continue at the same levels as last year; and (3) unresolved labor contracts will settle in a way that results in no increases to the wage structure, plus additional reductions equivalent to the cost savings the city would see if all employees were on the new health care plan.

The council has already convened two retreats on the budget – this report is a summary of those retreats.

1936 newspaper clipping

From the May 19, 1936 edition of the Ann Arbor Daily News. The scan was passed along to The Chronicle by the city's environmental coordinator, Matt Naud. Naud's source was Craig Hupy, head of the city's systems planning unit, who discovered some old papers in an antique store.

Late last year, on Dec. 4, 2010, the Ann Arbor city council held the first of two budget retreats for the next year’s budget adoption process. The current 2011 fiscal year ends on June 30, 2011, and the council will need to finalize its FY 2012 budget in May. The council typically begins contemplating the next fiscal year’s budget at a retreat near the end of the calendar year.

Two days after the first retreat, at the Dec. 6 regular city council meeting, city administrator Roger Fraser and councilmembers recapped the event, with Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2) describing it as the best retreat discussion on the budget since he’s been on the council. First elected to the council in 2005, Rapundalo has five previous budget seasons to compare against.

The December retreat agenda reflected two main items: (1) general economic conditions; and (2) a sustainable service delivery model. The grim condition of the state’s economy was a point that was also driven home by Kirk Profit – director of Governmental Consultant Services, the city’s lobbyist in Lansing – in a presentation to the council at their Dec. 6 regular meeting.

The second retreat, on Jan. 8, followed up with a focus on services. To prepare for the retreat, councilmembers had ranked various city services by priority.

At both retreats, councilmembers and staff took the opportunity to communicate a message to city labor unions, some of whom Rapundalo characterized as not yet having seen fit to “recognize economic reality.”

And as chair of the council’s labor committee, Rapundalo has said he’ll give updates at the council’s regular meetings on the status of labor negotiations. He started the updates at the council’s Jan. 20 meeting. The implicit message communicated by the first update: Ann Arbor’s labor unions aren’t making the kind of concessions they should reasonably make, given economic conditions.

This report features highlights of the discussion from both retreats – including issues like the city’s approach to fire and police protection, solid waste and composting, as well as possible replacement of the general fund operating millage with a city income tax.

At both retreats, city administrator Roger Fraser and key city staff did their best to frame the council’s conversation not as a question of what services to cut. Instead, they tried to get councilmembers to consider which services might be delivered in a different way. The sustainability of the service delivery model depends on how the city delivers those services to residents – ranging from employment of full-time city workers, outsourcing the work, or by not offering the service at all.

To frame the context of these comparatively brief retreat highlights, we first offer a look back to 1936, when the city delivered a sidewalk snowplowing service to its residents. How? Partly by hiring in teams of horses to do the job. [Full Story]

AAPS Superintendent Search Nears End

Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education meeting (Jan. 26, 2011): At last week’s meeting of the AAPS school board, trustees discussed changing the name of Stone High School in order to update the school’s public image.

As the result of a lengthy process with the school’s stakeholders, Stone principal Sheila Brown has suggested “Ann Arbor Technical High School” as the new name. Board members suggested replacing the word “Technical” with “Technological,” and Brown was open to that idea. The final decision on Stone’s re-imaging will be made at the next regular board meeting, on Feb. 9.

Board president Deb Mexicotte also outlined the remaining steps involved in choosing a new AAPS superintendent, a process that’s expected to conclude by late February or early March. District residents will be invited to participate in the candidate interview process during the week of Feb. 28.

The board meeting also included an update on a partnership between AAPS and the University of Michigan Depression Center, as well as the unveiling of School of the Year and Teacher of the Year awards from the University Musical Society. [Full Story]

UM: Egypt

USA Today reports on how Egyptian students studying in the U.S. are reacting to news of unrest in their home country. The article quotes Mohamed Mattar, a UM mechanical engineering student: “I started thinking about what President Obama said in Cairo at the start of his presidency. I was so happy to see him come to my country and make a speech. He was promoting that people should stand up for their rights. Right now, we’re not hearing that from him anymore. Where is all that talk about people being free, and this is what the United States stands for?” [Source]

AATA: Transit Study, Planning Updates

Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting (Jan. 20, 2011): The AATA’s first monthly board meeting of the year featured a presentation on a connector feasibility study on the Plymouth and State street corridors. The study is now nearing completion.

