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When General Motors went into Chapter 11 protection three years ago, it closed factories all over the Midwest. 

One of them was the Grand Rapids Metal Center, a 2 million square foot stamping plant in Wyoming, Mich. Once the biggest employer in that Grand Rapids suburb, it was the first site sold by Motors Holdings, the company created to liquidate GM’s unwanted locations.

Now, new owners are trying to give the 75-year-old factory a new identity, reports Lindsey Smith at our partner Michigan Radio. They’ve demolished most of what was once they’re and re-branded the location as Site 36 (the factory’s address was 300 36th Street).

The developers would like to attract a global company, but they know there’s limited cache to trying to peddle a former GM plant. Thus, the new name.

Can it work? Many communities around the region are trying to find their own solutions, from Janesville, Wis., to Wixom, Mich., and Dayton, Ohio.

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.

The day after The Super Bowl is over, and now the cleanup process begins for Indianapolis.

Opportunity knocked Reuters looks into what happened to all those clients of MF Global, after the firm collapsed. Turns out two Chicago firms were the biggest winners, bringing in $1.2 billion in new funds.

More ‘Free’ beds The Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich. is planning a $48 million expansion. The expansion will double the hospital’s size.

Gasification fight Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson wants to turn the city’s trash into energy. But environmentalists have raised concerns about emissions from the “gasification” process. And the city council is not sold on the idea.

Going once, going twice, oh never mind … Detroit residents who had their homes taken away because of a failure to pay taxes are getting an opportunity to buy those homes back. The Detroit News reports that thousands of city-owned properties failed to sell at auction. So officials now say they’ll offer to sell the property back to the original owner, or whoever is squatting in the home, for as little as $500.

Not really ‘Made In Detroit’ Last week, we put together a list of all the companies making t-shirts to show your local pride in the Midwest. Today, Susan Tompor looks at one of those companies and asks Where are those ‘Made In Detroit’ shirts actually made?”

The 1948 Tucker Torpedo

Classic car buffs were dazzled this past weekend when a 1948 Tucker smashed records at the Barrett-Jackson Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona. The Tucker, one of just 51 built, sold for $2.91 million, including transaction fees. a significant markup over its original $2,450 sticker price.

If you’re in the vicinity of Grand Rapids, Mich., this weekend, you’ll be able to see what a car like this looks like. The Torpedo owned by the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Mich.,  will be on display at the Michigan International Auto Show. It’s the same color and model as the one sold on Saturday.

The Gilmore Tucker was last put on display at the show in 2004, when it was valued at a mere $5,000, according to a press release. It has only 51 original miles, untouched paint and the factory grease pencil markings on it.

Tucker was a company with deep ties to the industrial Midwest. It was the brainchild of Preston Tucker, an entrepreneur from Ypsilanti, Mich. He built his cars in a vast factory on Cicero Avenue in Chicago that is now home to a shopping mall and the corporate headquarters of the Tootsie Roll Company.

Here’s the trailer from the film Tucker: The Man and His Dream, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Here’s one way an economy can begin to turn around: a business person sees an opportunity. Maybe it’s a building that’s been sitting empty, or a block corner that’s looking run down. The business person gets together with investors, and maybe lands some government tax incentives. It becomes a public-private partnership.

But sometimes, an economic turnaround starts not with investors or public money. It starts with philanthropy. Dustin Dwyer recently reported for Changing Gears from Grand Rapids, Mich., on the role that philanthropy is playing there, and elsewhere in the Midwest.

Philanthropists are fueling Grand Rapids' growth.

Here’s his look at the role of philanthropy.

All over downtown Grand Rapids, there are major projects that came about because of philanthropy, such as the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. One block north, sits the convention center. A few blocks south is the Van Andel Arena. To the west, there’s the Grand Rapids Public Museum, the Meijer Broadcast Center, and the YMCA.

To the east, up Monroe Avenue Northwest is what’s called Medical Mile. $1 billion dollars went into building the medical and bio-research facilities over there – much of that in the form of private donations.

Without these developments and without philanthropy, Grand Rapids’ downtown would seem pretty empty.

“Everybody recognizes that Grand Rapids’ downtown has been revitalized in these dramatic ways,” says Michael Moody, who studies family philanthropy at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University .

