Monday, December 29, 2014

Grand Rapids green tech

While Grand Rapids has been known for some time as being an example for its municipal-encouraged green practices in both city life and sponsored business initiatives, determining the actual environmental impact is a bit more complicated than recent press releases would suggest.

For example, while Grand Rapids currently has the most LEED certified buildings per capita of any city in the United States, LEED certification has come under fire for being more focused on generating jobs and revenue for LEED certification specialists and siphoning funds from the U.S. Government for projects that have little actual environmental impact. While it is undoubtedly good for businesses to explore and implement ways to save energy or generate through passive or green technology, the prevalence of actual green practices as well as the outcome for the bottom line is yet to be determined, certainly as far as the overall picture is concerned.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Doings and Deeds, a Grand Rapids history, part 2

For the previous installment, see Part 1.

In the early 19th century, the now established Three Fires tribes faced a European invasion when in 1821, the Treaty of Chicago ceded the entire region south of the Grand River to the United States. Baptist missionaries built in the villages on the west bank of the Grand River. In this same year, 1827, the shrewd Louis Campau set up shop, eventually purchasing 72 acres of land where downtown stands today - for $90. A number of his relatives settled in the area and also bought land. For a time the language spoken “downtown,” then, was not an Anishinabek dialect, nor English, but French.

Campau, Lucius Lyon, and others prospered through trade and the buying and selling of city lots. The downtown developed, and the people of the Three Fires were slowly pushed out or left. Louis Campau lost a great deal of money in land speculation when the land boom's bubble burst. He had signed a surety bond for the goods in his brother Toussaint’s store, and did not have the money to cover the bills when it failed. Campau was forced to sign over much of his property until all these debts could be sorted out. And there went the neighborhood again. In 1838 the City of Grand Rapids was officially incorporated.


Campau’s entrepreneurial success, his energetic wheeling and dealing, and the displacement of the native peoples who had lived in villages here undoubtedly caused friction and hard feelings over time, but he remained on good terms with Chief Noonday and had many Indian friends all his life. Campau could be generous to a fault, and all of the city was welcome first in his log house, and then in the mansion he built on the southwest corner of Fulton and Gay.

With city incorporation, more settlers arriving, and a more formal city emerging, some of the trappings of East Coast civilization emerged. Chages at first were small and slow. Campau renamed the Indian footpath along the river Monroe Street after President Monroe. Other trails leading to Campau's trading post were eventually called by recognizable names: Butterworth, Kalamazoo, Lake Drive, Plainfield, and Walker. Joel Guild built the first frame house with lumber sawed at an Indian mill in 1833. That Christmas in a letter to relatives, Guild wrote that the area was "settling very fast with respectable citizens." It was much easier for settlers to travel to Michigan and all parts west after the Erie Canal was complete in 1825. Guild mailed that letter from one of the area's two post offices.

Major earthworks projects reshaped the river and removed Prospect Hill. Farms sprung up in all directions radiating from the village. The Lucius Lyon Salt Works opened in 1842, and the Granger & Ball gypsum mill began operation. John Ball's name appears first in the city's records in 1836, and when the census was first taken in 1845, there were 1,510 residents. By this time the village had shops, mills, factories, tanneries, public houses, smiths, and three doctors. The first Grand Rapids dentist, J.T. Collier, who advertised his services arrived in 1843.

The villagers in Grand Rapids began building more formal churches. The Congregational Church at the corner of Division and Monroe had a thousand-pound bell that tolled the hours; it was one of four local places of worship. When the first east-west stone-foundation bridge was build in 1845, the city was beginning to feel permanently settled. It had by-laws, a fire barn and fire engine, paid trustees, and board sidewalks. The times, they were a-changin'.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Grand Rapids, the test case for fluoridation

In January of 1945, Grand Rapids became the first city to introduce fluoride to its water supply. Was this a net positive or a net negative? It depends on who you ask.

The American Dental Association has established that a .7 parts per million solution of fluoride is the optimal for the prevention of tooth decay, and many West Michigan dentists agree. There is no doubt that the often catastrophic tooth issues that plagued our grandparents are much rarer in American society now, and there is certainly a correlation between children with access to fluoridated water and lowered rates of tooth decay.

The Center for Disease Control considers the fluoridation of American water supplies to be a huge public health victory. About 70 percent of American municipal water is currently fluoridated.

There are a number of groups that exist to advocate for removing fluoridation from water as well, and it's useful to consider their arguments before coming to any conclusion.

