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Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Ohio’s Issue 2 trails at polls. A Quinnipiac Poll conducted last week showed Ohio voters are likely to vote down Issue 2 by a 25-percent margin, according to The Columbus Dispatch. Such a vote, which would scuttle Senate Bill 5 legislation signed earlier this year, would lead to more questions than answers, says the newspaper. Even if Issue 2 falls, Republicans still believe the state’s collective-bargaining laws need an overhaul. And although polls show fierce opposition to SB5, The Dispatch says there is strong support for portions of it, including merit pay and seniority-based raises.

2. Snyder addresses Michigan’s rail future. Gov. Rick Snyder will deliver the keynote address today at the Michigan Rail Summit in Lansing, a conference that will details the state of rail service in the state. Last week, the governor called for more than $1 billion in infrastructure improvements throughout Michigan. Snyder’s spokesperson, Sara Wurfel, tells our partner station Michigan Radio that Snyder believes “rail is very important to that mix, both passenger and freight.” Michigan recently secured a federal grant to purchase and upgrade 140 miles of track to be part of accelerated service between Detroit and Chicago.

3. Icahn acquires stake in Navistar. Regulatory filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission showed that billionaire investor Carl Icahn has acquired a large stake in Navistar International Corp. The Warrenville, Ill.-based truck-maker released a statement after the documents were made public, saying “Navistar’s board and management team are committed to acting in the best interests of all the company’s stockholders.” Icahn acquired 9.8 percent of Navistar’s stock. Although he’s usually a harsh critic of the companies he acquires, according to the Chicago Tribune, he was optimistic about Navistar. “If you look ahead a few years with Navistar, you see good things,” he told CNBC. Last month, Changing Gears reporter Niala Boodhoo profiled the company, and examined a year’s worth of changes that perhaps preserved jobs in the Midwest and put the company on more competitive footing.

 

 


Michelle Koles makes lunches at the Can Do Kitchen, one of the smaller organizations getting into business "incubating."

Business incubators are a trumpeted, but yet unproven way to give entrepreneurs and their projects a higher chance of success.  Foundations and governments are lining up dollars to support incubators in their communities.

Some of the larger incubators around the region were profiled by Niala Boodhoo earlier this week. But there are also more grassroots efforts springing up, incubators that seem themselves to be small enough to be supported.

Marcy Kates lives and works in Holt, Michigan. Two months ago she left her job as a program officer for the state’s AmeriCorps program and opened IncuBake, an incubator kitchen and commercial kitchen space. Kates used her savings and her credit cards to open the kitchen, inspired by being unable to find low-cost commercial space for her own catering.

“I started this project to be a job creator, “ said Kates. Even so, she intentionally stayed away from a nonprofit model, wanting more flexibility and not really wanting to fundraise. That meant using her savings and her credit card to start the business, which is now about 15 percent full but, Kates says, growing steadily.

Kates is providing many of the services larger incubators advertise, like counseling. “I meet with every new person when they come in and we go over their business plan.” She calls it “brainstorming,” but it’s a meeting to discuss marketing strategy, pricing, and retailing. “I spend more time on that than anything, other than mopping the kitchen floor,” Kates said. After these conversations she and some potential clients have found they just aren’t yet likely to become successful, and she discourages them from renting.

For four years, the Can Do Kitchen has been running a nonprofit version of the same project in Kalamazoo. The kitchen is a project of the nonprofit Fair Food Matters. “We want to increase the amount of locally produced food in the marketplace,” said Lucy Bland, who runs the kitchen.

And they hope to support local businesses in the process. The kitchen costs between $15 and $35 an hour to rent, more, on average, than Kates’ kitchen. The Can do Kitchen provides marketing support for its clients, and business counseling. They have 12 regular users right now, and have graduated two businesses so far, companies that were doing well enough to move on to storefronts or their own commercial kitchens.

There is no data on how many of these smaller incubators exist around the region, or whether nonprofit or business models may make them more successful. What research continues to show is that running a successful business is very difficult. The rule of thumb that 50 percent of businesses fail to survive for five years is consistently borne out by United States Small Business Association Statistics. The risk factors to small-business success are almost too numerous to count, and even the most well-resourced incubator would be hard pressed to control for them all. Even so, smaller entrepreneurs, like Kates, are trying their luck and hoping other small businesses can share in their success.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network

Inform our coverage: What support do you think small businesses need to be successful?


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Michigan governor wants infrastructure investment. In a speech to the state Legislature today, Gov. Rick Snyder said Michigan can no longer delay investment in its transportation infrastructure. He proposed a $120 registration fee hike per year on passenger vehicles that would generate $1 billion in annual revenue. Snyder also wants to replace the state’s 19-cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline with a wholesale tax on fuel, according to our partner station Michigan Radio. “By investing in the means to move people and products with speed and efficiency, we can compete with other states and countries for business and jobs – and we can win,” Snyder said in written remarks.

2. Cleveland school board makes cuts. Over the protests of residents and teachers who packed a high school auditorium, Cleveland’s school board voted to make $13.1 million in budget cuts Tuesday in order to comply with a state requirement to balance its budget. Among the cuts: preschool, spring sports and busing for high school students. Board members said the cuts came as a result of a decrease in state aid and the rehiring of 300 teachers this fall. “Do we have the ability to print money? I don’t think we do,” board member Eric Wobser told The Plain Dealer.

