Kate Davidson

Kevin Garcia is a "blotter" in Detroit

Remember our series on empty places? Well, our friends at NPR took an interest in the experiences of Detroit’s “blotters” — residents who annex vacant lots around them, creating block/lots.  You can listen to the NPR piece here. It includes the story of Kevin Garcia (above) who tried for years to buy the lot next door. He wants Detroit to cut down on the bureaucracy involved. City officials want that too, since Detroit currently manages more than 60,000 parcels of land, most of it vacant.


Kate Davidson

Workers at Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy prepare custom prescriptions

FLINT — There may be no better example of how the industrial Midwest is changing than the site of the old Fisher Body Plant No. 1 in Flint, Michigan.  It’s one of the factories sit-down strikers occupied 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.

There’s one group of experts who can always tell you the history and significance of an old factory.  They’re the guys at the bar across the street.

Dan Wright is still a regular at The Caboose Lounge.  He worked at Fisher Body No. 1 briefly in the 1970s.

“The bars were always full and restaurants were always full and stores were always full,” he says.  “And all these stores, bars and restaurants you go to now, there’s nobody there.  And it’s sad that Flint died the way it did.”

Now Michigan’s governor says there’s a financial emergency in Flint, the once prosperous birthplace of GM.  In fact, seven thousand people worked at Fisher Body No. 1 when workers sat down in late 1936, demanding recognition for the United Auto Workers.

Courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library/Wayne State University

Strikers at Fisher Plant No. 1 wanted recognition for the nascent UAW

Courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library/Wayne State University

Crowds gather in support of the sit-down strikers at Fisher Body Plant No. 1

“We’re actually standing in the area, very close right now, where the 1937 sit down strike was,” says Phil Hagerman, president and CEO of Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy.

Diplomat moved in earlier this year.  The company specializes in drugs that target complex medical conditions like cancer, hemophilia, MS and HIV/AIDS.  Many produce side effects, so nurses here call patients to make sure they stick to their treatment plans.

Kate Davidson

The old GM complex is now home to Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy's headquarters.

“Specialty pharmacy is the fastest growing component in the pharmacy industry,” says Hagerman.  “Traditional pharmacy is growing at two to five percent a year.  Specialty pharmacy is growing at 15 to 25 percent a year.”

Diplomat hired more than two hundred people this year.  Phil Hagerman says the company is on track to top a billion dollars in sales next year.

“We’re distributing as many as two thousand or more prescriptions a day around the country, shipping to every state every day from this building,” he says.

The building highlights the transformation of the industrial Midwest.  GM shuttered the sprawling Fisher Body No. 1 plant in the 80s and much of it was demolished.  The footprint of the complex shrank dramatically.  But the steel and concrete of this building’s main structure were retrofitted into an engineering and design center for GM, housed in the Great Lakes Technology Center.

Diplomat later bought about half the space and it’s still enormous: 550,000 square feet.  That’s more than one thousand square feet for each of the 450 employees here.  The other half of the complex is now a biomedical campus, run by the company IINN.

Courtesy of Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy

Last year Diplomat filled more than 600,000 prescriptions

“How often do normal business rules allow a company to have a ten year growth footprint?” Diplomat’s Phil Hagerman asks.  “It just doesn’t happen. ‘Cause the cost of the building is so great.  But because we acquired this from an auction process at a very, very low cost, we have a building that we know we can grow into for about ten years.”

So, that’s one advantage of acquiring property discarded by industrial giants.  Advantage #2: 1700 cubicles left behind.  Advantage #3: Random industrial signs that read: ‘Caution: Pedestrian traffic. Sound horn’.  And advantage #4: The government loves you, especially if you’re a high-tech or medical company.  In fact, Diplomat won’t pay property taxes here for almost 15 years, and it got a 62 million dollar tax break from the state.  In return, CEO Phil Hagerman says he’ll hire four thousand people in the next two decades.

But thousands of people used to stream across the street to local businesses every week. At The Caboose Lounge, waitress Janet Anderson says the new workers at Diplomat don’t come in yet, but she’s hopeful.