Jesse Bernstein

AATA board chair Jesse Bernstein points to a pie chart projected on the screen as part of the presentation the board heard about the Plymouth-State street corridor connector study. (Photo by the writer.)

In their one main business item, the board approved the capital and categorical grants program for 2011-15. The program will form the basis for upcoming state and federal grant applications.

Board member David Nacht prefaced the discussion of the connector feasibility study by encouraging his colleagues to share their thoughts on it – because the board had argued a long time about whether to help fund the $640,000 study, along with the other partners: the city of Ann Arbor; the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority; and the University of Michigan.

In the course of their discussion, the board touched on another major planning initiative: the countywide transportation master planning process.

Beginning Jan. 31, the AATA is launching the final round of public engagement meetings to develop a countywide plan for transit. Currently the AATA is funded by an Ann Arbor transit millage, plus purchase of service (POS) agreements with other municipalities. Voters in the city of Ypsilanti passed a millage in November 2010 that will cover most of the cost of Ypsilanti’s POS, for example.

Twenty additional meetings on the countywide planning effort are scheduled at locations throughout the county, to get feedback on three transit scenarios developed so far. Transit options in the three scenarios – which the AATA has labeled Lifeline Plus, Accessible County, and Smart Growth – are nested subsets, starting with Lifeline Plus as a base, which expands on existing services and focuses on services for seniors and disabled people.

According to representatives of the AATA and its consultant on the project, Steer Davies Gleave (SDG), the goal of the last phrase of public interactions is not for people to appear at the meetings and simply vote for their preferred option. They’re interested in hearing what options from the various scenarios might be combined to build a “preferred scenario.” [Full Story]

Liberty & Fourth

Bus stopped in middle of a left turn onto Liberty, fire trucks, general stoppage.

Column: Book Fare

Where’s a medieval village when you need one?

You know – that place where everyone knows where everyone else lives and everybody knows everybody else’s business and, no matter how insipid or irrelevant, has an idiotic opinion on it all, one generally borne of grinding frustration, depthless boredom and a general, yawning poverty of the spirit …

Frances and Joseph Gies

A photo of Frances and Joseph Gies, from their book "Life in a Medieval Village."

No. I do not need to get on Facebook.

But maybe somebody out there who is plugged into this dynamic global engine of online communal solidarity-ishness can take a break from investigating what your fifth-grade gym teacher had for breakfast and help us out here.

The mystery opens a few days after Christmas, when my husband and brother-in-law drop me at the Borders in Peoria, Ill., on the way to relive their childhood at a matinee screening of “Tron: Legacy.” Browsing the history section, I come across a paperback edition of “Life in a Medieval Village,” by Frances and Joseph Gies, and settle into an armchair.

And there I learn, from the back cover, that the Gieses “live on a lake near Ann Arbor, Michigan.” And there’s this dear photo of an elderly pair who appear to be Grandma and Grandpa circa 1948, but they’re also two scholars who’ve spent their lives together researching and writing almost two dozen books about life in the Middle Ages. How cool is that? [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]

A2: Business

The Detroit News reports that Borders Group, the Ann Arbor-based bookseller, will possibly receive a $550 million loan from GE Capital, which it needs to help restructure operations and avoid bankruptcy. Ken Dalto, a consultant in Farmington Hills, said, “It’s good news, but it’s subject to a lot of conditions, and they’re difficult.” According to a statement by president Mike Edwards, Borders also hopes to expand its Borders Rewards Plus program and its eBook offerings in order to “reposition itself as a vibrant national retailer of books and other related products.” [Source]

A2: Film Industry

Students at the University of Michigan put together a short video highlighting what Ann Arbor has to offer filmmakers, including its diverse settings and Michigan tax incentives. The video’s soundtrack is “Replaceable,” by the local band My Dear Disco. [Source]

