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All this month, our Changing Gears series has been looking at empty places across the Midwest – from foreclosed homes to abandoned factories. But as companies adjust to economic conditions, many in the region have been re-evaluating the basics – including where they’re located.

Cities and states bend over backwards to create jobs, and they’re left with some big challenges when a company decides it no longer wants to be there. Tony Arnold of WBEZ in Chicago looked at the issue.

There’s a hot new trend among companies around the Midwest – threatening to leave. Several companies, especially around Chicago, have been asking big picture questions as they take a look at their bottom lines.

One is the food maker Sara Lee, which is going through a major transition as it prepares to split into two companies. One would be focused on meats, such as sausages and hot dogs. The other one would focus on beverages.

Company spokesman Jon Harris says the company believes a downtown location “would provide our new North American meats company with an environment that will be energetic, that will foster breakthrough thinking, create revolutionary products, offer fresh perspectives and really own the market.”

But that means moving from Sara Lee’s headquarters and test kitchens, which are currently based in Chicago’s western suburbs, in a town called Downers Grove.

While no location has been chosen for the meat company, downtown Chicago is preferred, Harris says. If Sara Lee does pack up and move, it would leave behind a massive office building designed to hold at least 1,000 workers.

That’s something Martin Tully, the mayor of Downers Grove, isn’t too excited about, especially as it relates to collecting property taxes. “It’s not insignificant,” he says.

Tully says he’s working with Sara Lee to try to keep operations based there, but it’s hard when the company is going to split up.

Also, Sara Lee has no deep ties to Downers Grove. Its offices have only been there for six years. Tully says those six years have been worth it – even if he has to find a new tenant. As he says – who would pass up having Michael Jordan on your basketball team for six years?

But he has a word of warning for other towns that might be looking to unload one giant piece of land. “You have to be on your toes and alert for those things as a community and as an economic development engine,” said Tully.

Another example is United Airlines, which is moving thousands of employees to what used to be called the Sears Tower. It’s trying to sell its property in Elk Grove Village, in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, not far from O’Hare International Airport, but nobody is really biting.

Mount Prospect – the town next door – wants to take over the land to try to redevelop it, even though there aren’t any buyers.

Stacey Kruger Birndorf, an expert on office space real estate issues for Transwestern, a commercial real estate company, says towns like Mount Prospect have to keep in mind what companies want when they look for a new home.

“I think so much of it is economically driven,” she says. “I wish I could say it’s geographically driven, but so much of it is economics.”

Kruger Birndorf says companies look at the cost of the property, where new recruits would want to work, and proximity to clients. She says young people by and large want to be downtown. But if a company wants a lot of space, the suburbs might be a better fit.

Asked whether it’s worth it for towns to allow big campuses that are hard to re-work into anything other than office space, Kruger Birndorf says towns have to go for it.

“If we don’t have some hope and some optimism,” there would never be any reason to do anything, she says.

As proof, look at Ann Arbor, Mich.  Pfizer, the international pharmaceutical company, had a 70-acre facility there, but moved out in 2007. It left a modern research facility empty, and took a chunk of the city’s property tax budget with it.

When Ann Arbor couldn’t find a buyer, the price dropped,  and the University of Michigan stepped in.

“You’re getting 2.2 million square feet of office and lab buildings, which seems like an incredible steal for $108 million,” said David Canter, the Executive Director of the North Campus Research Complex.

He’s turning the facility into a new type of research center for academia, putting researchers from different departments into the same workspace. Before taking over the Pfizer complex, each department on the university’s campus had its own building.

Now, Canter says pharmacists, dentists, and mathematicians can all be in the same place.

“As a result, the university will be able to grow without having to invest in designing and developing a lot of series of new buildings that tend to follow growth rather than be in advance of growth,” he says.

Canter says if Pfizer hadn’t left, this research project from the university wouldn’t exist. It’s an example of how thinking creatively about how work space is used  can let both companies and towns breathe easier.


Kate Davidson

Curtis Sullivan says silver bullets are for killing werewolves.

While we’re on the subject of magic bullets, please indulge this brief sidebar.

Schisms happen.  There was once a tremendous split between the (now) Roman Catholic Church and the (now) Eastern Orthodox Church.  Today there’s also a Great Schism in the bullet world.

Namely, between those who say magic bullet and those who say silver bullet — both parties referring to an economic quick fix.

