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The wait is finally over for Tupelo, MS, which must feel like the Kate Middleton of car towns. Today, Toyota chief executive Akio Toyoda was set to join Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour to finally open a $1.3 billion factory in Blue Springs, just outside Tupelo. The dedication is taking place two years after the factory was originally set to open.

Delay or not, many Midwest governors must wish they were in his shoes. While our region has a few foreign car plants, as well as  engineering centers, it has only gotten one of the big factories announced in past few years, the Honda plant in Greensburg, Ind.

Other states have beat out their Midwest rivals, like Georgia, which landed Kia, Tennessee, which got the newly opened Volkswagen plant, and Toyota, which picked Mississippi.

That state came up with $294 million in incentives, or $148,000 for each of the 2,000 jobs the plant is set to provide. About 1,300 people have been hired thus far, earning a starting wage of $15 an hour, rising to $21 after five years.

But Tupelo, a town of 38,000 about 90 minutes south of Memphis, has had to be patient. I wrote about the long wait today for The Atlantic Monthly’s Atlantic Cities page.

Although Toyota announced the plant in 2007, its opening today comes almost two years behind schedule. The recession prompted the carmaker to put the project on hold in 2009. Toyota finished the building, but didn’t install any equipment.

Inside the unfinished factory

With the recession still underway, Toyota ran into an uproar over cases of sudden unintended acceleration on its cars, which prompted millions of recalls worldwide. Just when it was getting over that, the Japanese earthquake struck, and now Toyota and other Japanese carmakers are wrestling with the impact of floods in Thailand.

Despite the delay, people in Mississippi say they were confident Toyota was coming. “Toyota has just been an unbelievable partner in this,” said Kathy Gelston, deputy director of the Mississippi Development Authority. “When they came to us and said, ‘we’re going to slow down the project,’ it was never, ‘we’re not going to build this.’”

But there was nervousness. “It was a legitimate question: is Toyota going to walk away?” says Dennis Seid, business editor at the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal.

In June 2010, Toyoda woke up Barbour with the news that the plant was back on track. Today, Tupelo can now breath a sigh of relief that it is joining an elite group of cities with car factories.

But with the auto industry still seeing sluggish sales after the depth of the recession, will there be any other foreign plants for Midwestern states — or even Southern states — to vie for?

Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, MA, says the best hope in new Asian players.

“I think people are waiting to see if there will be a Chinese plant or an Indian plant built,” he tells Changing Gears. But as far as German, Japanese or Korean carmakers are concerned, “we’ve pretty much seen it.”


Rahm Emanuel has only been in office since May, but today he scored his first major political victory. Chicago’s city council voted 50-0 in favor of a budget plan that calls for fee increases, layoffs and major changes in the way the city does business.

That isn’t to say all the aldermen liked it. During two hours of debate, there were complaints about aspects of the plan that will close libraries and close six mental health clinics.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

But there also was praise for Emanuel for working closely with city council members on his proposal to address a $635 million deficit. Ed Burke, considered the city’s most powerful alderman, said the budget process was the most cooperative he had seen in 42 years.

While he was working on the plan, Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, said he was no longer going to “kick the can down the road” on the city’s problems  — a veiled reference to his predecessor, and political mentor, Richard M. Daley. (I looked at Emanuel and Daley in this story for Atlantic Cities last month.)

In Wednesday’s debate, Alderman Richard Mell told the mayor, “It’s obvious that when you we’re a kid, you never learned the game of kick the can. Everybody felt the pain. The only way you are going to make the gain is to feel the pain.”

Visitors will be among those feeling the pain. As we reported last month, Emanuel’s proposal includes higher taxes at downtown parking garages and at hotels. People who purchase the city’s car registration stickers also will be paying more.

But Emanuel already has convinced city council to eliminate a head tax on companies with 50 of more employees in the city, a move he says is why Ford is adding more jobs at its Chicago plants.

 

 


With his city’s financial fortunes sinking, reports say Detroit Mayor Dave Bing tonight will propose
privatizing the bus system and its electrical system in a bid to save $100 million.

Bing is set to speak at 6 pm ET, in a speech his office says will offer “solutions to long-standing service problems.”

A recent financial audit showed the city could run out of cash by July, even if it cuts 2,200 jobs.

Mayor Dave Bing. Photo by Kate Davidson.

The Detroit Free Press says that includes a plan to find private managers for the city’s bus system, and to find outside operators for Detroit’s electrical system. Earlier this month, bus drivers staged a brief sickout to protest what they maintain is an unsafe system. Meanwhile, the city’s electrical system has failed several times in recent years, leaving downtown offices in the dark.