“I do good breakfasts,” she says.  “Real good breakfasts you can ask anybody in here.”

And these days, hope itself might be a welcome sign of change in Flint.

(NPR also aired a version of this story nationally.  Listen to it here.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Kate Davidson

"Blotters" are turning Detroit's empty spaces into family compounds.

DETROIT — Our Changing Gears project is looking at the challenges of the region’s empty places this month.  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 … they’re blotters.

Blot isn’t a bad word.  A design firm coined the term several years ago.  Academia ran with it.

“Blots are properties between the size of an entire block and just a lot.  So, they are consolidations of multiple lots,” says Margaret Dewar, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan who’s mapped blots.

So, families are creating compounds of multiple lots.  Big deal, right?  Well, keep in mind Detroit was built tightly packed with working class homes.  It sliced up blocks with a very quick knife.  So as the city lost 60 percent of its population, it left these gaping holes in the genetic makeup of neighborhoods.  Blotters aren’t waiting for the city to fix that.

“I call it an everyday remaking,” Dewar says.  “It’s every day there’s a little step in this direction of remaking by people who are pretty invisible.  But over time it becomes a dominant feature of the city.”

People like space.  Margaret Dewar sampled tax-reverted properties resold by the city, up to 2005.  She found more than a quarter were bought by the homeowner next door.

Still, the easiest way to find blotters in Detroit is to look for a very long fence on a lonely street.

Kate Davidson

Paula Besheers and her son Paul Browne tried in vain to buy the empty lot right next door.

Behind one of them is the house Paula Besheers’ grandfather bought in 1925.

“This has been here in the family for four generations,” she says.  “So it’s like 86 years.”

And then, also fenced off, the four empty lots.  Well, not exactly empty…

“I planted in some cherry trees and two apple trees,” says Besheers’ son Paul Browne, who lives a few blocks from the family home.  “I’m attempting to grow some grape vines.  I’ll let you know when I figure out how to get that going good.”

The little orchard, the raspberry patch, the gardens — they’re a relief from the pit bulls, the burnt house and the emptiness across the street. But there’s a catch.

It turns out, the only lot the family actually owns is the one farthest from the house.  HUD sold it for about a hundred bucks.  Browne says the last he checked, the city owned the next lot in, the county the next one, and the city the one after that.  He says the family tried to buy the middle lots years ago, but were told no.  He says it’s probably time to try again.

“They want to sell it, more than willing to buy it off of them,” he says.

So why go to all this trouble?

“’Cause we live next door to it,” Browne says.  “If you go up the next block from here you’ll see what it would look like.  Just overgrown brush piles.  Trash.  Car parts.   And it’s only from stubbornness and perseverance that keeps it from becoming a debris pile.”

Kate Davidson

The family home

Kate Davidson

Across the street

So should cities like Detroit make it easier for residents to take over the vacant space around them?  Detroit’s new planning director Rob Anderson says, basically, yes.

To be clear, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, even post-Katrina New Orleans all have adjacent lot programs on the books already.  In Cleveland, a homeowner can buy the lot next door for as little as a dollar.  In Detroit, two hundred dollars.  Chicago, a thousand.

Rob Anderson says, most importantly, when a homeowner buys the lot next door, they’re taking responsibility for the neighborhood.  They’re also putting land back on the tax rolls.

“Then that’s one parcel that we can rely on a citizen to take care of that the city really can’t afford to take care of,” he says.

Anderson says Detroit has sold about a thousand of these lots in recent years.

Still, the city owns a staggering 60,000 plus parcels of land, most of it vacant.  So the planning department just started reevaluating the adjacent lot program in southwest Detroit, to see how to expedite and promote it.

“We think it’s a tool that really is well suited for this area that we’re working in,” Anderson says.  “And if we can get it right here, it’s easily transferred to the rest of the community.”

Has the tool been underutilized in the past?

“Looks like it to me,” he says.

The program has inherent limitations.  The scale of abandonment in Detroit means many homeowners aren’t just worried about the lot next door.  It’s also the one after that, the one after that, and, in Paula Besheers’ case, the one after that.  But only the vacant parcel right next door meets the guidelines of the city’s current adjacent lot program.  Residents can still buy multiple lots, but they have to go through a different process.