On one side, you have President Obama, who may be the highest profile proponent of the term silver bullet. While pitching his jobs plan to a recent joint session of Congress he said, “It should not be nor will it be the last plan of action we propose. What’s guided us from the start of this crisis hasn’t been the search for a silver bullet. It’s been a commitment to stay at it, to be persistent, to keep trying every new idea that works.”

On the other side, you have certain members of the Changing Gears team who grow cranky at the mere mention of silver bullets.

I’m talking about you, Sarah Alvarez. And you, News Director Vincent Duffy.

To find out why, I went to visit Curtis Sullivan at Vault of Midnight, a comic book store in Ann Arbor. He cut to the chase:

“My understanding is silver bullets are used to kill werewolves.”

This man has his finger on the pulse of fantasy and folklore.

“So silver, I immediately think: Kill a werewolf,” he said.

Now, I can’t speak authoritatively on this. But a later, highly unscientific search of The Google revealed that magic bullet and silver bullet are indeed interchangeable these days. That may be because weapons made of silver were long believed to be THE quick and sure way to kill monsters. Silver bullets were an immediate solution to an intractable problem.

While I was still chatting with Sullivan, it occurred to me that he was actually the perfect person to talk to about magic bullets.  He’s a small-business owner after all.  So I asked him if magic/silver bullets actually exist.

“I don’t believe in the magic bullet for the economy,” he said.  “They need a super-rip-the-whole-thing-down-start-over-major-giant-ideas-millions-of-magic-bullets.  Not just one.”

“Not just one,” seems to be the theme this week.  So now that we’ve resolved this pressing semantic issue, let’s get back to what really matters: how to nurture sustainable jobs and industries in the Midwest. Stay tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Instead of seeking a last-minute buyer, Borders Group has abandoned its search for a suitor and will ask a judge to approve a sale to liquidators.

The process could begin as early as Friday and conclude in September. On Sunday, a significant deadline passed in the bookseller’s efforts to find a buyer without success.

In a written release, Borders Group president Mike Edwards expressed sadness of the pending sale to Hilco and Gordon Brothers.

“We were all working hard towards a different outcome, but the headwinds we have been facing for quite some time, including the rapidly changing book industry, eReader revolution, and turbulent economy, have brought us to where we are now,” he said.

Borders employs approximately 400 workers at its Ann Arbor, Mich. headquarters and more than 11,000 overall.


Five must-read stories about the Midwest economy

1) Obama Celebrates With Chrysler: President Obama is at a Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio, today. He’s visiting on the heels of Fiat’s purchase of the government’s remaining stake in Chrysler.

The Chrysler headquarters in Michigan. Photo by fiatontheweb via flickr.

The move, once finalized, will give the Italian automaker a majority ownership in the Auburn Hills, Mich., company. Fiat has had management control of Chrysler since the No. 3 U.S. automaker emerged from a government-sponsored bankruptcy in 2009. Apparently, the government drove a hard bargain for the remaining 6 percent, according to David Shepardson’s story in the Detroit News. Fiat paid about $100 million more than the $400 million that Fiat originally offered.

2) Who’ll Get Rich on Groupon? As we told you yesterday, Chicago-based Groupon announced plans to go public. Now, there’s speculation about who’ll get even richer from the deal. Crain’s Chicago Business says co-founders Andrew Mason, Eric Lefkovsky and Brad Keywell own stakes in the company that will be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, once Groupon stock goes on sale to the public.

3) A New Man in the Art World: The Grand Rapids Art Museum has a new leader and he’s coming north from Austin, Texas.

Grand Rapids Art Museum, by Micki Maynard

The museum named Dana Fris-Hansen as its new director and chief executive. He’ll start in July. In recent years, the museum has opened a new building and staged attention getting exhibits like the wedding dress of Princess Diana, which drew nearly 100,000 people. The museum is part of a burgeoning art scene in Grand Rapids, which will see the third annual Art Prize competition this fall.

4) Borders Stores Going, Going… The sale of the stores that Ann Arbor-based Borders Group is shedding could be complete in the next two to four weeks, attorneys say. The company, which is in bankruptcy protection, has been given more time to prepare a recovery plan. The new owner of the Detroit Pistons may bid for 200 of Borders’ 405 remaining stores, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Information Technology a Future Job Source? Ideas are flowing at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference and one of them centers on whether information and communication technology could be a source of jobs for Michigan. The University Research Corridor, in a report, says the state’s universities are acting as incubators for such jobs.


The idea started as a pipe dream. While writing a comprehensive book about the history of bacon, Ari Weinzweig envisioned a summit of the country’s foremost bacon experts and luminaries.