Moody says one of the things that makes Grand Rapids downtown unique is how philanthropy has been used here.

“We do see institutions that were developed like hotels and convention centers that were developed through major roles of philanthropists, but that otherwise look like regular downtown economic development activities,” he said.

This philanthropic process gets talked about a lot in Grand Rapids. But it’s not necessarily unique.

Take a look at Cleveland.

Ronn Richard runs the Cleveland Foundation. It’s one of the largest community foundations in the country. When he was hired eight years ago, Richards said he knew that the foundation had to expand its scope – not just supporting existing organizations, but creating new ones from scratch.

And so the Cleveland Foundation started acting like a venture capital firm. It has a project called the Evergreen Cooperatives. Richard says the project includes a pot of money – about $22 million so far – to be used as startup capital to get businesses going.

“And then when they hit profitability, they will do two things: 10 percent of their profits will go back into the pot to start ever-more companies, and the rest of the profits get distributed among their employees because these are for-profit, employee-owned companies,” he said.

The companies are located in some of the most economically distressed neighborhoods of Cleveland. There is a clear social goal to Evergreen Cooperatives.

But Richard says the businesses do have to be viable.

“You know, we are kind of hard-nose business folks when it comes to that. We couldn’t afford to just keep pumping money into these companies if they’re not profitable. So these are serious, for profit

Two businesses have launched so far. A third is launching soon. Richard says by next summer, the project will be directly responsible for creating 80 jobs.

This program is a unique way to tackle economic problems. And the Cleveland Foundation has many more projects with the same goal. So do other Midwest cities. You could go to Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit or Flint and see the effects of philanthropy.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy keeps track of this kind of giving. If you look at just the institutions that give grants for community and economic development, the Midwest has four of the top five foundations in the country.

It is one of the great assets of our region – these foundations and philanthropic organizations that were set up years ago. They can continue to fuel our economies for years to come.

All across the Midwest, cities and suburbs are tackling the problem of Empty Places. Throughout November, Changing Gears took a look at some of the challenges and solutions involved in transforming property from the past.

In Flint, Mich., Kate Davidson found there may be no better example of how the industrial Midwest is changing than the site of the old Fisher Body Plant No. 1.  It’s one of the factories that was occupied by sit-down strikers in the 1930s.  The plant made tanks during World War II.  It was later closed, gutted and reborn as a GM design center.  But GM abandoned the site after bankruptcy and the new occupants don’t make cars.  They sell very expensive prescription drugs.

In suburban Chicago, Tony Arnold reported that  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 its headquarters there.

For many people, the most threatening emptiness isn’t a shuttered factory.  It’s the abandoned property next door.  But in Detroit, some residents are using that emptiness to quietly reshape their neighborhoods.  They’re annexing vacant lots around them, buying them when they can or just putting up a fence. They’re not squatters, says Davidson, they’re blotters.

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

There are vacant factories all over the Midwest. But where some people see blight, others see opportunity. One example: a former Chicago meatpacking plant has been transformed into a vertical farm, as Niala Boodhoo discovered.

Barry Van Dyke and his two siblings told us their story of turning Jack’s Liquor Store in Grand Rapids, Mich., into a brewery. As he said to Sarah Alvarez, “Over the last three or four years there has been a huge boom of people re-occupying buildings and putting work into them. It’s great to be a part of that in Grand Rapids. I think the general public sees that, and they are just bending over backwards to be supportive.”

But there’s plenty more work to  be done across the Midwest. In fact, there are 3,000 empty buildings alone in Northwest Indiana. Take a look at the work that’s going on there.

Any thoughts on our Empty Places series? Let us know if you’re working to transform an abandoned place in our region.




Jack’s Liquor Store was never a beautiful building, even before it closed down and stood empty for more than 10 years. It was a dingy, generic convenience store on a corner. In May 2010, 33-year-old Grand Rapids resident Barry Van Dyke and two siblings bought it anyway.

courtesy of Barry Van Dyke

Barry Van Dyke working on what is now the Harmony Brewing Company

The store sits on the border of the Uptown and Eastown neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. Eastown has been known as a diverse, vibrant business district and the Van Dyke’s wanted to capitalize on the energy and traffic. They plan to open a brewery in the space soon, Harmony Brewery. But converting the formerly empty building has not been easy.

