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Detroit's Hotel Pontchartrain. Credit: flickr user femaletrumpet02

For the past few years, the Hotel Pontchartrain in Detroit has stood shuttered and empty, a looming symbol of the city’s better days. But now, the Pontch looks like it is coming back to life, thanks to a Mexican developer.

The Detroit News reported this morning that the 25-story hotel was purchased by Gabriel Ruiz, a Mexican businessman, and that the hotel will become a Crowne Plaza once more.

Bill Bohde, a senior vice president of the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the InterContinental Hotels Group, which runs the Crowne Plaza Hotels & Resorts chain, informed him of the sale last week.

Bohde says he understands the group has an agreement in principle to make it part of the Crowne Plaza chain, and restore it as a 416-room property.

The hotel, nicknamed “the Pontch” by Detroiters, has one of the premium locations in all of downtown, across from the Cobo Convention Center. But it has been shut since 2009, when its air conditioning system failed. 

Built in 1965, the Pontchartrain sits on the same spot as Fort Pontchartrain, the European settlement founded in 1701. Legend has it that Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the city’s founder, disembarked from his canoe on the banks of the Detroit River just south of the hill where the Pontchartrain sits.

In its heyday, the hotel symbolized everything modern about the city and the automobile industry. It had a piano bar, a penthouse nightclub called the Top of the Pontch, and its terrace was the site for numerous outdoor parties with live music.

George W. Bush stayed at the hotel during the 1980 Republican convention, and the reporters who covered his campaign, dubbed the Mournful Pundits, held a party attended by Bush as well as historian Theodore H. White. There once were plans for a second tower, never built.

The Pontch became embroiled in the nation’s savings and loan scandal in 1985, when it was sold to the Crescent Hotel Group, a subsidiary of the Lincoln Savings and Loan. You can read how it became linked to the Keating Five here. 

If the Pontch comes back to life, it would face a challenging hotel market. Once a place with few top-flight rooms, Detroit has seen a flurry of new hotels open in recent years, a number connected to the city’s casinos.

But even the new properties in Detroit average a 60 percent occupancy rate. While they are packed during the North American International Auto Show and special events, they often have a number of vacancies during normal weeks.

Another premier Detroit property, the historic Westin Book-Cadillac, reopened with fanfare in 2009. However, its developer last month failed to make part of his interest payment on a $15 million loan, according to the Detroit News.

A city of Detroit pension fund ended up making the payment to avoid a loan default. Hotel developers often are separate from the companies that operate the properties.

Do you remember the Hotel Pontchartrain? Share your memories with us.

JoAnne Jachyra learned about the Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program when she was laid off from her IT management job in 2009. TAA is a federal program that funds retraining for workers who lose their jobs to international competition.

Jachyra qualified for the funds and used them to go back to school, something she’s always wanted to do. “Ever since I graduated from Michigan State with a degree in astrophysics I had entertained the idea of becoming a teacher,” says Jachyra. “I had to do a process and say ‘OK well here’s what I want to do, here’s how long it’ll take, here’s how much it’ll cost.’ And part of that is they have a list and they say ‘these are the growing professions that you can get trained in because we feel that you will be able to find a job when you are done with that.’” Teaching was on that list.

Jachyra spent a year in an accelerated degree program – the cost was about $3,000 – that was paid for by the TAA. “It didn’t cost me anything other than time and a lot of effort,” says Jachyra.She got her certification to teach high school and middle school math and physics, but finding a job proved more difficult than she had expected. “I seriously thought being certified as a physics and math teacher I should be able to walk into any school in metro Detroit and have a job,” she says.Jachyra spent several months looking for a teaching position before settling at a charter school in the Detroit area.By most accounts, JoAnne Jachyra is a retraining success story. Her degree program led directly into a teaching job. But Jachyra sees things differently. “Charter school teaching, for anyone that’s ever been a teacher will tell you, it’s challenging and difficult, and certainly for a first year teacher maybe not such a good idea,” she says.

