Thursday, June 2, 2016

The aftermath of the Family Christian Stores' bankruptcy

The 2015 bankruptcy of Family Christian Stores (FCS) has toppled America’s largest Christian products distributor, Send the Light Distribution (STL), according to a June 1, 2015 article in Christianity Today. STL has shipped Christian books and other products via its global supply chain for 42 years, but the fate of Family Christian Stores, in addition to competition from online stores like Amazon, is causing it to close its doors and lay off 85 workers.

A Grand Rapids-based company, Family Christian Stores filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in February, 2015. At that time the company stated its debts amounted to $127 million dollars, while its assets totaled only $75 million. Bankruptcy judge John Gregg rejected the initial auction of the company to Family Christian Acquisitions in June, 2015, stating that behind-the-scenes contact between CEOs of both companies had denied fair bidding to competitors. In response, Family Christian Stores’ creditors were asked to vote on whether they approved the chain being sold to Family Christian Acquisitions. Overwhelmingly they voted yes due to the fact that the chain owned and operated 266 stores in 36 states and this distribution network remained a viable asset. Judge Gregg approved that sale in August of 2015, and it was sold debt-free.

As a result Send the Light Distribution had to erase debts of approximately a half million dollars at a time when many of their other customers, Christian bookstores all over the nation, were closing down as well. The Amazon business model of online sales has changed the way people buy books and other products. Offering online reviews and shipping either wirelessly via tablet or directly to the customer revolutionized the way people choose and buy books and other media. This has affected all kinds of brick-and-mortar stores, not just bookstores. Interestingly enough, sales of Christian books remain strong overall, although the sale of Christian fiction has declined some in popularity over the past decade.

Send the Light Distribution was not the only company penalized by the sale, however. Twenty-seven publishers sued Family Christian Stores in an attempt to get their books, music, and DVDs back before the bankruptcy could proceed. How they have been affected by the erasure of the debt has yet to be seen.

Peter J. and Bernard Zondervan began Family Christian Stores in 1931, and it was known as Zondervan for decades. In 1984 accounting irregularities discovered resulted in lawsuits, SEC sanctions, and shareholder losses in the millions. The company was renamed Family Bookstores in 1993 and then Family Christian Stores in 1997.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Obesity Numbers for Michigan Go Down

The health news for Michigan - not including the Flint Water Crisis - remains a concern for the majority of our adult citizens. The website State of Obesity reported in 2015 that, according to its updated numbers, obesity in Michigan appeared to be leveling out after a sharp rise from 13.2% in 1990 to 31.5% in 2013. It was 30.7% in 2014.

This may not seem to be much, it means that Michigan has dropped from being one of the Top 10 most obese states down to 17, below other Midwest states like Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Sadly, all of the fifty states have obesity rates above 20% and many of them much, much higher. Obesity is highest in the 45-64 category and lowest in the 18-25 category. Men in Michigan are slightly more likely to be obese than women, and Blacks and Latinos are both more likely to be obese than Whites. Adults are considered to be obese if their body mass index (BMI) is greater than 30. Adults with a BMI of higher than 25 but lower than 30 are considered overweight. Combining both overweight and obese adults, two-thirds of adults in Michigan are heavier than what is considered a normal weight.

Recent university research has revealed that childhood sweet cravings are a good predictor of later weight gain and adult obesity. Childhood obesity is also a problem in Michigan, although the percentage of obesity children ages 2-4 in low-income households also dropped with the most recent survey.

While individually people tend to look at weight gain and the health problems associated with it as an individual’s struggle, the fact is that there are long ranging consequences for the state at large because of obesity which is why researchers are looking into childhood obesity predictors and what other root causes could be behind these trends. Not only are diabetes, hypertension, and a host of other physical problems linked to weight gain, but much of the damage done is permanent. Losing weight will help alleviate many dangerous or uncomfortable health conditions, but it will not reverse the stress placed on internal organs or the stretching of skin the results from large weight gain.

Finally, losing hundreds of pounds is not only very difficult, but most people who accomplish it are not able to maintain that weight loss and gain it back over time. This is why researchers want to bypass childhood and mid-life weight gain so that the overall quality of health of the U.S. population is better.

In Kent County the percentage of obese adults is 29%. Women have a slightly lower rate at 28% than men, 30% of whom were obese.  

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The West Michigan brain gain

At one point in time, only a few decades ago, Michigan was essentially synonymous with an achievable middle class lifestyle. The Big Three employed a variety of people from all socio-economic strata, and manufacturing was strong state-wide. Unfortunately globalization, NAFTA, and the economic meltdown of 2008 took a harsh toll on the average citizen’s income, and the result was many people left the state looking for other opportunities.