One of the biggest arguments against water fluoridation is that essentially it's a rather uncontrolled science experiment on a captive population. By dosing whole communities with fluoride governments ensure access to this chemical, but do these populations know what is going into their body? What grade is the fluoride being added? Apparently it's not pharmaceutical grade fluoride.

Secondly, consuming fluoride isn't necessary to reduce cavities - this is why topical use in toothpaste serves teeth adequately. Taking in regular amounts of fluoride over time has largely unknown long-term health effects, and they are largely unknown because they are largely unstudied. But there does appear to be some evidence that fluoride exposure increases risk for infertility, arthritis, lowered I.Q., thyroid issues, bone problems, and bone cancer.

What's more, not everyone's exposure to fluoride is the same, since people drink different amounts of water and children, particularly babies fed on formula have higher fluoride intake. Furthermore, while poor children without access to other sources of water such as bottled water are more exposed to fluoride in the water, they still have higher rates of dental decay than other children. Dental problems have steadily decreased in American populations, but they've also decreased in European populations without access to fluoridated water.

There are many more arguments against fluoridation, and few people are aware of them since fluoride is viewed as a wonder chemical and actively advertised. Grand Rapidians are increasingly interested in exploring options for better and more natural food options and healthcare. They care about what they put into their bodies. It would be worthwhile for them to be aware of what is going into their bodies without permission as well - and to ask questions.

How will West Michigan's retailers fare this Black Friday?

Revenues made in the last six weeks of any fiscal year frequently make the difference between businesses finishing the year in the red as opposed to the black. So there is a lot of interest in Black Friday and the excitement shoppers show (as well as the money they spend) over the long Thanksgiving weekend.

Yesterday many major retailers in West Michigan, including Macy’s and JCPenney, decided to open in the evening to take extra advantage of shoppers’ enthusiasm. Many other smaller stores located in the malls these stores anchor did not, although they were under some pressure from mall management to open as well. The Grand Traverse Mall threatened fines for stores that were not open during the required hours of 8 P.M. Thursday to 1 A.M. Friday.

As of this morning news outlets were reporting that crowds were smaller than last year when stores opened their doors at 5 A.M. Some speculated that this was because even more shopping venues were open even earlier this year so the competition for shoppers was fiercer. It’s possible that black shoppers boycotting Black Friday over the Ferguson grand jury outcome earlier this week may have had an impact as well. Nationwide, African-American shoppers have about $1 trillion in customer clout, some percentage of which is in Grand Rapids which is demographically about 21 percent black.

Of course, many retailers hope that shoppers will keep their money in the local economy by patronizing local businesses. In order to better facilitate this, Local First of Grand Rapids have put together a local treasure holiday box showcasing the products of area entrepreneurs. Local First estimates that dollars spent on local retailers are much more likely to stay within the community and will be filtered through other venues, creating and sustaining local jobs and strengthening bonds within the community and empowering smaller players. For those interested in stimulating the local economy, whether through buying apparel, craft beer, or auto partsSmall Business Saturday is tomorrow, November 29.

Currently there is no real consensus about whether it’s appropriate to open on Thanksgiving. Many people feel that the encroachment of commercialism on a national holiday is wrong. Others love the thrill of bargain hunting no matter when opportunity knocks. It remains to be seen what the impact of either group will be on Black Friday and the bottom line of our local economy in 2014.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Will new public transport options in Grand Rapids further jolt the economy?

The new Vernon J. Ehlers Amtrak station opened on Monday, October 27, in Grand Rapids after a number of delays. Outgoing senator, Carl Levin, and Grand Rapids mayor, George Heartwell, were on hand with other officials to cut the ribbon.

Michigan’s 20th century economy was largely built on the success of the automobile, and the car companies, seeking to maintain economic power, encouraged government spending on highways over public transportation and, in some cases, worked actively to eliminate other competing modes of transportation like streetcars and electric trains. However, now, with the auto companies in decline, the price of oil significantly higher, and an upcoming younger demographic that is eschewing big purchases, small but vibrant cities are rethinking their options.

Most large and successful cities have well built public transportation structures incorporating buses, taxis, subways, bike lanes, and trains. Above a certain level of population density, it’s required because there is no room for more cars - either on the road or parked. Midwestern Americans have been dependent on cars so long, many of them can’t see the inherent advantages to a safe and well run system, but they are many.