A2: Business

As part of an article about how small businesses are exploring global markets, the Wall Street Journal reports on Matt and Rene Greff’s saga of opening a brewpub in India – the couple own Arbor Brewing Company in Ann Arbor and the Corner Brewery in Ypsilanti. “The Greffs traveled to India, where they came to believe Mr. Sikka’s idea was feasible. They found that southern India had a beer-drinking culture, as well as lots of U.S.-educated professionals, including plenty of University of Michigan grads. Moreover, it was an untapped market for traditionally crafted microbrews like the ones the Greffs serve in Michigan. Now, a group of local investors, led by Mr. Sikka, is supervising arrangements for the Bangalore opening. The … [Full Story]

A2: Business

The Detroit News reports that Google will be expanding its offices in Ann Arbor and Birmingham. The company announced that it plans to expand its workforce by 6,200 jobs worldwide, though no number was specified for the Michigan expansion alone. Technical specialists, advertising associates, account managers and sales representatives are those needed to fill upcoming jobs in Ann Arbor. Spokesman Jake
Parrillo said, “Our core business is growing and our emerging businesses are on fire.” [Source]


Grass roots organizer at door. [If you're going to show up on the porch, canvassing the neighborhood for donations to help wildlife, I think a badge and a clipboard are in order so that we know you're official.] [photo]

UM: Auto Industry

The Detroit Free Press reports on efforts of the Detroit Big Three automakers to comply with stricter fuel standards. Walter McManus, director of automotive analysis at UM’s Transportation Research Institute, researched the effect of increasing average fuel economy to 43 mpg by 2020. (The federal government mandates that automakers boost their average fuel economy to 35.5 mpg by 2016. The Obama administration has proposed raising existing CAFÉ standards even higher, to 62 mpg.) McManus forecasts that the Big Three will see an increase in sales and a $5.1 billion bump in profits as a result of more energy-efficient cars. [Source]

A2: Food

The Scripps Howard News Service reports on the work of the Selma Cafe, a Friday morning breakfast salon organized by Jeff McCabe and Lisa Gottlieb at their Ann Arbor home. The cafe raises money to support local farming efforts, including construction of hoop houses. Other projects include a school garden partnership and plans to launch a farm apprenticeship program this spring, managed by McCabe at Steve Thiry’s Tessmer Farm. The article includes Gottlieb’s recipe for fruit and honey bread pudding. [Source]

A2: Hands-On Museum

The Detroit Free Press reports that the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum will receive a $100,000 grant from Toyota Technical Center. The grant is intended for building an engineering exhibit in the Museum’s preschool gallery. Shigeki Terashi, head of Toyota Technical Center, explained: “Our hope is that this preschool area will inspire parents, caregivers and children to explore, create, and most importantly have fun learning and in the future consider careers in these areas.” [Source]

Washtenaw: Transit

A blog post for the Washtenaw Area Transportation Study (WATS) highlights upcoming community forums focused on three possible scenarios for a countywide transit plan, as developed by the Ann Arbor Tranportation Authority: “Input received through the community forums will be used to guide development of a preferred scenario that will be used as the basis for the final Washtenaw County Transit Master Plan. The final outcome may be based on one of the scenarios, or a combination of transit options.” Details about the times and locations of the forums are online at [Source]

Site Plan OK’d for Avalon Housing Project

Ann Arbor planning commission meeting (Jan. 20, 2011): After a public hearing that included comments by some residents of 1500 Pauline, planning commissioners unanimously approved the site plan for an affordable housing project at that location, proposed by the nonprofit Avalon Housing.

Painting of blue houses

This painting of blue houses is not in Avalon Housing's site plan for its affordable housing proposal at 1500 Pauline. It's part of a display by fifth grade students in the lower level of the downtown Ann Arbor District Library, where the Jan. 20 planning commission meeting was held.

The project will include demolishing the existing structure and constructing five one- and two-story buildings and a community center. Though commissioners supported the project, some raised concerns over the relocation of current residents and the fact that the new complex, when completed, will have fewer units – 32, compared to the current 47 apartments. Of those, there will also be far fewer one-bedroom units – six, compared to the current 21.

Representatives from Avalon told commissioners that the lower number was sustainable – 35% of the units will be set aside for residents who’ll receive supportive services. They also said the location was more suited for families, and that there’s more need for two- and three-bedroom affordable housing units in the city.