Then, there’s the time factor.  As I was leaving the planning department, an aide mentioned it can take years for residents to get through the bureaucracy of buying the lot next door.  Rob Anderson was shocked.  He said the department’s new goal will be 30 days.  That would bring Detroit in line with cities like Cleveland and Chicago, where it only takes a few months to expand your yard.

*Inform our coverage: Have you taken over empty or abandoned land near you-or know someone who has?

 


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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Memorabilia from the now defunct AutoWorld in Flint

History is full of the search for magic bullets, those quick tickets to jobs and economic prosperity. Cities across our region have put great hopes and resources into magic bullets.  Some have soared; many have backfired. This week, we’re bringing you stories of magic bullets past and present. We start with this look back.

Magic bullets are kind of like imaginary friends. We all have them in our past, but most people deny they exist. Just turn on the TV these days and you’ll hear a list of things that aren’t magic bullets: fiscal stimulus, inflation, tax credits, etc, etc…

But then ask George Bacalis.

“There was a magic bullet when I was young and they called it an automobile,” he says.

Bacalis is 80, born in Detroit. He remembers a city crazy for cars in the 1950s.  Since then, the auto boom town has lost a million people, more than half its population. So can magic bullets work?

“Yeah, sometimes they work,” says historian Kevin Boyle. “But it’s a rare thing and it has consequences as Detroit today I think really shows.”

Boyle is a history professor at The Ohio State University and the author of Arc of Justice, about 1920s Detroit. He agreed to help us run through a very abridged history of the Midwest magic bullet.

Magic bullet number one: A city or town finds that one key industry on which it tries to build a whole economy.

“So Detroit had its auto industry; Akron had the tire industry; Sheboygan had toilet production,” Boyle says. He says the problem is the Midwest grew a lot of single industry towns that were hit hard when that first magic bullet failed them. Think Youngstown or Muncie.

“And so you get a certain desperation,” Boyle says, “to try to find the way back to where we once were.”

Which can lead to magic bullet number two (this one is our nomination): “If you build it, they will come.”

On July 4, 1984, Michigan’s then governor James Blanchard declared, “Today…is the first day of the rebirth of the great city of Flint.”

He was announcing the opening of AutoWorld, an ill-fated $80 million theme park in the birthplace of GM.  Some touted it as the world’s largest indoor theme park. But attendance lagged and it seemed AutoWorld couldn’t decide what it wanted to be: a thrilling amusement park or an homage to the car. AutoWorld closed months later, reopened briefly, then ended up a punch line in a Michael Moore film. It was demolished in 1997.

Then there’s magic bullet number three: the great event.

In 1893, Chicago hosted, literally, the greatest show on earth: the world’s fair.  It built a gleaming white city within the real city of slaughterhouses and industrial grime. The world’s first Ferris wheel spun 2,000 passengers at a time. But in 1893, financial panic seized the nation. Workers marched in the streets. Historian Kevin Boyle says no single event, no matter how glorious, could offset the soaring unemployment of the downturn that followed.

More than a century later, former mayor Richard Daley lobbied hard for a Chicago Olympics.

“The 2016 Olympic Games will grow our economy,” he proclaimed, “Create hundreds of thousands of jobs.  Generate billions in new economic activity. The impact will be enormous and most of it will be concentrated in Chicago neighborhoods.”

Or, in Rio neighborhoods.  Despite at least an $80 million bid, Chicago lost the games to Brazil in 2009. If it’s any consolation, Rob Livingstone of GamesBids.com says Detroit tried for years to get the games. The city bid for 1944, 1952, then 1956, 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972.  A lot of bids, no

“It is a lot of bids,” says Livingstone. “It’s not uncommon, but I think they actually do have the record for the most consecutive unsuccessful bids.”