Public transport minimizes traffic congestion by taking more cars and bodies off the streets. It also minimizes costs to users as subways and buses are more fuel efficient. Fewer cars mean fewer accidents, shorter commutes, and cleaner air. Access to reliable public transport bumps up property values as well. Cities with round-the-clock transportation options have round-the-clock service and entertainment available as well. A good transportation system will also help lure knowledge workers to a city, entice businesses, and attract more tourism dollars as well.
Frankly, at this point in time Millennials are financially struggling, and they are cutting their losses. Many of them would rather pay a large cell phone bill than even a small car payment, and that’s not factoring in the cost of the car itself, insurance, gas, repairs, replacement car parts, or parking. Many older people feel they have spent enough time on highways in cars and may not have the budget for these things either as a result of our post-Great Recession economy.

The new Vernon J. Ehlers station has been a bit controversial. It took a long time to build. For a small station, it was very expensive project - $6.1 million in assorted government monies. There have been concerns about the design and the construction. But this new facility is located right next to the new Rapid bus station now, and it will be easy for people all over the city to travel downtown and then to further cities or states. It will also be easy for tourists to arrive by train and get around Grand Rapids quickly. And for young travelers on small budgets they should be able to do this cheaply, leaving them plenty of money to spend in museums, venues, restaurants, and craft breweries.

If Grand Rapids utilizes, promotes, and incentivizes its new transportation options, it can only help the city to grow economically, socially, and creatively and attract others to that growth.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Doings and Deeds, a Grand Rapids history, part 1

As the demographic composition of Grand Rapids continues to change, it’s easy to imagine the current influx of immigrants from other countries and elsewhere in the United States and Michigan is something new and uniquely challenging for Grand Rapidians. In reality, the area’s history is full of these kinds of changes.

The earliest identified settlers of the area were the Hopewell Indians, known primarily for the complex engineering of their large burial mounds. Grand Rapids has one of the best preserved of these earthworks downtown, although what remains is only a small part of what the Hopewell built. It’s uncertain what happened to the Hopewell peoples. Some historians speculate that their collapse was due to a greater use of the bow and arrow on the North American continent Since they left no written records, we can only interpret their culture through the ceremonial items they left in their burial mounds, the most common of which are chipped points and blades, celts and adzes, as well as some ceramics and ceremonial ornaments and jewelry made of shells, silver, copper, and mica. Many of the products they crafted were made of materials found far from West Michigan, so clearly there were cross-continental trade routes in existence at the time.

The sixth century saw the decline of the Hopewell, and during the Late Woodland period, a number of other smaller cultures appear and disappear in the fossil record, and by the 16th century, when the French began exploring the area, they found a number of different tribes living along the shores of Lake Michigan, including the Ottawa, the Chippewa, the Menominee, the Sauk, the Fox, the Mascouten, the Miami, and the Potawatomi peoples. They lived separately, spoke different languages (some of them dialects of Algonquin), and had their own cultural as well as food growing or gathering practices which were dependent in large part on the local climate. The Potawatomi and the Ottawa periodically encamped together.

During this period trade flourished among the many groups. The Ottawa (Algonquin for "to buy or sell") were particularly involved in this inter-tribal trade. By the mid-17th century, the Iroquois Indians began expanding their territory into the Great Lakes region in an attempt to monopolize the lucrative fur trade the Europeans had introduced. The Iroquois were fierce fighters, armed with rifles, and their efforts resulted in either the death, forced integration, or the out migration of tribes who fled the violence resulting from the Beaver Wars.

Later the French resumed the fur trade, but conflicts with the Iroquois and the British, as well as an oversupply of furs, made it less lucrative over time. Eventually they abandoned their trading forts in the upper Great Lakes. In 1701 they allowed Antoine Laumet de Lamothe Cadillac to build a model trading post at what today is Detroit, and the French began encouraging the many tribes they had been trading with to do business with them in southeast Michigan instead. Combining these tribes together in one area had some less than peaceful results for the French. Eventually the British moved in on French territory and there were multiple players rivaling each other for dominance of the fur trade. The British treated the native tribes differently, however, and relations between the British and the various Indian tribes was never as friendly or cooperative, even during more peaceful periods.