Catherine Phillips, a union negotiator, told the Detroit News that the privatization of the Detroit Department of Transportation is estimated to yield $30 million in savings.

The paper says the city could seek outside managers for the bus system as soon as Dec. 1. Watch Bing’s speech tonight and let us know what you think of his proposal.

 


Outside the former Harris Marcus furniture factory in Chicago (Ken Fager via Flickr Creative Commons)

Given the thousands of old industrial properties in the United States, especially across the Midwest, you might think city governments know the number of vacant commercial properties within their municipalities.

Think again.

In reporting my story about one man’s quest to convert a former meatpacking plant on Chicago’s South Side into an urban farm, I tried to figure out how many other empty industrial buildings there are in the city.

But Chicago city officials don’t keep track of vacant commercial properties.

“We wouldn’t consider a commercial property a vacant building as long it is being marketed and secure,” Buildings Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said. No laws requiring the city to keep track of vacant commercial properties, as there are for empty residential properties.

“Our focus for the past few years has been the vacancy crisis in residential homes,” McCaffrey said.

Officials in Gary, Indiana said the same thing. They don’t keep records of vacant industrial properties are within city limits.

(I wish I could tell you if this was the same story for the city of Detroit. But the city didn’t return the numerous emails and calls I made in the past two weeks trying to find an answer.)

“I think most of our recording of vacant and abandoned or problem buildings come through complaints,” said Vanesse Dabney, executive director of the City of Gary’s Department of Redevelopment.

Dabney said anyone with a complaint about a problematic building can call the city at (219) 886-1531.

Peter Strazzabosco, spokesman for the City of Chicago’s Department of Housing and Economic Development office, said the city views its role as to being “responsive” to the private sector when it wants to convert empty buildings.

To that end, one of the biggest incentives the city offers is property-tax reduction to any new owners that take over buildings vacant for at least two years. Strazzabosco said the “widely used” credit – officially known as the Class 6(b) property tax incentive – can reduce property taxes from the industrial tax rate of 25 percent to 10 percent for 10 years.

Although that’s the most popular, there are other credits, as well. Many people, including John Edel, who I profiled in the Plant story, also take advantage of money via the much-discussed tax increment financing districts that are throughout the city.


You’ve been hearing our reports on the economic transformation of the industrial Great Lakes. Now we’d like some input from you.

How do you think the economy is faring in the Great Lakes region? Please take our survey.

Your views will be kept confidential and we will never share your personal information. But you can help us understand the quality of life in the Great Lakes, and guide our partner stations Michigan Radio, WBEZ Chicago and ideastream Cleveland as we cover these stories.

Thanks.


Vacant industrial buildings dot the Midwest and swallow up chunks of some neighborhoods. But instead of blight, one Chicago man sees opportunity. All this month, Changing Gears has been reporting on Empty Places. The series reminded me of a man I first met last year, when I reported on brownfield industrial sites. I thought I would check back in with him a year later to find out how his experiment to cultivate new life on Chicago’s South Side was turning out.

Baby tilapia growing in the basement of The Plant, an urban farm inside a former meatpacking plant on Chicago's South Side. (Niala Boodhoo)

Deep inside the basement of a former meatpacking plant on the edge of Chicago’s Stockyards, rows of giant plastic barrels are neatly lined up. Inside, hundreds of dark grey and pink speckled fish are quietly swimming around.

“We breed all of our own tilapia,” said urban farmer John Edel, as he gestures to a series of tanks full of guppies in one corner of the basement.

Edel calls this building “The Plant”.

It’s a big space – at 93,000-square feet, The Plant is bigger than most department stores. Inside is Edel’s urban farm as well as other tenants, including a brewery.

The building was the home of Peer Foods, which had smoked and roasted meat here since 1925. It sat empty for years before Edel bought it in 2010.

Today, he’s escorting a team of engineers around the building. They’re planning to design a new heating and cooling system for the facility – which he wants to be completely energy self-sufficient.

Edel bought the building for $500,000 to create a vertical farm. Originally, he said he was just thinking of creating an aquaponics systems that he combined with light manufacturing and shared office space.

That’s what he did his first building conversion. Orginally, Edel was a video game designer. He paid his way through school by doing construction work. Then he got into converting buildings.

His first project was a former paint warehouse in Bridgeport, on the South Side. It’s now the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center – with 16 business tenants.