“I don’t write fiction,” said Weinzweig, co-owner of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Zingerman’s.

So he only had one choice – turn the pipe dream into a pork reality. From June 30 to July 3, Zingerman’s will host the second annual Camp Bacon, a four-day bacon conference in Ann Arbor that includes seminars on bacon history, the creations of two James Beard award-winning chefs, a benefit concert at The Ark and, of course, lots of good eats.

Zingerman’s is already known throughout the Midwest, and among foodies worldwide, for its entrepreneurial spirit. In nearly 30 years, it has grown from the original deli started by a handful of people to a variety of businesses. Alex Young, executive chef at Zingerman’s Roadhouse, was named winner of the James Beard Award this year for Best Chef: Great Lakes.

The conference, Weinzweig envisions, will help solidify Zingerman’s establish its position at the forefront of the nationwide bacon craze. He is doing so, in part, by emphasizing bacon’s Southeast Michigan roots.

Over a century ago, Ann Arbor was a crossroads for drovers herding pigs to regional markets. In the 1950s, R&B artist Andre Williams recorded his hit “Bacon Fat” at Fortune Records in Detroit. The song rose to No. 9 on the Billboard charts in 1957.

Williams, now 76, will be one of the Camp Bacon headliners. He’ll play a benefit performance at The Ark on Friday, July 1. Festivities also include a dinner from another James Beard award-winner, Andrea Reusing, a discussion with food author and authority John T. Edge and more.

“We’ll have bacon makers coming to talk, and poets reading about bacon and classes about curing your own bacon,” Weinzweig said. Camp Bacon will even hold the first bacon-inspired poetry reading in Ojibwe.

While much of the current bacon craze centers around devouring as much bacon as possible in a single sitting, Weinzweig reminds prospective campers the goal of the upcoming baconfest is to not only eat a lot, but also an opportunity to explore the nuanced history of the food.

“We wanted a more intellectual and fun experience,” he said. “Trends come and trends go, but really for me, we’re not focused on the trend. We’re focused on the traditional food. … We’re all about full-flavored traditional food, and bacon certainly fits in there.”

The four-day camp will benefit Southern Foodways Alliance, a member-supported organization led by Edge that produces anthologies of food writing and cook books, and documents the culinary history of the South.

The four-day bacon celebration may be one of a kind, but Zingerman’s isn’t the only regional restaurant exploring bacon.

Our partner station WBEZ recently shared a few of the culinary secrets behind the chocolate-covered bacon waffles, sprinkled with bacon dust at Kanela Breakfast Club in Chicago. Check it out.


All across Michigan, homeowners are mopping up from torrential rains. But in downtown Ann Arbor, there is snow. Movie snow, that is.

"Snow" in downtown Ann Arbor

Why? It’s for the movie Five Year Engagement. The film has been shooting all over the area for the past weeks, according to On Line Vacations, one of our favorite sites for tracking movie productions. AnnArbor.com says the production company sought permission from the city to take over sidewalks and streets downtown this week.

“Parking for the production team’s trucks on South Ashley, between William and Washington streets, was requested from today at 3 p.m. to Friday at 12 p.m. On Thursday, between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m., the team’s trucks will be parked on North University, between Thayer and Fletcher. And on Thursday (beginning at 4 p.m.) and Friday (ending at 6 a.m.), South Main St., between Liberty and Washington, will be closed for filming, as will two alleys between Main and Ashley, and Liberty Street between Main and Ashley.”

The Real Seafood Company, a downtown fixture, told patrons on its Facebook page that it has canceled sidewalk seating due to the movie shoot, “as the movie is set in winter.”

It’s part of what Changing Gears calls the film factory that’s revved up in our region. And, if you’re going to have an engagement in these parts that lasts five years, at some point, presumably, it’s going to snow.

To be sure, this isn’t the kind of snow that falls on Broadway stages and television Christmas specials. This movie snow is basically fabric wrapped around a backing. And in the case of the big snow pile at the corner of Liberty and Main Streets downtown, it’s styrofoam, which has been painted to look like dirty snow.

But from a distance, and with the magic that cinematographers can do with their lenses, it kind of, sort of, looks like snow. At least it does if you squint and use your imagination.

Spotted any movie magic in your area lately? Tell us where, when and what.

 


A steady stream of U-hauls headed in the opposite direction should have been a sign of turmoil ahead. But as I drove a northbound stretch of Interstate 94 near the Lake Michigan shoreline four years ago, en route to a new job in Ann Arbor, I was oblivious to the severity of the economic crisis here.