Eventually the tribes we associate with Michigan history settled the previously emptied out areas. These were the people of the Three Fires, the Ottawa, the Chippewa, and the Potawatomi, who called themselves the Anishinabek, or “the Original People.” The numerous wars with the Iroquois, the French, the British, as well as inter-tribal conflicts had eliminated many tribes from Michigan, so while Europeans visiting in 1600 and 1800 would have seen territory controlled by Indians, there had been a significant amount of shake up as to who controlled what and when. Then, as it has been since, West Michigan's population was in flux.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Developers hope to remake Creston Corridor

616 Development announced Wednesday plans to build a $6 million mixed-use project including apartments and retail space. Scheduled for demolition to make room for the additional market rate housing is The Break Room, a closed pool hall.

For Sun Title Agency which spent significant monies expanding and redeveloping their business real estate on Plainfield Avenue, this is good news. The area has considerable room for growth, and city planners as well as local residents have been pushing for improvements for some time. Sun Title’s owners plan an overhaul of another of their properties, the Creston Market. This grocery will also be expanded and plan to take advantage of Grand Rapids’s enthusiasm for local craft beers and other beverages to expand their offerings and bring in new clientele.

Two years ago, after an infrastructure assessment, this entire stretch of Plainfield was repaved and bio-retention islands were added to slow down traffic, address water run-off problems, and beautify the road. Unfortunately, while it looked better, the foot traffic did not emerge, and plenty of storefronts have remained empty. The crime rate for the streets surrounding that section of Plainfield remains stubbornly high compared to other areas of Creston, and many neighbors perceive it as less safe.

However, a year ago, the Grand Rapids Public Schools closed Creston High School and moved City High/Middle to the old Creston location. City High is currently ranked the 5th best high school in Michigan. The impact of this decision on the possibilities for future business development should not be understated. Studies have shown that most juvenile crime is committed immediately after school lets out. The three most common juvenile crimes are disorderly conduct, shoplifting, and assault. So the drop in crime in the northern neighborhoods of Grand Rapids in 2014, down 20 percent for property crimes and 23 percent for violent crimes, will be a motivating factor in the timing of this development.

Given these changes and the additional investment, the revitalization of the Creston area looks quite possible now.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Jamarion Lawhorn's parents are charged with child abuse

Last week Anita Lawhorn and her husband, Bernard Harrold, were charged with child abuse for their treatment of Anita's son, Jamarion Lawhorn, the 12-year-old responsible for the stabbing murder of Connor Verkerke in August. 

After Connor's murder, details of Jamarion's home life came to light including past CPS involvement in the family's life. Child neglect and abuse reports were substantiated against both Lawhorn and Harrold which, in 2013, led to his being placed with his father in New York.  This spring Jamarion returned to Michigan for what was intended to be a short visit with his mother, and he remained there until August when police took him into custody.

Now Lawhorn and Harrold have each been charged with one count of third and fourth-degree child abuse. Lawhorn's other children were removed from their care and are staying with relatives. They are allowed only supervised visits with the children until the court can evaluate their progress. Currently they are cooperating with authorities and getting counseling.

I'm going to go off the Reservation of Objectivity here and say that, as another Grand Rapids parent of a young boy, I think these people should be charged, imprisoned, sterilized, and never allowed near their children, or any children, again. CPS deemed their home entirely unsatisfactory. Utilities were off, the rent overdue, the beds lacked bedding, food in the house was scarce, and drug paraphernalia was present in the bathroom. Additionally, Jamarion had bruises all over his body he said his stepfather gave him, and he was being threatened daily with more beatings. Lawhorn and Harrold also neglected to get him the psychological help recommended for his "significant behavioral issues." 

While I believe in human self-determination, it hard to think that, given Jamarion's extreme youth, Connor's murder wasn't the fault of these two. This is not the first proven instance of abusive parenting either. Anita Lawhorn lost custody of two other children in 1996. 

I don't care what kind of "progress" these two are making, they should be arrested, thrown into jail, denied bail until their trial, then put away forever. It's too bad we don't have the death penalty in Michigan. They're horrible people and awful parents. They created a killer. No doubt their other children have been abused and neglected as well.  

Children should have the right to be cared for by capable, nurturing adults. Despite the impression given by ad campaigns, it's actually a long, tedious process to become a foster or adoptive parent in Michigan. It takes hours of training, and the bureaucracy goes through your life with a fine toothed comb. And then, when you actually have foster children in your home, your life is subject to endless regulation and check ups by the state and you're on the leash of the preferences of your foster children's biological parents and family (so that someday they can be reunited with their proven abusers). It's a bit shocking that the system prioritizes this - micromanaging foster parents - when children all over the city and state are living in filth and danger, uncared for and abused, and ample evidence has presented itself to authorities in any number of cases. 