Historian Kevin Boyle points to one last magic bullet, maybe the most complex.  Urban renewal: the massive postwar effort to transform cities by eliminating blighted housing and building public housing for the poor. Boyle says the poorest neighborhoods in America were desperately poor and did need revitalization.  But too often, he says, urban renewal simply devastated black neighborhoods and the communities within them.

“It took all of old Black Bottom away,” says Reverend Horace Sheffield III of Detroit. “The freeways were built through the heart of black businesses. Gotham Hotel and Hastings Street.  I mean, all of that was lost.”

Vibrant Hastings Street once hosted the great musicians of the day: Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and more. It’s where Alberta Adams, Detroit’s “Queen of the Blues” got her start. Today, it’s a stretch of the Chrysler Freeway.

There’s nothing simple about so-called magic bullets.  But it’s also a city’s job to constantly look for ways to improve the lives of its people. So what are the magic bullets of today and tomorrow?  We turn to those next and we want to hear from YOU as well. Please leave your nominations below.


The Empire Mine has been producing iron ore for more than 40 years. Photo courtesy of Cliffs Natural Resources

Our Changing Gears project is on the road, bringing you stories of towns where one company still affects everybody’s lives. Today we head north, to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. That’s where North America’s biggest supplier of iron ore has been blasting the earth, and creating jobs, for more than 160 years. 

Ishpeming is a city built on iron ore. Photo by Kate Davidson

Our destination is the city of Ishpeming. It’s small.  Basically, you can’t throw a rock here without hitting a miner.

Take Steve Carlson. After high school, he worked 37 years for the mines.

“When I started as a young man, all the old bucks set you straight on the dos and the do nots,” he says.  “And what you want to do is go home every day to your family.”

Ken Hietikko is still mining after 36 years. He operates an enormous shovel at the Tilden and Empire open pit mines outside of town. They’re deep craters that have produced more than 450 million tons of iron ore. Hietikko runs the machinery of giants. The first time he saw it, he was struck with awe.

“I still am,” he says. “I like this. You know this is me running this great big piece of equipment. And supplying a living for a lot of people in our area. And supplying iron ore, to the world actually.”

Dale Hemmila says North American steel begins here. Photo by Kate Davidson

Like other miners, Hietikko endured his share of layoffs in the 1980s. But he still calls mining a “dinosaur industry” — one of the last places where a blue-collar kid with little education can make good money for life.

As for Ishpeming, it wouldn’t exist if Cliffs Natural Resources hadn’t started mining the UP in 1848.  Around here, the company is still known as Cleveland Cliffs.

The Empire and Tilden Mines produce about 13 million tons a year. Photo courtesy of Cliffs Natural Resources

“What we tell people is that steel in North America really begins here in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,” says Dale Hemmila, the company’s director of public affairs in North America.

We’re standing at the edge of the Empire pit, which stretches nearly a mile long and a mile wide.  Here, the miners extract low-grade ore, which is processed into higher-grade pellets.

The iron ore is pulverized and turned into higher grade pellets. Photo by Kate Davidson

“The pellet is about the size of a marble,” Hemmila says. “And literally we create billions of them on an annual basis here.”

Pellet prices are high right now. Countries like China and India are using a lot of iron ore, to make a lot of steel. That’s good for Cliffs. Dale Hemmila says when you add up payroll, taxes, electricity and supplies, the company has a regional economic impact of more than $830 million. That includes 600 employees in Ishpeming and lot of other people who rely on the economic oxygen of the mines.

People like Sandra Sundquist. Where else besides Ishpeming could a gal sell 800 pairs of steel boots a year?

“We do have an issue in the UP of wide feet, and we actually call them pasty feet,” she says.  “They need extra wide boots.”

She has them in stock at Wilderness Sports downtown.

Sandra Sundquist sells 800 to 900 pairs of steel boots a year. Photo by Kate Davidson

Lee Woods sells giant tires to the mines. Photo by Kate Davidson

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down the road is a big guy, Lee Woods. He’s president of Northern Tire Inc., which provides giant tires for the mine’s giant haulers. The largest hauler can carry 320 tons of iron ore. The tires stacked up out back make Woods’s lot look like a sandbox for Titans.