Another project on the agenda – a site plan and special exception use for 630 Oxford – was postponed, as recommended by city planning staff. The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity wants to turn an existing rental duplex into their chapter’s permanent home, housing up to 24 residents. The housing director and some board members for the neighboring Delta Gamma sorority came to Thursday’s meeting to object to the plan, saying they did not want fraternity culture to disrupt their quiet neighborhood.

Commissioners also unanimously recommended approval of the annexation of 1575 Alexandra Blvd., a vacant 0.82-acre lot now in Ann Arbor Township. The lot is surrounded by the city’s Riverwood Nature Area – its owner plans to build a single-family home on the site.

Also at Thursday’s meeting, Wendy Rampson of the city’s planning staff reminded commissioners of a public meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 26 to get community feedback on draft recommendations for R4C and R2A residential zoning district ordinance revisions. The meeting runs from 6-8 p.m. at the lower level of the downtown Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave. [Full Story]

Marijuana Issue Lingers; DDA-City Deal Stalls

Ann Arbor City Council meeting (Jan. 18, 2011): At its most recent meeting, scheduled a day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the council was due to consider, for a second time, a first-reading of a licensing scheme for medical marijuana businesses that has been put forward by city attorney Stephen Postema.

Stephen Kunselman, Roger Fraser

In deliberations on a resolution that would have authorized the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority to start designing a plan to develop city-owned surface parking lots, Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3), who's speaking here, said he did not want to tie the city administrator's hands. The hands in question are visible in the right of the frame, clearly still untied. (Photos by the writer.)

After amending the licensing proposal heavily at its Jan. 3, 2011 meeting, the council had decided to postpone the measure until Tuesday’s meeting. After a relatively brief attempt to undertake further amendments, the council decided to postpone consideration again – until its Feb. 7, 2011 meeting. They also voted to extend the moratorium on opening additional marijuana dispensaries and cultivation facilities through March 31, 2011.

Not relatively brief were Christopher Taylor’s (Ward 3) opening remarks about a resolution that would have authorized the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority to design a plan to develop city-owned downtown parking lots.

In the end, the council decided to postpone consideration of the DDA parcel-by-parcel proposal – on a 6-4 vote, with some of those voting against postponement looking to vote it down. The effect of the postponement was likely similar to what outright rejection would have been. The clear message was this: Substantial revision to the proposal would be required to gain the kind of overwhelming support the measure will likely need to persuade DDA board members that the council is in agreement with the proposal.

Another piece of major business, which passed quietly, was approval of an overhaul of the ordinance language defining the city’s retirement system. An additional tax abatement for Edwards Brothers received a lot of discussion, but was ultimately approved.

The city also accepted a grant from the Home Depot Foundation for sustainability work, that earned praise for the city’s environmental coordinator, Matt Naud. In other city environmental action, David Stead was reappointed to the city’s environmental commission, and Steve Bean’s decision was announced that he had not sought reappointment to that commission, after a long tenure.

Th site plan for Lake Trust Credit Union at the southeast corner of West Liberty and West Stadium Boulevard was approved. And two additional parcels were added to the land that is protected by the city’s greenbelt program.

As budget season looms, Stephen Rapundalo (Ward 2), who serves on both the city council’s budget committee and the labor and administration committee, gave a status update on the city’s negotiations with its unions. [Full Story]

AAPS Mulls Options to Increase Revenue

Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education study sessions (Dec. 8, 2010 and Jan. 19, 2011): As the AAPS school board begins planning for the 2011-12 budget cycle, it has devoted two recent study sessions to strategizing about how to respond to the structural deficit in Michigan’s education funding.

Christine Stead, Jane Landefeld

AAPS board member Christine Stead, left, with Jane Landefeld, who is director of student accounting for the district. (Photo by the writer.)

The first session, held in December, focused on affecting state funding through legislative advocacy, and resulted in board approval of a detailed set of education funding principles that will be presented to state lawmakers for their consideration. [.pdf of funding principles]

At the second session, held last week, trustees brainstormed potential routes toward enhancing revenue at the local level.