While Jamarion is an outlier because of his age and his chosen method of killing, he is certainly not alone in his despair and rage. How can we sufficiently punish and shame this kind of abuse enough to send a message to others that this kind of abuse is not acceptable and will not be allowed to continue? It seems like with all of its blessings, West Michigan should have the kinds of resources to make real change in the lives of these kids and prevent more violence in the future. How can we do that? 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Predicted harsh winter may be a revenue buster for Grand Rapids

Monday, September 29, 2014

ArtPrize from the view of middle schoolers

What gorgeous weather Grand Rapids has had this year for ArtPrize. September is quite often our most enjoyable month, but all of this sunshine and warmth must be great for downtown venues and vendors - and tourists!

While the adults in our family have been to ArtPrize once or not at all, our fifth grader has been three times: once with his school class, once with friends, and once with his mother. He tells me that he doesn't need to see this much art, but it is still fun to view this huge event through his eyes.

One of the interesting things I realized when I was driving downtown with him was that even though this is only the sixth time ArtPrize has been held, he doesn't remember Grand Rapids before this event. Nor does he remember a time when people had to take cameras or just view large spectacles like this and try to remember them. In his mind there have always been iPods and smartphones and people have always been whipping them out whenever anything moved or even twitched.

When he came home after his class trip, I asked him what he liked best, and he had no comment. Browsing the photos taken on my camera, I noted that half of them were pictures taken of his friends in goofy poses. There was some art - a stained glass church window, a large painting with a cow, but any greater meaning or vision the art on display held seems to have largely passed him by.

I encouraged his friend and him to tell me what they saw. Here is conversation the had:

Friend: "Some of the exhibits were completely inappropriate."
My son: "There were a bunch of naked people."
Friend: "Well, naked women. I think the guys had underwear on."
My son: "No, they didn't."
Friend: "Yeah, they did.
My son: "They didn't have underwear on."
Friend: "And one of them - her boobs were all saggy. It was totally disgusting."
Son: "It was gross."
Friend: "I don't know what those artists were thinking!"

According to both of them, the men in bunny suits in the river piece was "Messed up!" When I told them it was a self-portrait, they just looked at me funny.

My son really wanted to take a selfie with the penguin statue next to the horse made out of old mechanical parts, though. And both boys were impressed by Dominic Pangborn's 3-D Michigan in Motion. We looked at that one for awhile from all of the different angles.

They collected the cards from the artists too and tried to decide which cards were more better and more tradable: "This one has +5 attack damage." "This is a get out of jail free card!" And they went back to the #U piece to get the temporary #U tattoo.

It would appear, then, that whether you like or appreciate art, people watching, walking around downtown Grand Rapids in September, or none of these, ArtPrize still may have something enjoyable to offer.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Grand Rapids gears up for Artprize 2014

Downtown things are starting to gear up - for ArtPrize, that is. ArtPrize is Grand Rapids’s annual art competition; it draws artists from across the globe to compete for the votes of everyday viewers and participants. A total of $560,000 in prize money will be given out to the winners, and half of that is determined by popular vote. ArtPrize will run this year from September 24 until October 12.

Local restaurants and hotels are preparing for far more business than usual. ArtPrize 2013 generated $22.2 million in new economic activity, and the city and its entrepreneurs would love a repeat or increase in revenues for this sixth Artprize festival. It’s the nation’s largest public art competition, and an estimated 300,000 people will be on hand to participate in choosing 2014’s most popular art. The income and jobs created by this event are impressive objectively, but for workers in Michigan, long plagued with unemployment woes, they’re even more appreciated. Rick DeVos deserves a lot of credit for the long term value this open air art festival imparts to the city. Much of the art on display is also for sale, which helps local artists get noticed and connected with their audience.

This week Artprize announced the locations and services available at its hospitality spaces. The one open to the general public will be located at 41 Sheldon Blvd. Here people will be able to register to vote in Artprize, ask for general assistance, purchase ArtPrize merchandise, and view previous winning entries. The other location will be for the media, the artists, and other credentialed visitors.

ArtPrize will also be releasing apps for Apple and Android on September 22. These will allow ArtPrize participants to share their opinions and experiences and better navigate the busy downtown display areas.