She left the charter school in February and has been substitute teaching since. Eventually, she plans on returning to IT management. Jachyra still wants to be a teacher – if the right job opens up – but her experience so far has been disappointing. “I’m not sure I would have pursued a degree in teaching had I known how difficult it would be to find a job once I got it,” she says.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. If you want to learn how to be a part of our network, click here.

Vacant land on Moran St. in Detroit, as seen on Google Street View.

Detroit has a lot of vacant land. That much, you’ve probably heard by now. On Sunday, the Detroit Free Press took a look at efforts to put that land to use, and along the way, the paper rounded up some eye-popping statistics you might not have heard:

  • There are more than 100,000 vacant residential lots in the city of Detroit.
  • If you include commercial property, nearly a third of the city is vacant.
  • If you put all of the vacant land together, the entire city of Paris could fit inside.
  • The vacant land could also fit 25,000 football fields.
  • Only 40% of the real estate parcels in the entire city have owners who pay their property taxes on time.
  • Over the past 30 years in Detroit, 10 residential structures were demolished for every one that was built.

There are plenty of people who want to put this vacant land to use. But that’s proving more complicated than it sounds, thanks especially to a law passed by Michigan voters in 2006.

The Freep points out that Detroit isn’t the only city with a vacancy problem. Both Cleveland and Chicago lost population in the last census. Over at our partner station, WBEZ, Lee Bey has blogged about the “vast emptiness” on the South Side of Chicago. Here at Changing Gears, we ran a series on the many empty spaces in the Midwest.

But the scale of the problem is huge in Detroit. We’re talking about 40 square miles of empty land.

The Freep reports that people have proposed using that land for new recreation areas, solar arrays or urban gardening. There’s also a proposal for a large-scale commercial farm in Detroit. And our own Kate Davidson has reported on “blotting,” a trend where residents are trying to take care of the vacant properties next door. That trend got a big boost earlier this year, when Detroit mayor Dave Bing announced that residents could now own that vacant lot next door for just $200.

But experts who spoke to the Freep say, to really make a dent in Detroit’s vacancy, more large-scale projects need to happen. Right now, state laws are getting in the way.

Six years ago, voters in Michigan approved Proposition 4, a law that limits what the government can do with private land. The proposal was created in response to the Supreme Court Case Kelo v. City of New London. In that case, the city of New London, Conn. condemned a swath of privately-owned land so that it could be redeveloped, creating new jobs along the way. The Supreme Court decided it was a valid use of the city’s powers under eminent domain.

After that decision, many people across the country worried that governments would start seizing private property, and handing it over to big developers, all under the guise of “economic development.” Twelve states passed new laws to prevent that from happening. Michigan was one of them.

Prop 4 made it illegal for governments to take private property and transfer it to another private entity. It also raised the bar for taking “blighted” property.

From the Freep:

Under the new law, a city must prove by clear and convincing evidence that every property within a targeted district is blighted. It’s not enough to show that it’s true for 90% of the properties.

So, for the 100,000 pieces of vacant land in Detroit, the cash-strapped city would have to assemble 100,000 case files to demonstrate that the land is truly blighted.

About half of Detroit’s vacant land is already under the control of either the city or the county. But that still leaves about 50,000 lots left to claim.

The Free Press quotes Wayne State University law professor John Mogk:

“So long as we’re facing the limitations that we are, I don’t think land can be assembled in Detroit for major redevelopment,” Mogk said. “At this point, I don’t think it’s possible.”

For now, it seems, Detroiters will have to settle for the piecemeal approach, taking back what land they can, when they can. Last week, the Detroit News reported the commercial farming proposal, Hantz Farms, could be the first to assemble more than a few lots. The paper says Hantz Farms is expected to buy 200 lots from the city within the next few weeks.

It’s better than nothing.

Chicago is experiencing record ridership of the CTA, and it’s on a drive to spruce up 100 stations. Cleveland has high speed buses from downtown to the Medical Center. In Canada, Toronto has streetcars and every kind of transit you can imagine, including rental bikes.