Plant Chicago founder John Edel, in his basement urban farm. (Niala Boodhoo)

When he found this building, which was already fitted for commercial food storage, Edel saw it as a new opportunity.

“The plan behind the Plant began to change,” he said.

That’s one of the biggest lessons Edel would impart to anybody who’s interested in converting one of the thousands of empty buildings across our region – be flexible.

(Curious about how many vacant industries properties there are in Chicago? I wrote about that in my Reporter’s Notebook for this story.)

When he tried to buy his first building, he said the banks laughed him out the door. His realtor arranged an owner-financed sale – basically, Edel paid a mortgage to the building’s owner – until he owned it outright.

His family helped buy this building – so he pays them a mortgage. And Edel uses profits from the first building to help finance operations at the Plant.

While the building is being converted, Edel rents out three acres out back for tractor trailer parking. Some parts of the building are rented as storage space.

He reuses whatever he can, and does as much of the construction work himself, along with an army of volunteers, who help him salvage everything from the building that can be reused, like floor tiles.

Edel also has had help from local and state governments. He’s taken advantage of a City of Chicago Small Business Improvement program to help finance things like replacing all those windows.

Having a green project also helped secure state grants. He got $1.5 million from Illinois to buy an anaerobic digester that will convert plant and waste matter into energy.

A diagram of how the Plant will be off the grid (Courtesy of The Plant Chicago)

“This model isn’t spending huge amount of money as fast as you can to get the building done as fast as you can,” Edel said. “It’s about slow money and about doing what you can with what you have.”

Lee Bey

Lee Bey is executive director of the Chicago Central Area Committee, a downtown civic group that focuses on urban planning. (He also writes a blog for our partner station WBEZ on architecture.) Bey  said someone like Edel is almost creates magic in that he’s a rare person who tackles problems like vacant commercial properties.

“Even if its not a blight, the absence of something commercial means an absence of jobs, the absence of a dollar turning around in the community,” Bey said.

Although it’s required by law to keep track of vacant residential buildings, the city of Chicago doesn’t actually for vacant commercial properties. Neither do smaller cities like Gary.

Bey says the key with someone like Edel is using him as a blueprint.

“I think the real magic is to pull him aside – the City, an Alderman, a city official – and say, ‘What did you do, and how can we do that for that building over there?”

Bey says every city has people like Edel. The key is figure out how their work can be replicated – that’s when seeing fewer and fewer empty buildings.

If you want to see more about what’s happening inside The Plant, my WBEZ colleagues Robin Amer and Shannon Heffernan just shot this cool video:

 


For many urban planners and new urbanists, the U.S. census numbers released in 2010 were demoralizing.

They had anticipated that Americans, after decades of fleeing to suburbs, would reverse that trend in the 2000s and begin returning to rebuilt cities. Instead, suburban growth increased. According to New Geography, 91 percent of growth over the decade occurred in suburbs, an increase from the 1990-2000 timespan in which 85 percent occurred in suburbs.

But there is one kernel of optimism in the numbers for city lovers: some urban cores are growing.

Writing for New Geography last week, Aaron M. Renn says in some cities “we see that over the 2000s out-migration from the core to the suburban counties was relatively flat or even declined late in the decade as general mobility declined in the Great Recession. In contrast, migration from the suburban counties to the core stayed flat or actually increased.”

He presents evidence of core growth in St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington D.C. While a fledgling revitalization in Detroit has occurred too recently to show up in census numbers to make apples-to-apples comparisons to the cities above, there’s anecdotal evidence of a similar small-scale influx.

Although Detroit’s overall population plummeted by 25 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the census figures, the number of college-educated residents under age 35 increased downtown by 59 percent.

This past July, five of the city’s key employers announced a program that provides employees with cash incentives to move downtown, and more cash to maintain their homes once they relocate. More than 16,000 employees of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, DTE Energy, Compuware, Quicken Loans and Strategic Staffing Solutions are eligible.

There’s a key advantage, Renn writes, Detroit holds over other Midwestern cities that are trying to bolster their cores even as other residents leave.

“It’s possible to do things there,” he says. “In Detroit, the incapacity of the government is actually an advantage in many cases.” He says much of Chicago’s South Side shares characteristics of Detroit, but strict enforcement of arcane codes would stifle creativity and entrepreneurship. Likewise in Indianapolis, historic district restrictions force fixer-uppers to “run a costly and grueling gauntlet of variances, permits, hearings, etc.”

That doesn’t happen in Detroit.