Already some of this year’s 1,536 entrants have begun the process of packing and shipping their work to the city, installing, or creating their art in situ as Kevin Sudeith is with his carvings of native Grand River fishes on field stone near the public museum. Grand Rapids, already peppered with murals and former art installations, will soon be as decorated as a Christmas tree again, and people from all over the city, the state, the United States, and the world will arrive to behold it.

This is a win-win for all comers: artists, restaurateurs, businessmen, festival goers, schoolchildren, and city officials. The American Bus Association just named ArtPrize a Top 100 Best Event for 2015, and it has made numerous other lists over the past few years. Will you be there this year?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Non-traditional office space: the options for today's entrepreneurs Use your key for the next article

One survey of 2014 college graduates found that 83 percent were graduating from college without firm job prospects. Given that every year more young people graduate into the same downcast employment market, a higher number of them are deciding to skip the job search and try entrepreneurship or other nontraditional means of work. They have little to lose and, because the barriers for entry are now so low, business owners who deal primarily in information, ideas, or technology can in a variety of non-traditional spaces. This workforce revolution is causing people to rethink their expectations of what an office is and which office characteristics are truly essential for getting work done.

For the risk averse, the situation can be intimidating, but for those ready to experiment and take chances with their careers, the possibilities are bright. The entrepreneur or consultant may find the rise of the 1099 economy freeing because she can set her own work terms and create the conditions that best suit her productivity. In an interview about Neocon, the largest commercial design conference in the country, Todd Custer of Custer phrased it like this: “The best young talent coming out of college does not want to sit in a cubicle and work eight hours a day staring at one screen. They need collaborative surroundings and up-to-date communication technology.”

So what are the options for recent graduates seeking employment?

Some young professionals choose to work from home. This arrangement works well if the home environment is not too chaotic or distracting. The commute is, of course, non-existent, the dress code is flexible, and the price is right.

The downside of working from home is three-fold: it can be difficult to persuade family or roommates that you’re on work time and not their time, it’s very easy to get distracted in a comfortable environment, and, for many people, it feels like the work week never ends.
For workers or business owners on a tight budget, one way to avoid these problems is to choose a public space with free wifi, like a coffee house or the library. Many writers prefer these, even though they are somewhat less comfortable, because the settings feel more like a work environment and more can be accomplished. Coffee shops are also great for networking or conducting informal business or sales meetings.

The drawback of the coffee house arrangement for business owners is that public spaces do not allow for the normal office culture to grow. It’s difficult to schedule brainstorming in temporary spaces. Some people find public spaces too loud or chaotic as well. And, of course, there are limitations on the amount of time people are allowed to remain, depending on the needs of other customers or the goodwill of the shop owner.

For those who want a more professional atmosphere without a huge financial commitment, co-working spaces are a popular and emerging trend. These spaces can be rented hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly, and they provide at least some of the amenities of the office. This arrangement is good for business owners who need to interact with their staff but don’t want to rent furniture or real estate.Co-working spaces are also good for workers who need socialization and a more scheduled work week. Some workers will find that having to pay for space motivates them to be more productive.

Worklab by Custer had its grand opening this last June and aims to service the upper end of this entrepreneurial and business market. While many co-working spaces provide a place to accomplish tasks, some, like Worklab, provide space to entertain clients and hold conferences as well. Business owners who want to make an impression will find renting has its benefits.

Co-working spaces are, of course, more expensive. They run the gamut from basic to posh, depending on the taste and budget of the user. They are also only available now in urban areas, which means that for many this option makes for a much longer commute.

Finally, for entrepreneurs with backers or small business loans, there’s the option of renting space or buying real estate and either renting or purchasing used office furniture. After the financial downturn of 2008, commercial real estate became much more affordable. In some urban markets, unused buildings like schools and churches are being converted to commercial space. For the energetic and handy, or those with skilled friends, this investment might pay off greatly.

As always, the options available for young workers and entrepreneurs depend on their budgets, but in many ways there are more potential workspace choices than ever to meet an individual’s needs. While the market for employment is far from stable and predetermined,, the number of choices available to young professionals is better than it’s been in years, and customization of working environments is far more possible, and less expensive, than it ever has been.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Will downtown Grand Rapids get a major grocery store?

The explosion of housing development in downtown Grand Rapids has started a number of conversations about the general livability factor of the city and the lack of grocery availability in that area of the city. From data made available by JPMorgan Chase this summer, we know that downtown residents make 80 percent of their purchases outside the downtown area and that the Knapp's Corner Meijer and D&W is the most sought out location for grocery purchases.