Toronto rental bikes/photo by Micki Maynard

But Detroit? Well, besides the People Mover, public transportation has never been a big priority. However, mindsets may be changing, according to veteran journalist Rick Haglund.

In a column this weekend, Haglund says the environment for public transportation seems to be changing in Michigan. He cites two reasons: younger people aren’t as interested in driving or owning cars as they once were, and governments and business leaders are lending their support.

We know you’re intrigued about public transportation in Detroit, judging the response to the map we showed you with the Chicago “L” laid over the Motor City.

And, in Grand Rapids, voters recently approved a millage that will pay for upgrading the transit system.

But, would you be interested in riding a bus rapid transit system, a subway or even a streetcar if one was available? Or, is Michigan simply too wedded to cars? Let us know.

Michigan, Ohio and Illinois voters have had their chance. Now, it’s Wisconsin’s turn.

Wisconsin State Capitol

Voters in the dairy state go to the polls on Tuesday to cast ballots in the Republican primary. We’d love to hear how you voted, and what’s the most important issue on your minds.

After you vote, take our survey (or if you’ve already voted early, let us know now). It will help us understand whether different topics are of importance to people in different parts of the Great Lakes.

Earlier this year, we told you about The 99% Spring, the protest movement sponsored by a variety of political and labor groups including, the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters Union.

It’s part of a fresh wave of protests that are taking place across the country, in the wake of the Occupy movement.

The 99% Spring Protest Movement Gets Organized

Starting next week, 99% Spring events will be kicking off across the United States, and especially in the Midwest.

Supporters are vowing to train 100,000 people to “to tell the story of what happened to our economy, learn the history of non-violent direct action, and use that knowledge to take action on our own campaigns to win change.”

Over the weekend, the UAW sent an email to its members, encouraging them to take part. “We are at a crucial point in America where if we continue to ignore the opportunity to rebuild this great country, then we risk losing the very essence of what has made this country great,” the email said. 

Some 918 events have been scheduled thus far., which is associated with the Democratic Party, has a locator for events, where you can put in your zip code and find those closest to you.

Here are the ones for the Detroit area, Chicago and Milwaukee, and Cleveland. To be sure, the 99% Spring movement hasn’t said what will happen once people are trained, but given the training events, it’s pretty clear it will meet its goal of training 100,000 people.

Are you planning to take part in 99% Spring? Let us know where and when.

An offshore wind farm in Denmark. Could this be the view in the Great Lakes soon? Credit: Scandia Wind

This morning, the White House Council on Environmental Quality announced that it’s reached an agreement that will speed up the permitting process for offshore wind energy in the Great Lakes. The agreement comes in the form of a memorandum of understanding with five of the eight states that border the Great Lakes.

On a conference call this morning, officials said the total potential for wind energy in the Great Lakes is about equal to building 700 nuclear power plants. They said wind on the Great Lakes could power millions of homes.

The MOU includes nine federal agencies, and the states of Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania. Not included are Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin, though they can sign on later.

But what’s actually in the memorandum of understanding? Very little, but what’s there could still make a difference.

The entire agreement is 12 pages long. It spells out each agency that has a say in regulating offshore wind projects. All the MOU really requires is that these agencies make a reasonable attempt to work together with the states.

The MOU is just as clear about what it doesn’t do, for example, from the agreement:

Nothing in this MOU may be construed to obligate the Participants to any current or
future expenditure of resources.

The MOU also doesn’t create any new agencies or laws:

This MOU is intended only to enhance and strengthen the working relationships of the Participants in connection to offshore wind energy proposals in the Great Lakes region and is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States or any State, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

Nonetheless, the MOU does include certain requirements of the participants, “including attendance at periodic meetings,” though this is only “to the extent resources allow.” So, basically, you don’t really have to show up at the meetings if you’re short on staff, or your travel budget is tight.

The one concrete, and possibly very useful provision of the agreement, is that the agencies and states agree to create a regulatory roadmap.

… a document that describes the regulatory review process and identifies current and anticipated data needed to inform efficient review of proposed offshore wind energy facilities in the Great Lakes.