Pete Bigelow

Less than three years later, the scope of the Great Recession became all too apparent. The Ann Arbor News, where I worked as the sports editor, shut its doors. And like so many others who fell victim to the wave of layoffs and closures, I had no idea what came next.

Several sleepless nights provided one tempting option: a hasty retreat to Colorado, where I had worked at another newspaper in suburban Denver.

But, despite a relatively short residency, my wife and I didn’t want to leave the Midwest. We liked our short commutes and our Michigan small town, the nearby lakes and roadside food stands. We had affordable housing and friendly neighbors.

We wanted to stay.
And, that would be a trickier proposition than fleeing the scene.

I am fortunate and grateful to have spent the past two years working as the Michigan football beat reporter at AnnArbor.com, but the impact of my job loss resonates to this day. That experience is what attracted me to Changing Gears, first as a listener, and now as the senior producer for the Web and social engagement.

Each day, I’ll be looking for stories that meet the mission of our project: exploring the transformation of the industrial Midwest, through the people who are driving and experiencing that change.

I’ll be overseeing our regular features, like our daily Midwest Memo, along with our podcast, videos, and of course, the coverage by our Changing Gears team. I’ll be adding my perspective, too. And I’ll be your first contact on anything that touches Changing Gears on the Web.

This has been an extraordinarily regional recession – an anomaly that, in retrospect, I blame for my clulessness years ago. Examining the particulars of what separates the Midwest from its neighbors through unemployment rates, balance sheets and development efforts is one reason I’m here.

Behind the endless cycle of those numbers, though, there are real people who have endured tremendous hardships, experienced promising reinventions and all things in between. Those are the stories I’m passionate about telling.

But this won’t merely be a one-way street.

Connecting with readers and listeners is the lifeblood of what I’d like to do as part of the Changing Gears community.

I’d encourage you to share your stories with me in the comment section of our stories here, via email at pbiggs@umich.edu or on Twitter @PeterCBigelow and @ChGears. We also want you to “like” our Facebook page and add your thoughts there, too.

I look forward to those conversations.


We’re happy to announce that Pete Bigelow, an award winning editor and writer, is joining the Changing Gears team next week. Starting Monday, Pete will become our editor for the Web and social engagement. He’ll be responsible for everything on ChangingGears.info, will direct our social media and become our connection with the community across the industrial Midwest.

Pete Bigelow

Pete has spent the past four years in Ann Arbor, Mich., home of our partner Michigan Radio. He served as the sports editor of The Ann Arbor News, and more recently, covered the Michigan Wolverines football beat for AnnArbor.com. Prior to Michigan, he covered the Denver Broncos and the NFL for The Daily Times-Call in suburban Denver.

Pete shared first prize for sports coverage this year in the Associated Press Michigan competition.

Though his background is primarily in sports, Pete says he is excited about the opportunity to branch beyond the box scores at Changing Gears. He lives in Dexter, Mich. with his wife, Ericka, two-year-old daughter Eliza. And, the Bigelows are expecting twin boys in August.

Look for Pete to introduce himself when he comes on board next week. Meanwhile, you can follow Pete on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.

Our thanks to Ida Lieszkovszky for taking charge of ChangingGears.info during the past few months. She’s on Twitter @IdaZL. We know we’ll be hearing more from her in the future.


Kanye West performing at SXSW 2011. Photo by David Wolf via Flickr.

We asked, and you answered. Here are more of your nominations for the Best from the Midwest. Any current band or performer with Midwest roots is eligible. (More suggestions? Post them in Comments.)

From Chicago and Illinois:

Kanye West is from Chicago, Illinois. He’s already received 14 Grammy awards, and often asserts that he deserves even more.

Rapper Common is also from Chicago and also has a couple of Grammy awards under his belt, as is Lupe Fiasco.

Songwriter and multi-instrument player Andrew Bird also hails from the Windy City, as does Steve Goodman. Illinois also gets the credit for American country/folk singer John Prine, from Maywood.

Cleveland and Ohio:

The home of rock and roll — and home city of Changing Gears partner ideastream is also well represented in this latest round of Twitter and Facebook votes. Among the best known is the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails founded in Cleveland in 1988. They have earned two Grammys, plus an additional Golden Globe and an Oscar for front-man Trent Reznor (along with Atticus Ross) for the score of The Social Network.