The Van Dykes came into the project with redevelopment experience. Together, with their father, they own a local property management company called Bear Manor. They’ve bought, fixed up, and rented or sold 13 residential and three commercial properties in Grand Rapids, mostly in the Uptown neighborhood.

These 16 buildings are just a dent in the at least 1,078 buildings the city of Grand Rapids has documented as abandoned. Barry Van Dyke isn’t surprised there are so many. He says the thing most people don’t realize about renovating empty places is how long it takes.

“It’s a really slow process if you want to do it right, if you really want to return these buildings to what they once were,” he said.

He felt a lot of pride in helping turn an empty building into something better. But, until now, it has been bittersweet to hand over the keys to business owners using the space.

“My brother and my sister dong all the sweaty work to bring these places back into useability, and then we would have a post-partum type of moment where we had to step back and watch these projects take on a life of their own.”

The Van Dykes decided they wanted to try to start a business in one of their buildings too. Several years ago and developed a business plan to turn their hobby of brewing beer into a real business, but they shelved it until they found a space. When they came across Jack’s Liquor Store, Van Dyke says they had a hard time getting a loan to finance the project. Their old bank wouldn’t give them a loan.

“We went to literally every bank in the region with our business plan and we were turned away everywhere,” said Van Dyke. “We had always been a great customer we had never made a late payment, our properties were good, we had a great reputation.”

When the housing market was booming, Bear Manor would buy a building at a low cost and rehab it themselves. After the renovation the property would be worth more, so Bear Manor could take out another line of equity on the new value of the building-and use that loan to finance their next project.

When the recession hit and property values declined across the board, this business model didn’t work anymore. At their last stop before hanging up the project, United Bank, they were able to get a loan at a small, local bank where Van Dyke said, “reputation mattered.”

Together, the Van Dykes are borrowing around $250,000 with the help of the Small Business Administration and financing the rest of the approximately $300,000 project themselves. To keep costs down they are doing most of the work themselves. They are also using recycled materials they had in storage, including an old gymnasium floor from Western Michigan University.

Van Dyke says that there are still a lot of abandoned properties in Grand Rapids, but this is changing.

“Over the last three or four years there has been a huge boom of people re-occupying buildings and putting work into them, said Van Dyke. “It’s great to be a part of that in Grand Rapids. I think the general public sees that, and they are just bending over backwards to be supportive.” Van Dyke hopes that supports translates into customers when Harmony Brewery opens in the next few weeks.

This week, Changing Gears kicks off a look at Empty Places across our region. During November, we’ll be looking at empty buildings, empty property — and how we can fill things up again. In the first part of our series, reporter Dustin Dwyer explores the economic and social cost of emptiness. Things may be better in some neighborhoods, he says, but problems still abound.

Vacant homes in Detroit. Photo: Mary's Detroit Photoblog

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — There is no one number that tells the story of all the empty houses, storefronts, offices and factories in the Midwest. But there are many numbers that tell part of the story.

Like this: One out of ten. One out of ten homes in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin was vacant in 2010. That’s according to the U.S. Census.

Or these numbers:  Twenty-two percent of office space in the Cleveland area is empty. Chicago offices are 19 percent empty. Metro Detroit: almost 27 percent.

Those numbers are from the real estate firm Grubb & Ellis. Fred Liesveld from the firm’s Detroit office says those numbers have actually been getting better for almost a year. He said of the 27 percent vacancy figure: “We haven’t seen that in a decade. That’s just great news.”

And really, there’s a lot of good news in the Midwest. In every city there’s at least one neighborhood that used to be a lot worse.

Where I live in Grand Rapids, that neighborhood is Heartside. Heather Ibrahim has worked in Heartside for more than a decade, at a non-profit called Dwelling Place. I met up with her during an art event on what used to be one of the neighborhood’s worst blocks.

“Just looking down the street and seeing how many buildings have been revitalized, it’s just amazing,” she said. “It amazes me the changes that have happened.”

Ibrahim says when she first started working in Heartside, maybe half the buildings were falling apart. Now, she estimates 80 percent of the neighborhood has been restored.

But even in Heartside, Ibrahim believes 20 percent of the buildings are still in bad shape. Windows are boarded up. Storefronts are empty.

