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I’m Sarah Alvarez, and I’m new to the Changing Gears team.

Changing Gears is becoming part of the Public Insight Network, a database of volunteer sources who help us hear from people directly impacted by developments in their communities. In the coming weeks, I’ll be asking you to join the network. We’ll post your comments, contact you to become a source, and listen to your ideas for new stories.

I know everyone has a story. So tell me how life in the Midwest is changing for you – and help Changing Gears cover it.

Public Insight journalist Sarah Alvarez

This is my story. I made my way back to Michigan, and finally found a job I love.

I first came to Michigan when I was 13, moving from New Mexico to Laingsburg, a small agricultural community between Lansing and Flint. When I went to high school there, Future Farmers of America was the biggest club in the school. Our chemistry lab was used more for preparing the club’s chickens for sale than chemistry class. It’s changed since then. Farming is a hard business, and Laingsburg is close enough to the Lansing and Flint areas to attract people looking for a great place to live close to work, but out of the city.

I went to the University of Michigan for college and left the state to go to law school at Columbia University in New York City. I lived and worked in New York for about seven years. I do love New York, but we didn’t want to stay there because it’s hard and really expensive to raise a family.

We found our way back to Michigan in 2010 after three more years in Oakland, California. Most people in the Bay Area think it is Heaven on earth, but I wanted to get back to Michigan. I missed it. When I would come home, my husband and I would talk about being able to feel the energy people were putting into starting something new and just figuring out how to make it work.

I decided I wanted to start over too. I was determined to use my legal background to help me do something I actually like. We used our savings and I became an unpaid intern in the Michigan Radio newsroom. I tried not to think too much about having only enough money to cover a few months of expenses and daycare. I learned everything I could and patched together any paying work I could find. But I did it, I’m working as a journalist now.

There are so many of us making leaps we never thought we would. Many of us have to, and some of us want to. These stories of personal and regional reinvention have infinite variations. All of them are better when there are more voices in the conversation.

I can’t wait to hear from you. I’ll be on the website, on twitter @SarahAlvarezMI, and you’ll hear about how to add to our stories in the coming weeks.

Mixed news on Midwest manufacturing arrived today, courtesy of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.

It reported that the Midwest Economy Index, a weighted average of 128 state and regional indicators, reached its highest level in 16 years. In April, the index climbed to +0.83, its best mo nthsince March 1995 and up from +0.79 in March. April marked the seventh consecutive month the marker finished above its historical trend.

Manufacturing activity led that growth. It added +0.73 to the MEI, the sector’s largest contribution since January of 1984. Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin all gained manufacturing activity in April, while the sector held steady in Illinois and Indiana. (The Seventh Federal Reserve District does not include Ohio).

But the overall pace of growth slowed from the previous month. The index had climbed to +0.79 in March from +0.39 in February. And, in a separate release, the Fed said its Midwest Manufacturing Index showed a 0.9 decrease in output to a seasonally adjusted level of 83.6 percent.

The automotive sector led the decline, falling 5 percent in April. The loss was widely attributed to supply disruptions caused by earthquake, tsunami and nuclear fallout in Japan. One month earlier, automotive sector output had risen 3.3 percent.

Here’s the link to the Midwest Economy Index report and one to the Midwest Manufacturing Index report.

Throughout the Great Recession, investment in start-up companies has been viewed as a central component in recharging the economy.

The Midwest, in particular, has been fertile ground for small-business incubators, as local governments have encouraged and funded these public-private business collaborations. The city of Cleveland has seven incubators alone.

But are cities getting good returns on their investments? That’s the question our partner station Ideastream explored in a report about the proliferation of incubators in northeast Ohio. Here’s a glimpse at what was found: these companies fail at a high rate.

While signs of economic rebound have emerged on a small scale in recent months, home prices continue their decline. The Associated Press reported today that major areas, including Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago, are seeing their lowest price points since the housing bubble burst in 2006.

Elsewhere in the Midwest today:

A hearing will be held today in East Lansing, Mich. that examines agricultural opportunities for Michigan contained in the 2012 federal farm bill. The hearing will focus on the upcoming reauthorization of the farm bill, and look at agriculture, as well as energy, conservation and other policies that affect Michigan.

Meanwhile, one Ohio farmer’s quandary over weeds has become a cautionary tale on the, ahem, thorny issues involved in consolidating municipalities, reports the Columbus Dispatch. It’s also a glimpse of issues found at the crossroads of farmland and suburbia.

There’s more pushback aimed at Newsweek for including Grand Rapids, Mich. in its list of “dying cities.” Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert calls the city’s response, a lip-dub video set to Don MacLean’s “American Pie” that’s gone viral in recent days, “the greatest music video ever made.”

The federal government has earmarked $400 million for high-speed rail projects in Michigan. Six public meetings will be held across the state in coming months, according to Michigan Radio, to discuss the future of passenger and freight rail service.