“This tire weighs 10,500 pounds,” he says. “It’s twelve-and-a-half feet in diameter and these are just almost 50,000 apiece.”

Which all begs the question: How long is this going to last?

“Well, the iron’s gonna run out sometime. The ore’ll run out sometime. I don’t know when,” says Jered Ottenwess.

Ottenwess is Ishpeming’s city manager. He says it’s hard to do long-range planning when the local economy is so dependent on one company.

City Manager Jered Ottenwess says diversification is key. Photo by Kate Davidson

“What’s Ishpeming gonna look like in 25 years?” he asks. “Well that’s entirely predicated on whether Cliffs is still gonna be here, operating those mines. If they’re not, what’s our economy actually going to look like?”

All of Marquette County is trying to grow tourism, education and health care. The Marquette General Health System is already the biggest employer in the county; Cliffs ranks second overall. But the city manager worries Ishpeming itself won’t diversify fast enough. He says that shifting this old mining town’s economic base is an overwhelming challenge.

Meanwhile, a lot of people think mining will be here for a very long time.  Dale Hemmila says Cliffs is trying to extend the life of the Empire pit to 2015.  He says the Tilden Mine should operate another 30 or 35 years, depending on economic viability.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

We brought the story of the Great Lakes dredging backlog to your radio and computer screen.  But sometimes, you need more of a visual.  (Even more than my 18 million ovens.)  So click through the slideshow below to meet some of the people affected by sediment buildup in regional shipping channels.


Who knew an inch could make such a difference?

In our piece this week on the Great Lakes dredging backlog, we introduced you to Mark Barker, president of The Interlake Steamship Company.  I called him “a man who measures revenue with a ruler.”

To see what that really means, check out this nifty chart from the Great Lakes Maritime Task Force. It shows how much cargo a ship can hold for every inch of water it occupies. For the biggest vessels – the “thousand- footers” – one inch of draft corresponds to 267 tons of cargo. That’s why every bit of clearance matters to shippers trying to get the most bang from every trip.

Chart courtesy of the Great Lakes Maritime Task Force

These are industry-provided numbers. But they’re figures officials with the Army Corps of Engineers quoted as well.

There was one math question that neither industry nor government experts could help me with, though. An estimated 15 to 18 million cubic yards of sediment have built up in federal navigation channels.  So how much is that dredging backlog, in human terms?

“You mean like how many football fields?” they both asked. No idea.

So I decided to do a little math of my own.  Here’s what I came up with.

A cubic yard is a little bigger than a standard oven. So think 18 million ovens.

Or, think gardening. Let’s say the typical bag of garden mulch is between two and three cubic feet.  You would need to throw about 200 million bags of it into the Great Lakes to build up 18 million cubic yards.

Or take the largest pyramid in the world, by volume. The Quetzalcóatl Pyramid at Cholula de Rivadavia has a volume of 3.3 million cubic meters, according to Guinness World Records.

That means the amount of excess sediment in Great Lakes shipping channels could conceivably fill four ancient pyramids.

Now, if you don’t trust my DIY math, no worries. I ran these numbers by one economist and one math professor and they check out.

The economist made a great closing point, too. William Holahan is chair of the Department of Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and he does a lot of work with water.  He said pyramids give a sense of monumental size, but the problem is sediment spreads more evenly through the Great Lakes.

“In ‘human terms’ it is more like plaque build-up in a person’s arteries!! At key points in the body there are blockages,” he wrote in an email.

Check out our radio piece on the dredging backlog.  And feel free to leave your own comparisons below.


 

Engineer Tom O'Bryan says dredges like this one are basically big vacuums, chewing up sand. Photo by Kate Davidson

The Great Lakes form a sprawling ecosystem of nature and industry.  In a strong economy, ships can transport up to 200 million tons of cargo across these waters each year.  But now the shipping industry has declared a state of emergency.  The cause is a region-wide dredging backlog.  Shippers worry sediment buildup threatens to choke some navigation channels.
But before we begin this tale of sediment and dredging and the government raiding crucial funds … let’s talk about … well … me

I’m between four and six feet tall.  Five foot four, to be exact. 