In addition to continuing to advocate for funding changes at the state level, options suggested for local revenue enhancement included: increasing private giving; securing additional grant funding; running another enhancement millage campaign; licensing school logos on apparel; improving customer service; leveraging business partnerships better; continuing to develop new programs; and allocating funding for more robust and targeted marketing strategies to increase enrollment.

Finally, the board also acknowledged the need for some spending cuts in addition to increasing efforts at revenue enhancement. [Full Story]

Lutz Rides Current Motor’s Potential

Editor’s note: The Chronicle first wrote about Current Motor back in April 2009.

On the second day of the recent press preview at the 2011 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, a group of Ann Arborites gathered around a sleek-looking, gleaming blue electric scooter and exchanged banter.

Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz, an investor in Ann Arbor-based Current Electric, plans to take one to the firm's electric scooters on the road when "the snow is off the highway." (Photos by the writer.)

“So, Bob,” says Erik Kauppi, founder and chief engineer of Current Motor, the maker of the scooter. “Are we going to see you tooling around Ann Arbor’s streets on one of these things soon?”

“Bob” is Bob Lutz, the father of the electric Chevy Volt, the sexiest young thing at the auto show – on four wheels, that is. “As soon as the snow is off the highway, I’ll stop by with my checkbook,” Lutz says.

Lutz is now retired from GM, but is far from quitting his advocacy of electric vehicles. He opened up his checkbook last year to Current Motor, becoming an investor in, and adviser to, the company. Just how much did he invest?

“It’s enough to demonstrate a solid interest and small enough so that if this fails I won’t be terribly distressed about it,” Lutz says. “That’s the way I like to invest.” But, he says, the leadership at Current is going about it the right way, so he is confident in their success. [Full Story]

“State of the County” Tackles $20M Deficit

Washtenaw County board of commissioners meeting (Jan. 19, 2011): Commissioners got a sober report from the county’s top administrator on Wednesday, providing a preliminary budget forecast for 2012 and 2013 that anticipates a $20.89 million deficit.

Verna McDaniel

Verna McDaniel, Washtenaw County administrator, gave a State of the County address during the Jan. 19, 2011 meeting of the board of commissioners. (Photos by the writer.)

In her State of the County report, Verna McDaniel outlined areas to target in addressing the two-year shortfall: (1) $1 million in cuts to “outside agencies,” including nonprofits supported by the county; (2) $8.5 million in cuts to employee compensation and benefits; and (3) $8.5 million from organizational changes. She’s also looking to generate $2 million in additional revenue, in part by making sure fees charged by the county are set at “appropriate” levels.

Also related to the budget, commissioners approved agreements with two unions – the Police Officers Association of Michigan (POAM) and the Command Officers Association of Michigan (COAM) – that are expected to save a total of $5.6 million over a four-year period. Those savings are already factored in to the budget forecast, and do not serve to lower the projected deficit.

The board also got an update from Donald Shelton, chief judge of the Washtenew County Trial Court, who reviewed changes to the downtown Ann Arbor courthouse – including renovations to accommodate the county’s juvenile court, which is vacating its Platt Road facility later this year. The restructuring also entails merging all trial court clerk services into a “one-stop” operation at the courthouse. These changes come in the wake of the 15th District Court‘s move last weekend from the county courthouse to the city’s new municipal center at Huron and Fifth.

Court staff is working with the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority to address parking needs – DDA executive director Susan Pollay told The Chronicle that several options are being explored, including possible changes to the county-owned surface parking lot at Main and Ann streets.

After Shelton’s update, the board approved a renewed memorandum of understanding with the trial court, outlining the rights and responsibilities of each unit of government. The MOU calls for the county to fund the court through a “lump sum” agreement – the specific dollar amount hasn’t yet been determined. The MOU was approved unanimously with no discussion, though the topic had spurred debate at the board’s Jan. 12 administrative briefing. The debate stems in part from philosophical differences over how to fund the court.

In other business, commissioners approved a raft of committee appointments, and signed off on hiring a “cost recovery” firm who’ll review the county’s vendor contracts and suggest options for savings. And in an atypical occurrence, no one spoke during public commentary at Wednesday’s meeting. [Full Story]