The economy in West Michigan, however, has diverged from that pattern and is also attracting young professionals to the area, reversing the trend of brain drain the rest of the state has experienced. As the West Michigan economy continues to improve and grow, what will be the effect on its Millennial demographic?

What we know right now is good news. Last year Kent County topped the list for jobs gained in the state. Population-wise, the area has seen growth as well. In the Greater Grand Rapids area, including Barry, Kent, Montcalm, and Ottawa counties, the total population last year was 1,034,840, with a growth rate of 4.6% over the past five years. Out of that population approximately 60% of adults have at least some college education.

According to Paul Isely, Associate Dean of GVSU’s Seidman College of Business, 80-90% of GVSU’s graduates remain in Michigan. Given the trend of Millennials continuing to live with their parents after college, no doubt a significant number of GVSU’s graduates remain in state because their families are here. The diverse economy, however, has given rise to a number of professional jobs that require skill and training, and that means that West Michigan gets to keep more of its young people for itself.

In 2015, Aaron Renn released the findings of a study that indicated that the Greater Grand Rapids area had seen a 45.6% brain gain - that is, an increasing population of highly educated residents between the years 2000 and 2013. Due to this gain, we are seeing Grand Rapids and the West Michigan area remake itself to cater to a resident with more urban sensibilities. The improvement of Grand Rapids’ bus transit system, the RAPID, and the spreading reach of bike paths through the area have allowed young people to live within the city and more easily commute to a job elsewhere.

Downtown and throughout the city more live-work spaces have been developed from former commercial and manufacturing buildings, allowing for neighborhoods that are not just residential, but multi-use. This kind of housing availability will serve to attract more young professionals of the creative class to West Michigan.

The area is not experiencing an aging population trend like many places, but has a mixed population of old, middle-aged, young people, and children. This is a much more positive sign for the future of this city and larger West Michigan. Its hospitals, research facilities, engineering software companies, and manufacturing sector will have talent to draw from to improve the area's future well into the twenty-first century.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Will Grand Rapidians rely on the co-op option for downtown housing?

Grand Rapids has a very low vacancy rate for its rental housing. It has, in fact, the lowest vacancy rate in the nation -- 1.6 percent -- for a number of reasons. As a result of the housing meltdown and the Great Recession, many Americans have damaged credit and cannot qualify for a mortgage or, having lost their homes, do not want to invest in home ownership again. Also pushed into the renters’ market are young college graduates. A generation or two ago, young professionals would have been looking for houses to purchase, but now they are burdened with student loan debt or have relocated to find work and don’t want to explore longer-term options.

Grand Rapids also has a number of colleges, including Grand Valley State University and Grand Rapids Community College, both of which are located downtown where demand for housing is already high. Additionally, while Americans in the latter part of the 20th century were eager to move out of the city and to the suburbs, that trend is reversing as younger people struggle to afford cars and pay for gas on stagnant wages and with fewer job opportunities. As restaurants, breweries, farmer’s markets, sports and cultural venues continue to multiply in Grand Rapids, people of all ages want to be on hand to enjoy them.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Is Our Water Safe to Drink?

With the Flint water crisis being in the news now for weeks, it's very likely that citizens from all over Michigan are asking themselves if they can trust the water coming from their faucets. Certainly Grand Rapids residents aren't the only one wondering if their water is potable or if it's full of harmful bacteria and toxic chemicals.

To begin with, it's important to note that Grand Rapids City Deputy Manager Eric DeLong says that the water in the Grand Rapids area is safe to drink. That water comes from Lake Michigan, is treated in West Olive, and is piped in from there to residents' homes. It is checked at multiple points to determine that it meets specifications for drinking water safety. The Grand Rapids Water Systems sends out an annual water quality report detailing how it makes sure that the city's water is safe to drink.

Also, Grand Rapids has a history with its water. Its location on the Grand River facilitated its success as the Furniture City, and Grand Rapids was the first city to implement a policy of adding fluoride to it public water system in 1945.

The problem in Flint appears to be one of oversight and accountability, but it's clear the public doesn't understand what the risks with untreated water are either. Water is most often contaminated because of how humans behave around water sources. Toxic chemicals get dumped in streams, river, and lakes. People don't keep their drinking water separate enough from the water they use to clean, bathe, urinate, or defecate in. Very frequently the water-borne illnesses travelers pick up in other countries are because the water is not sufficiently treated to remove germs, bacteria, or parasites.

One of the larger problems with the Flint case is the lead currently found in the drinking water. Heavy metals including lead dissolve in water when it flows through pipes or within the natural aquifers the water is taken from. Sometimes people notice it, such as when water has an iron taste or stains a sink red over time. Mostly it's invisible, though. Unfortunately, once a person has ingested heavy metals, they are hard to remove from bodily tissues. Instead, they build up over time and eventually interfere with numerous bodily processes in various ways. The simplest way to treat heavy metal poisoning is not to be exposed to heavy metals in the first place. It's hard to recommend that as a strategy after exposure has already occurred, however.