The group that produced the ultra catchy song I Know What Boys Like is also from Cleveland – that would be the new wave band The Waitresses. Recently reunited power pop group The Raspberry’s are Clevelanders, as is the band The James Gang. That latter group is perhaps best known for their guitarist, Joe Walsh, who later went on to become a part of The Eagles. Musician, DJ and politician Michael Stanley is also from the Cleveland area.

Detroit and Michigan:

One Changing Gears fan noted that we would be remiss not to mention musician and activist Ted Nugent, from Detroit Michigan. Bob Seger of Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band was born in Dearborn and grew up in Ann Arbor, home to partner station Michigan Radio. You can catch Seger on tour now.

Indiana:

John Mellencamp, best known for his heartland rock, was born in Seymour, Indiana.

And then there’s Prince…

Though the Changing Gears coverage area is generally Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin, we’re bending the rules for some notable exceptions this time around. Michelle Norris, co-host of NPR’s All Things Considered, nominated Prince from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Prince has earned himself seven Grammy awards , one Golden Globe and an Oscar for Best Score too. American musician, poet and painter Bob Dylan calls Duluth, Minnesota home.

We also had a few nominations for musicians who aren’t from the Midwest but still had a big impact on the area’s music scene. Chief among those is McKinley Morganfield, otherwise known as Muddy Waters. He’s from Mississippi but is better known as the Father of Chicago blues.

[YOU TUBE VIDEO]

 


Skip Turner and Billie Rohl work at U of M's Labor Studies Center. They may have to turn over a lot of email soon. They say they're happy to do it.

ANN ARBOR — So what do the words “Scott Walker,” “Madison,” and “Maddow” have in common?  They are among the search terms included in an open records request for the emails of labor studies professors and staff at three public universities in Michigan – Wayne State University, Michigan State University and the University of Michigan.

The Freedom of Information Act request comes from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank.  The center is also asking to review any emails to or from the professors that refer to the collective bargaining situation in Wisconsin.  At first, Ken Braun, the man behind the FOIA request, wouldn’t say why.

LISTEN TO WHAT HE WOULD SAY

Mysterious?  Perhaps not.  Braun is the senior managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential, the Mackinac Center’s online newsletter.  In one post from last year,  Braun wrote this of the Labor Studies Center at Wayne State University:

“This obscure corner of the taxpayer-supported university does a lot that resembles progressive political agitation rather than teaching and research.”

I asked Ken Braun whether his FOIA request had anything to do with that entry, titled “Wayne State’s ‘Wholly Owned Subsidiary’ of Big Labor”.

“I don’t comment on FOIA investigations,” he said.  “That is an interesting article, however.”

Here was Rachel Maddow’s take on the whole Mackinac matter (pronounced “mackinaw” by Michiganders).  Remember, Maddow is one of the search terms in the Michigan FOIA.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Michigan academics aren’t the only ones under scrutiny.  Last month, the Republican Party of Wisconsin requested emails from William Cronon, a historian critical of Governor Scott Walker’s push to weaken public sector unions.

In both states, the lines got drawn fast.  On one side: an apparent concern about the use of public resources for political advocacy.  On the other: fear of academic intimidation and reprisal in a politically charged climate.

Cary Nelson is the National President of the American Association of University Professors.  He falls in the latter camp.

LISTEN TO HIS CONCERNS ABOUT A NEW McCARTHYISM

Nelson is also an English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  He says that, in academia, FOIA requests for financial documents and contracts are fairly common, while broad requests for emails are not.  But when asked for an example of an academic FOIA request that revealed serious wrongdoing, he told this story about his own institution’s use of email:

LISTEN TO A TALE OF BLAGO, EMAIL AND ADMISSIONS FAVORS

Over at U of M’s Labor Studies Center, the staff says they have nothing to fear or hide.  Billie Rohl is the center’s program administrator.

HEAR WHAT SHE HAS TO SAY

Ken Braun of the Mackinac Center says intimidation is not his goal.  Just yesterday, Braun went on an AM radio program and revealed the specific motivation behind his FOIA request.  He said that he was indeed investigating what he called partisan political activity at Wayne State University’s Labor Studies Center.

Marick Masters, Wayne State’s director of labor studies, previously told The New York Times that, “This looks like an attempt to embarrass us.  I haven’t engaged in any partisan activities here.”

In the past, the center has described itself like this:

“The Labor Studies Center is a comprehensive labor education center committed to strengthening the capacity of organized labor to represent the needs and interests of workers, while at the same time strengthening the University’s research and teaching on labor and workplace issues.”

But you won’t see that description on the center’s website today.  As of this morning, the site is under construction.

Read the rest of this entry »