In one year, that’s how much sediment can build up in the mouths of harbors around the Great Lakes.  That’s when you call for a dredge.

“Basically it’s a vacuum that chews up the bottom of the sand,” said engineer Tom O’Bryan.  “Sucks up the sand with water.  And then we pipe that material 5,000 feet down the shoreline.”

Shipping target: Grand Haven's coal-fired power plant. Photo by Kate Davidson

O’Bryan is with the Army Corps of Engineers in Grand Haven, Michigan.  On one side of this dredge lies Lake Michigan.  On the other, the inner harbor and one of its shipping targets: the city’s coal-fired power plant.  The deeper this passage, the more coal each ship can carry without getting stuck.  O’Bryan feels that efficiency helps consumers like him.

“If I can get coal to that plant cheaper, then I’m going to get cheaper electricity to my house and therefore my bill’s gonna be less,” he said.

But because of the dredging backlog, between 15 and 18 million cubic yards of excess sediment have built up in Great Lakes navigation channels, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.  That’s like pouring in a bag of mulch … 200 million times.  Add in low water levels and many ships have to light load, meaning carry less.  So costs go up. 

Loading 19,000 tons of aggregate stone in Marblehead, Ohio. Photo by Kate Davidson

At the port in Marblehead, Ohio, a long conveyer belt rumbled steadily, carrying limestone from a quarry to one of Mark Barker’s ships below.  Barker is president of The Interlake Steamship Company

He’s also a man who measures revenue with a ruler.  For every inch of draft – that’s how deep a boat sits in the water –this 700 foot ship holds 110 tons of cargo.

“Our thousand-foot vessel, the largest vessel on the lakes, can lose over 250 tons per inch,” he said. 

Barker said “lose” because he’s loading between six and ten inches less than he did last year.  He said that could subtract millions of dollars from his bottom line. 

Glen Nekvasil and Mark Barker say the dredging backlog is reaching crisis level. Photo by Kate Davidson

Glen Nekvasil is vice president of a trade group called the Lake Carriers’ Association.  He said early in the season, before a lot of snow melt, some ships left behind as much as 12,000 tons of iron ore or coal.

“That much iron ore will make the steel that’s used in 10,000 automobiles,” he said, “And that much coal will keep a couple big power plants going for thirteen hours.  So that’s the impact of light loading.”  

But light loading on the Great Lakes is already common.  Nekvasil said the outlook for next year makes it worse. 

Under President Obama’s budget proposal, only 11 of the 60 federal commercial harbors on the Great Lakes would get dredged next year.  That’s because of a proposed 30 percent funding reduction for the region.  Officials with the Army Corps of Engineers say if that stands, some commercial harbors could essentially close to big ships.  In other words, they could silt in too much to remain economical. Under the current proposal, no port with less than a million tons of annual cargo transport would get dredged next year. 

An Army Corps of Engineers map showing which ports (in red) would be dredged next year under the current budget proposal. Circles = commercial ports, triangles = recreational.

All this is happening despite the fact that billions of dollars have been collected over the years precisely for harbor maintenance and dredging.  Commercial shippers pay taxes on their cargo and that money goes into something called the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund.  But that fund has been plundered by pirates … or in this case, the federal government. 

“They are raiding this fund,” said Representative Candice Miller. “They’re raiding it for other kinds of things.”

Miller is a Republican congresswoman from a Michigan district on Lake Huron.  She’s also co-sponsor of a bill that would require every penny of the fund be spent on harbor maintenance, instead of being used to reduce the federal deficit. 

“Think about your gasoline tax, those taxes go into the Highway Trust Fund,” Miller said.  “And that money can’t be siphoned off for anything other than highway projects.  We pay the tax, it fixes your roads.”

The idea of putting a firewall around the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund has bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress.  As for shippers, they say remember the many thousands of jobs they support – in mining, in steel mills, in manufacturing and construction.  They say those jobs demand that Great Lakes shipping remains efficient.

Legislative action could affect how much cargo Great Lakes vessels can carry in the future. Photo by Kate Davidson


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.