Over the last decades a pattern of downtown working and suburban living emerged, but since the Butterworth/Blodgett merger and the development of the Medical Mile on Michigan, demand for downtown real estate has increased significantly, spurred on by increasing transportation costs as well. Suddenly the place to be is not longer in the suburbs, but in the city, and developers have been eager to build more housing that will appeal to people with professional jobs and incomes. Old factories and commercial buildings have been transformed into condos and apartments, and the city recently approved plans for a mixed-space development in the Belknap neighborhood, just north of the Medical Mile.

These changes have been controversial, with some calling them gentrification and others accusing the city of allowing the more well off citizens to push established residents out of key areas of the city. Other celebrate what they consider the significant improvements in dining choices, retail shopping, entertainment options, and public living.

What is not debated by either group is that downtown city living, despite its benefits, is more challenging because of the lack of grocery shopping options. Food is available in the city in small boutique groceries and at farmer's markets, and there are food delivery options through Doorganics and the West Michigan Coop, but there is no large scale, one-stop-shopping option for buying food and other sundries downtown.

So how viable would a large grocery store be downtown? Despite the Downtown Development Authority identifying the lack of grocery options downtown as a significant weakness of the city in 2011, there seems to be significant hesitation from chains like Meijer or Trader Joe's to locate anywhere near downtown. Part of this must be logistical. Parking downtown is a problem, and although the Silver Line made its inaugural run this week offering residents more transportation flexibility, large chain stores are designed to sell groceries in bulk - a practice that doesn't mesh as well with public transportation use.

Additionally, for the most desirable affluent market, there already are grocery options like the Downtown Market. It's the working class and downsized middle class who would need a low cost option like a coop or an ALDI downtown to consider urban living even possible. Most of them rely on their cars too much to give them up, even if car maintenanceis more expensive long term. This demographic isn't concerned about the health benefits of kombucha or gluten-free eating. They need grocery stores who will accept the bridge card and/or offer cheap staples and produce, locally grown or not.

The question, then, is: does the city intend to encourage economic diversity with its downtown planning or not? And is there enough demand to support a larger grocery store at present? Rich people can always pay to have groceries delivered, no matter where they come from. The economically disadvantaged need an option geographically nearby.
Only time will tell.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Proposal 1 aims to update tax code and lift tax burden on businesses

On August 5 with Proposal 1 voters will have a chance to modify in small part the current state tax code and replace income generated by the Personal Property Tax with monies collected from industrial property owners under an Essential Services Assessment (ESA) as well as the statewide use tax known as the Local Community Stabilization Share. These monies will be disbursed by a newly created Local Community Stabilization Authority. Taxpayers will not be required to pay any new taxes under this new proposal.

As the tax code is written now, businesses must pay taxes annually on equipment they purchased, no matter if the equipment is a decade, or four, old, and regardless of what sales tax they paid on it at the time of purchase. Business owners feel that this is an unfair, punitive tax, and some economists have asserted that it is this kind of disincentive that drives businesses from Michigan to states with less of a tax and regulatory burden.

The difficulty with simply eliminating this tax is that so many Michigan municipalities rely on that income in order to be able to provide critical services. If the tax is eliminated and not replaced with anything, citizens will suffer a significant loss of services such as city police, fire, libraries, schools, roads and jails throughout Michigan. Proposal 1 was crafted with the input of both businesses and city governments and is widely supported by both.

Unfortunately for a measure that is intended to eliminate the double tax burden on small businesses and stabilize funding for city services, the language of the bill itself is dense and, for many, indecipherable. In response, Michigan Citizens for Strong and Safe Communities has launched a $5.6 million marketing campaign to educate the public and eliminate confusion about this ballot issue. The funding for the campaign was donated in large part by businesses, including Ford Motor Company and Dow Chemical. The Michigan Manufacturing Association also contributed $1.6 million.

In Grand Rapids the City Commission is strongly urging voters to support Proposal 1 with a yes vote as is Mayor George Heartwell and the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. State House Candidate Cindy Duran, however, feels that the passage of Proposal 1 will have a number of unintended consequences. The Wayne County Taxpayers Association is also urging a no vote for a number of reasons, asserting that the complex ballot language will lead to misinterpretation of the passed proposal in the future and abuse by the newly created Local Community Stabilization Authority.