Now let’s look at Detroit. Last year, a collection of groups called The Detroit Data Collective did a survey of the entire city. What they found is that more than a quarter of the city’s residential space is now completely vacant. We’re not talking about a row of empty houses. We’re talking about an urban prairie.

Jeff Horner, of the urban studies department at Wayne State University in Detroit, has lived in the area all his life. He says he’ll take the prairie over what used to be there.

“You never get used to seeing the same house you drive past that was lost in a fire and here’s still this burned out hulk that just sits there for years,” he said.

And for those who want to just think of this kind of a thing as a Detroit problem, it’s not.

In many ways, Chicago is the shining example of what can go right in the Midwest economy. But after the 2008 real estate crash, the emptiness has been creeping there as well. And, like everywhere, it has a devastating impact.

And now we’re talking about things that can’t be measured in numbers.

“The urban environment has a profound impact on psychological functioning,” said Lynn Todman, an urban planner who works at the Adler School of Professional Psychology. Last year, she did a mental health study in the city’s Englewood neighborhood. The area has been devastated by foreclosures.

Todman says she spoke to one man who had to go into the abandoned houses for his job. The man told Todman about dogfights, squatters and runaway kids.

“I tried to get a little more information out of him about the kinds of things and activities that took place, perhaps things that weren’t widely reported in the news. And he said, ‘you don’t want to know,’” Todman recalls.

Todman says crime-ridden neighborhoods would have crime even if there wasn’t a bunch of vacant buildings. But when there is, the crime can spread. It can affect the people living in the homes that remain.

It can lead to stress, which leads to learning problems for young kids. Heart problems for adults. Drug use.

Add it all up, and Todman says this less-measurable impact of empty buildings – it will go on even after the economy improves and the buildings fill back up.

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Biden champions jobs bill. Vice President Joe Biden made two stops in Michigan on Wednesday, touting President Obama’s $447 billion jobs bill. In a visit to Flint, Biden noted the city’s rise in murders, rapes and fires that occurred as police and fire staffing levels dropped. “That is a witch’s brew,” Biden tells Businessweek. “That is a mixture for a cancer in the city.” Later, during a stop in Grand Rapids, the vice president said economists believe the American Jobs Act would create 2 million jobs next year. Flint Mayor Dayne Walling said federal funding recently helped the city hire six police officers, but more are needed.

2. Chicago budget proposal chops services. On Wednesday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel unveiled a budget that called for taxes on tourists and suburbanites, close three police stations, streamline garbage collection, cut library hours and double water bills for the average household by 2015, according to the Chicago Tribune. “I’ve taken on a tremendous amount of political sacred cows,” Emanuel said  during a presentation to the City Council. “Not once, not twice, not three times, not four times, but multiple times across the budget.”

3. Hydrofracking permits soar in Ohio. The pace of permits being issued for hydrofracking in Ohio has quickened. The Columbus Dispatch reports today that 27 permits were issued for drilling in the Utica Shale formation underneath Ohio from July to September – more than half the total number issued since 2009. Meanwhile, Democrats in the state House said yesterday they would seek a moratorium on hydrofracking in the state until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency completes a study on the controversial drilling’s effects on air and water.

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Fears of a double-dip recession dim. An index of leading economic indicators inched upward in May, according to our partner station, alleviating some fears that the nation’s economy would enter a double-dip recession. The Conference Board’s index, which rose 0.8 percent in May, suggests the economy will show “modest growth” through the summer months.

2.Nearly 2,000 artists register for ArtPrize. The annual art competition in Grand Rapids will have almost 2,000 artists at 199 participating locations. Registration for the event closed Thursday. Founded by Rick DeVos, ArtPrize offers more than $450,000 in prizes. Last year, ArtPrize welcomed 1,713 artists at 192 venues, according to The Grand Rapids Press.

3. Abandon its automobiles? The concept seems like an unlikely solution for problems in the Motor City. But that’s the lynchpin of a proposal for transforming Detroit that comes from the Urban Priorities Committee of the American Institute of Architects. Their plan calls for “connecting walkable neighborhoods via improved transit and cycling facilities — a stark departure from Detroit’s notoriously autocentric design.” The full plan is profiled in this month’s “Architect,” the monthly magazine of the AIA.