“In Detroit, if you want to do something, you just go do it,” Renn writes. “It is certainly easier to make things happen there than in most places.”


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. New Cleveland lakefront development plan. For more than a century, development along Cleveland’s lakefront has come with “piecemeal action and broken promises,” writes The Plain Dealer. Mayor Frank Jackson presented a plan Monday for changing that, the newspaper reports today. Jackson’s plan included developing the waterfront from the city’s port to Burke Lakefront Airport with offices, restaurants, shops and marinas across a 90-acre space. The plan, according to EE&K architects, could take years to complete and reach $2 billion in value. Money for the project is expected to come from the private sector. Many who have watched similar plans never come to fruition in the past were skeptical at Monday’s press conference, but Jackson said this plan has the backing of key lakefront interests.

2. Detroit-area home sales up. Home sales in metro Detroit increased for the fourth consecutive month in October, according to a report from Farmington Hills, Mich.-based Realcomp II, which reports sales of condominiums and single-family homes jumped 4.8 percent. Median prices rose 7.7 percent to $70,000, according to The Detroit News. Sales were up in three of the metro areas four counties. Oakland, Livingston and Macomb counties all saw increases, while Wayne County sales decreased 3 percent.

3. AirTran cuts central Illinois service. AirTran announced Monday it would end service to five U.S. airports, including one in the Midwest that leaves local officials seeking an alternate air service plan. Central Illinois Regional Airport learned service would not continue, after being an AirTran destination for 15 years. The airline flew 40 percent of passengers from the Bloomington, Ill. facility. Although officials considered themselves an “underdog” for continued service amid airline consolidation, according to The News-Gazette of Champaign, the airport’s marketing director said the official announcement “changes the landscape for everybody.”


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Obama chides China. Using uncharacteristic blunt language, President Obama said America had enough of China’s currency manipulation and encouraged the global power to abide by “the same rules as everybody else.” At the closing news conference of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Obama told reporters, “Enough’s enough,” and that “we don’t want them taking advantage of the United States.” The comments came one day after Obama held face-to-face talks with President Hu Jintao, according to Reuters. Obama and other U.S. leaders have grown weary of China keeping its currency value artificially low, thus hurting American companies and jobs.

2. Detroit dock brings tourist upswing. When a $21.5 million dock opened in Detroit earlier this summer, critics doubted the facility would see much use. Although only two cruise ships visited the port this past summer, according to the Detroit Free Press, cruise-ship operators have scheduled 23 visits in 2012. The uptick is expected to bring 2,500 new visitors and an increase in Michigan tourism dollars. Calling it a “significant win” for the region, W. Steven Olinek, deputy director of the Wayne County Port Authority, told the newspaper, “in future years we hope to play an even greater role in the re-emerging Great Lakes cruise industry.”

3. Gary casinos have new owner. New Mayor-elect Karen Freeman-Wilson says new ownership for two bankrupt casinos in Gary, Ind. is good for both the casinos and the city. “Investment in their structure will attract more gamers,” she said. Freeman-Wilson tells our partner station WBEZ that money is needed for infrastructure improvements, especially fixing city streets. Attendance has dropped at Northwest Indiana casinos, according to recent numbers, a falloff that comes even before a proposed Chicago casino heightens competition. Wayzata Investment Partners in Minnesota has taken over at the Majestic Star Casinos, which owe the city up to $15 million.


Across Michigan and beyond, there’s widespread support for building a new bridge between Detroit and Canada.

Gov. Rick Snyder favors spending the necessary funds to build one. So do the leaders of Detroit’s automotive companies and local labor unions. So do Detroit-area civic groups, who represent neighborhoods impacted by traffic. So does Canada, for that matter, which has volunteered to kick in the $550 million for the project, enough money to cover the Michigan’s entire costs.

The consensus is remarkable for such a disparate collection of public and private, statewide and international interests. But it’s not going to happen.

“One big obstacle stands in the way: the billionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge,” writes Changing Gears senior editor Micki Maynard, who examined the bottleneck for The Atlantic on Thursday.

Matty Moroun owns the nearby Ambassador, an 82-year-old private bridge that carries approximately 9,000 people every day. Toll revenues, along with his trucking business, have made him a billionaire. He’s twice persuaded Michigan lawmakers to stymie any potential bridge competition – and volunteered to build a second private bridge with his own money.

Another legal setback came in October. Although Snyder vows to continue a push for a new bridge, Maynard writes, “for now, the new bridge to Canada is going nowhere.”