What else is in store for Michigan? Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to detail plans that include an overhaul of the state’s teacher tenure system at this week’s Mackinac Policy Conference.

In Illinois, lawmakers spent Memorial Day approving legislation that would “dramatically expand gambling,” according to the Chicago Tribune, including plans for a Chicago casino supported by the city’s new mayor, Rahm Emanuel.

Amid uncertainty over a push to limit collective-bargaining rights for Wisconsin’s public employees, some of the state’s school districts have gained concessions from unions in benefits to ward off layoffs and program cuts, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

From 2000 to 2009, the city of Grand Rapids, Mich. lost 2.1 percent of its population, according to census data. That statistic is not refuted. Does that population loss merit a label of a “dying city?”

That’s an entirely different question.

In January, Newsweek listed Grand Rapids as one of its top 10 dying cities. It’s one of three Michigan cities to make the dubious list. But residents of the west Michigan city – Grand Rapidians? – did not appreciate the designation.

Citizens went on the offensive Thursday, responding with a lip-dubbedYouTube video set to the tune of Don MacLean’s “American Pie” that highlights some recent vibrant civic additions and hundreds of residents.

The video has become a gathering point for civic pride in the city and online, a development not unlike the good feelings Eminem’s Chrysler commercial conjured in Detroit following the Super Bowl.

Following the release of the video, Newsweek distanced itself from the “dying” remarks. On its Facebook page, saying that it had picked up the content from and does not agree with the remarks.

“It uses a methodology that our current editorial team doesn’t endorse and wouldn’t have employed. It certainly doesn’t reflect our view of Grand Rapids,” the magazine wrote in a statement.

Eventually, the Wisconsin Supreme Court may have the final say over a law that restricts the collective bargaining of public employees. For now, the controversial legislation has been struck down.

A Dane County judge ruled Thursday that Republican lawmakers violated the state’s open meetings act when they passed the bill on March 9. In her 33-page ruling, Judge Maryann Sumi wrote, “transparency in government is most important when the stakes are high.”

Republicans should try to pass the legislation again, opines the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, this time with a “more reasonable approach.” The ruling is a big boost to Wisconsin Democrats and their efforts to recall Gov. Scott Walker, says the Washington Post.

Elsewhere in the Midwest today:

Amid the backdrop of declining population, Detroit Public Schools have altered their consolidation plan after receiving community input. Meanwhile, towns throughout Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are struggling to survive, writes the Associated Press.

Also in Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign a $46 billion state budget, a move that comes without the usual high-profile wrangling, reports our partner station Michigan Radio. In Ohio, lawmakers see township consolidation as one way money could be saved in the future, Ideastream reports.

WBEZ says that lobbyists for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel are already in Springfield representing his interests in the state capitol. The new mayor has limited time for action – the legislature adjourns Tuesday. Across Illinois, unemployment rates are dropping in metro areas, says the Chicago Tribune.

The number of homes in the foreclosure process declined nationally during the first quarter of 2011, but they still account for 28 percent of all sales. In Ohio, foreclosed properties sold for an average of $75,397, says the Akron Beacon Journal.

Welcome to our podcast that recaps our Changing Gears coverage from the past few days.

This was Oprah Winfrey’s last week hosting her top-rated television show following a 25-year run. Her “Favorite Things” list catapulted small businesses throughout the Midwest into the spotlight – for better or worse. Changing Gears reporter Niala Boodhoo joined us in the studio to discuss that impact and share what comes next for “Favorite Things.”

In her farewell segment for Changing Gears, reporter Ida Lieszkovzsky checks out the arrival of food trucks throughout the Midwest. The trucks, popular on the east and west coasts, have had trouble gaining traction in the region because of restrictive local laws. Local governments are now reexamining how to accommodate food trucks with new legislation.


We send best wishes to Ida as she begins a new chapter, and hope you all enjoy the Memorial Day weekend. Thanks for listening to this week’s podcast.

Some good – but not great – news for northeast Ohio. Our partner station Ideastream reports today that a glitch in a reporting system led to an overly optimistic April home sales report. Revised numbers still show a 4.6 percent increase in sales from March.

Ohio’s unemployment rate dropped substantially in April and now ranks below the national average, according to Crain’s Cleveland. More than 100,000 have returned to the workforce over the past year across the state.

Also in Ohio, American Greetings will move its headquarters from Brooklyn 13 miles west to Westlake, reports The Plain Dealer. And the merger of AirTran and Southwest could mean fewer flight operations at the Akron-Canton Airport.

Elsewhere across the Midwest today: says the University of Chicago’s new $81 million library is more than an architectural feat. It’s a glimpse of the future for libraries, a topic that Changing Gears reporter Niala Boodhoo examined earlier this month.

Does Michigan’s new tax structure make fiscal sense? Michigan Radio received an answer to that question from Charles Ballard, a Michigan State University professor and author of “Michigan’s Economic Future.”