A good water treatment system has multiple steps included in order to remove all of the above hazards and more. These include coagulation and flocculation, sedimentation, filtration, and disinfection. The water must be well monitored over time to make sure the system is working and consistently. In Flint neither of these were done effectively.

This is certainly not the first time the public has gotten nervous about contamination. Now that such a large percentage of our food comes from hundreds or thousands of miles away and is subject to contamination anywhere from point of origin to each loading dock stop it makes. We all rely on both municipal systems and government oversight to maintain public health. The question is, can we trust these people to do their jobs?



Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Tight housing market in downtown Grand Rapids continues to expand

The diversified and growing West Michigan economy has benefited Grand Rapids residents and communities in the past several years, making this area a desirable place to live and work. This has lead to a tightening market for housing downtown, however. Not only are condos and apartments difficult to find in Grand Rapids, they’re also getting more expensive for those who can locate them.

Triad Real Estate Partners released a December report which found that, for the 50 apartment complexes surveyed, 98% of units are currently occupied by tenants. Many factors are at work in the city’s renaissance, but solid city planning, a growing number of jobs in the educational, healthcare, and manufacturing sectors, and a low cost of living are luring new people to the area to stay and settle in the city Forbes Magazine ranked as #1 in the country for raising a family. In fact, the unemployment rate in the area dropped to 3.1%, making it one of the lowest in the country.

Currently, the average rate for a one-bedroom apartment in the Grand Rapids area is $728 a month. Rates on all types of apartments increased an average of 5% in 2015, but analysts do not expect this trend of inflation to continue unchecked. More and more developers have been feeling out the West Michigan market, and construction is already well in process in many places around the city.

Just this week the Woda Group, an Ohio-based developer announced plans to build a $12 million dollar affordable housing development on Front Avenue NW. The project, to be named Grand View Place after its location on the Grand River, will have 68 units and consist of both apartments and townhouses. Construction will begin this coming summer.

Also this week the Grand Rapids Area Community Foundation announced a $500,000 grant to Habitat for Humanity of Kent County for renovation and revitalization of housing on the city’s West Side. This money should allow 120 homeowners to achieve affordable housing for themselves and their families.

Other projects, such as the Clancy Lofts overlooking Division and the Medical Mile are expected to be completed this year and will offer further variety for downtown renters seeking a place to live. Whether the planning and construction of these projects will continue apace with burgeoning demand is something that remains to be seen, but for now area renters can expect to have to search and pay more than they’ve had to in the past.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

General Motors announces new investment in Wyoming plant

General Motors announced yesterday that it would be investing $43.35 million into its Wyoming plant at 2100 Burlingame Ave. SW. This investment should, by General Motors’ calculations, result in the retention of 15 jobs and the creation of 55 more.

In the past decades, the strength of automobile manufacturing has declined significantly and General Motors closed their 2-million-square-foot stamping plant on 36th St. in 2009. This structure was built in 1935, and the employment it ensured built Wyoming and sustained it through jobs and taxes, but the last 1,500 positions were terminated six years ago, and the building was subsequently demolished. The City of Wyoming has been trying to woo businesses to this property (named Site 36) for a number of years with personal property tax abatements and TIF redevelopment dollars and has had some success as manufacturing in general in West Michigan is now on the rise.

The Grand Rapids Operations plant on Burlingame now employs 530 men and women and manufactures a range of precision-machined components for Buick, Chevrolet, GMC, and Cadillac automobiles. These include lash adjusters, roller hydraulic valve lifters, cylinder deactivation lifters, continuously variable cam phasers, and other metal stampings. The planned expansion will add powertrain components to this list.

In a press release Grand Rapids Operations plant manager Rick Demuynck said, "This commitment not only reflects confidence in the Grand Rapids team, along with the leadership of the UAW, but also showcases the sense of ownership and pride our employees have in the products they build."

This is General Motors’ second announcement of planned investment in West Michigan operations this year. In June they announced that they would reactivate a portion of it’s Wyoming plant with a $119 million investment that would result in 300 new jobs.
Since the Michigan economy and the very infrastructure in most Michigan cities was built in large part to be dependent on the automobile, and many of our jobs in this state depend on the Big Three, whether through direct employment, work in related industries like auto shop jobs, or jobs funded by the taxes generated from auto manufacturing, any increase in this type of employment is welcome news. The necessary diversification of Michigan manufacturing has made this state better able to weather future economic problems, but auto jobs built our middle class, and gave opportunities to generations of people in this state they would not otherwise have had.