The roadmap must be completed and published 15 months from now. It might not sound like a lot. But the truth is, offshore wind is incredibly confusing from a regulatory standpoint. Nine federal agencies have jurisdiction, plus each state has its own agencies, and in many areas there are tribal jurisdictions.

Regulatory uncertainty is one of the things that’s held offshore wind back in the Great Lakes. The other, of course, is that many flat out oppose wind farms on the Lakes. Public opposition has already halted at least two proposals for offshore wind energy in the Great Lakes – one in New York and another in Michigan.

On this morning’s conference call, Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman said the new agreement won’t settle any of the public disagreements over offshore windfarms.

“This is not a comment on any particular project or on the substance of what any groups may think, for or against,” Poneman said. “It is indifferent as to what the specific groups are proposing or opposing.”
Poneman said the intent instead is to speed up the regulatory process, and get governments out of the way. How much the MOU will speed things up, he couldn’t say, since the federal government has yet to officially approve any wind turbines for any of the Lakes.
But the hope is, that when and if offshore wind power does come to the Great Lakes, governments won’t be the ones holding it back.

National Journal picked Illinois' 7th as one of the nation's "10 Most Contorted Congressional Districts." Credit: Google Map by National Journal

National Journal has a look at who wins and who loses in the Congressional redistricting process that happens every 10 years. The piece, which only subscribers can see, also comes with a sidebar on “Modern Gerrymanders,” including maps of the 10 most contorted Congressional districts.

The Midwest has three of the 10. Chicago alone has two. But, this is a pretty subjective list, and we think some Midwest Congressional Districts were robbed. What about the Illinois 17th? Or Indiana’s 4th?

What do you think? What’s the most contorted Congressional district in the Midwest?

National Journal picked Illinois' 7th as one of the nation's "10 Most Contorted Congressional Districts." Credit: Google Map by National Journal

National Journal has a look at who wins and who loses in the Congressional redistricting process that happens every 10 years. The piece, which only subscribers can see, also comes with a sidebar on “Modern Gerrymanders,” including maps of the 10 most contorted Congressional districts.

The Midwest has three of the 10. Chicago alone has two. But, this is a pretty subjective list, and we think some Midwest Congressional Districts were robbed. What about the Illinois 17th? Or Indiana’s 4th?

What do you think? What’s the most contorted Congressional district in the Midwest?

We’ve heard a lot in the past few weeks about Chicago and its place among global cities. On Thursday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel set forth his proposal for a “new Chicago” that involves a wide variety of infrastructure improvements, private funding and more debt.

Photo by Simonds via flickr

All that is supposed to put the city back among the list of the world’s best cities. But there are suggestions that Chicago actually needn’t bother.

Urbanist Richard Florida looks at why some cities lose and others win in a sweeping piece today on The Atlantic Cities. He notes that the world’s biggest cities have been dramatically reordered since 1950, when Chicago was the second biggest in the U.S. and eighth largest in the world.

Now, Chicago ranks third largest among American cities and 25th in the world. Florida suggests it probably doesn’t stand a chance to become more important, because it’s now part of the world’s tier of second and third-level cities. 

As Florida writes,

“Simulations by Robert Axtell of George Mason University show that the biggest, dominant cities can survive and thrive for a very long time. New York has been America’s largest city since its first census in 1790.  London has been the United Kingdom’s largest city for a very long time. Athens and Rome have remained influential long past their prime. 

But the competition and “churning” among smaller second- and third-tier cities is brutal. These cities rise and fall frequently. Early in the 20th century, rising industrial cities in the United States and Europe displaced once dominant mercantile centers. By the end of that century, many of those same industrial cities were being replaced by knowledge-based ones.”

 And, if Chicago is in this kind of quandary, the outlook for our traditional industrial cities, like Detroit, Milwaukee and Cleveland, might be even more dire on a global scale.
That doesn’t mean they have no role to place in the national or international economy. They just won’t be in the top ranks.
Read Florida’s story at The Atlantic Cities and tell us your reaction. Should Chicago give up?