Caterpillar CFO Edward Rapp says the U.S. economy is ready to lift off, but that businesses need better direction from the government on upcoming policy developments before investing, according to the Associated Press.

Elmore Leonard, via Media Bistro

A movie based on a novel from author Elmore Leonard, a Detroit native, will be filmed in Michigan after being awarded $2.8 million in state tax credits. “Freaky Deaky” is the 14th of Leonard’s books to be turned into a movie, but the first to be filmed in his home state.

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, 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 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, 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 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 during the past few months. She’s on Twitter @IdaZL. We know we’ll be hearing more from her in the future.

Hard to Count: The Barbara in Southwest Detroit

DETROIT — Imagine trying to prove that thousands of people exist, when you have no idea who they are.

That’s the dilemma facing officials who think their communities were undercounted in the 2010 Census.  But for Midwest cities preparing to challenge those numbers: How do you find people the Census Bureau missed?  We went looking for answers in Detroit.

When Detroit’s numbers came out in March, Mayor Dave Bing quickly summoned the press.  The tone was crisis — as if a natural disaster had struck.  And in a way, it had.  Detroit had lost a quarter of its people over the last ten years.

As cameras whirred, the mayor explained that Detroit’s population now stood at 713,777. 

“Personally I don’t believe the number is accurate,” he said.  “And I don’t believe it will stand up as we go through with our challenge.”

Cleveland, Akron and Cincinnati are also considering challenges.  That’s because people equal money – as in funding from the federal government.  And as long as Detroit remained a big city with more than 750,000 people, state law allowed it to do things like charge higher taxes.  That brought in millions more every year.

“We are in a fiscal crisis and we have to fight for every dollar.  We can’t afford to let these results stand,” said Bing.

So now Detroit wants to find almost 40,000 more people and prove that the Census missed them.  That’s like finding the entire population of Muskegon or Moline inside Detroit.

But former Census workers like Mark Dancey already know they missed people.  Detroit is hard to count. 

“I had the situation where I knock on the door and I see ‘em running out the back door,” he said.  Well, “Not running, just sneaking.”

Dancey worked his own neighborhood of Southwest Detroit for the Census.  He said people mostly cooperated.  But take this one building, The Barbara.  Forty-six units.  Dancey waited outside at least a dozen times, until someone let him in.  Then he’d knock and he’d knock.

Either people would say, ‘No, I won’t talk to you,’” he said.  “Or, they’d yell through the door, ‘Come back later.’  Some people would just open the door and just say, ‘No, I’m not going to talk to you.’  Slam the door.”

Silas White has lived in The Barbara for two years.  He said he never got a Census form in the mail, never saw a Census worker.

The building’s front door swings open freely.  That’s because the door handle and the lock have been busted off.  White unlocked an inner door to show me inside.

The Barbara, he said, is, “Kindof rough.  I mean, it’s a die -hard building, you know, but it’s not too much trouble.  But we didn’t get counted.”

There are more than 300 million people in the United States.  Census Director Robert Groves freely acknowledges that it’s hard to count them all.  When questionnaires didn’t come back in the mail, he sent enumerators to visit 47 million households as many as six times.

“But what we can’t do if you think about it is reconstruct the world as it was on April 1, 2010,” he said.

So, Detroit can’t just produce a list of names like Silas White and say, “Trust us, they were here.”  To challenge, cities and towns have to show processing errors.  Like, was a boundary inaccurate?  Did group quarters like prisons and nursing homes get put on the wrong block?  Groves said that in the 2000 Census, a lot of Michiganders did get counted in the wrong place. 

But, he said, “The net of a whole lot of changes was that the state added 36 people to its population.”

Illinois gained 354 people. Ohio added five. 

The results of the Decennial Census can be difficult to change.  It’s much easier for local jurisdictions to challenge the population estimates that come out between official counts.  The criterion is different, which is how Detroit added tens of thousands of people to its 2006 population estimate.  Only the official count is used for things like the reapportionment of the House of Representatives.

But the challenge isn’t stopping Detroit now.  Over at the planning department, they’re just getting started.  So John Baran’s been staring at a map showing population change across the city. 

He’s spotted an inconsistency right downtown.

“The census track 5172 which is very purple on that map there, lost 1,400 people, but only lost 60 housing units,” he said.  “The math doesn’t work out.  There weren’t 1,400 people in 60 housing units.”

He suspects the county jail was missed, or maybe a dormitory.  Big stuff.  But mostly, the city will have to go block by block and show that the Census made mistakes, like deleting housing units from its files that were actually still there.  So can you produce 40,000 people that way?

“It’d be quite challenging to produce 40,000 people through a housing challenge,” Baran said. 

But isn’t that the goal?

“The goal is to get an accurate count,” he said.  “And make sure everyone in the city was counted.” 

Still, somewhere close to 237,000 people left Detroit over the last ten years.  Why did they leave?  And what will it take to keep people here?  These questions will persist long after the Census’s Count Question Resolution Program begins accepting challenges on June 1st.