3.Groupon overhauls sales staff. On Wednesday, Groupon CEO Andrew Mason told investors the Chicago-based company is replacing the bottom 10 percent of its sales staff of 4,800 employees. The goal is to win stronger deals from merchants and ensure continued growth, according to the Chicago Tribune. The move comes as Groupon readies for an initial public offering expected to raise $10 to $11.4 billion. Analysts have grown concerned that the company has failed to win enough repeat customers. Repeat customers increased in the second quarter, but numbered 16 million among 143 million subscribers, according to a regulatory filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Michigan governor wants infrastructure investment. In a speech to the state Legislature today, Gov. Rick Snyder said Michigan can no longer delay investment in its transportation infrastructure. He proposed a $120 registration fee hike per year on passenger vehicles that would generate $1 billion in annual revenue. Snyder also wants to replace the state’s 19-cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline with a wholesale tax on fuel, according to our partner station Michigan Radio. “By investing in the means to move people and products with speed and efficiency, we can compete with other states and countries for business and jobs – and we can win,” Snyder said in written remarks.

2. Cleveland school board makes cuts. Over the protests of residents and teachers who packed a high school auditorium, Cleveland’s school board voted to make $13.1 million in budget cuts Tuesday in order to comply with a state requirement to balance its budget. Among the cuts: preschool, spring sports and busing for high school students. Board members said the cuts came as a result of a decrease in state aid and the rehiring of 300 teachers this fall. “Do we have the ability to print money? I don’t think we do,” board member Eric Wobser told The Plain Dealer.

3.Groupon overhauls sales staff. On Wednesday, Groupon CEO Andrew Mason told investors the Chicago-based company is replacing the bottom 10 percent of its sales staff of 4,800 employees. The goal is to win stronger deals from merchants and ensure continued growth, according to the Chicago Tribune. The move comes as Groupon readies for an initial public offering expected to raise $10 to $11.4 billion. Analysts have grown concerned that the company has failed to win enough repeat customers. Repeat customers increased in the second quarter, but numbered 16 million among 143 million subscribers, according to a regulatory filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Ohio misses tax revenue. Ohio businesses are losing out of “hundreds of millions” because internet companies do not collect tax dollars at the point of sale, according to a report from the University of Cincinnati’s Economics Center. Over a six-year period, the study’s author said the state will miss $1.1 billion between 2007 and 2012. At the same time, the competitive disadvantage for store-based retailers would result in a $600 million loss, Jeff Rexhausen, the study’s spokesperson, tells our partner station, Ideastream. He says approximately 11,000 jobs could be created if the loophole is closed.

2. Mixed Chicago real-estate numbers. In September, sales of all Chicago properties rose 6.8 percent year over year, and were accompanied by a median price increase of 5.6 percent. Outside the city, the story was a little different. In the nine-county Chicago area, sales rose 13.3 percent year over year, but the median price declined 8.6 percent to $160,000. The biggest drop came in Kane County, which endured a 20 percent median-price decline. “The slow economy and job recovery are sever drags on the market,” Loretta Alonzo, president of the Illinois Association of Realtors, tells the Chicago Tribune. “Plus, many able buyers are hitting roadblocks on financing a home purchase due to the overcorrection in mortgage underwriting requirements.”

3. Michigan unemployment rate down. Michigan’s unemployment rate fell by one-tenth of one percent in September, settling at 11.1 percent. Total employment rose by approximately 4,000 and the number of unemployed fell by 6,000, according to the Detroit Free Press. The rate is two percentage points higher than the national rate of 9.1 percent. Although the decline was the first since April, it was too miniscule to indicate the direction of the state economy, according to the newspaper. The flat rate hides an upswing in hiring, Jim Thompson, vice president of business development at JMJ Phillip.


Consider the United Auto Workers tentative agreement with Ford as good as ratified.

While voting does not end until later today, all signs point to approval for the four-year contract that offers $6,000 signing bonuses but no annual cost-of-living adjustments. In a Tuesday morning update, the UAW Ford Department said 63.2 percent of voters had approved the deal, with 78 percent of Locals reporting results.

Voting ends Tuesday night. But it would take a huge reversal in voting trends for the ratification to fail. The Detroit Free Press reports there is still “major opposition” to the deal at two assembly plants in Louisville, Ky., where approximately 5,000 votes have yet to be counted.

But it would take near-unified opposition to put the deal in jeopardy. Right now, 16,691 have voted for the deal, while 9,698 had voted against it.

Detroit News columnist Daniel Howes writes today that an affirmation of the contract paves the way for a “New Detroit,” chiefly with the creation of 12,000 jobs and competitive footing with the global automotive economy.

“The case for whether the New Detroit is for real, or just a repackaged version of the same ol’ dysfunctional Motor City, depends on hourly workers at Ford Motor Co.,” he writes. “It’s that simple.”

 

 


One mile south of Detroit Metropolitan Airport, a field of oriental mustard seed plants is part of an aviation-biodiesel experiment.

ROMULUS, Mich. – The runways at Detroit Metropolitan Airport rank as some of the nation’s busiest, handling some 452,000 takeoffs and landings each year along with more than 32 million passengers.
 
The land adjacent to them, on the other hand, sits mostly unused. Other than creating a buffer for noise-prevention and security reasons, that land has little useful value.
 
Officials at Detroit Metro and three other Michigan airports are hoping to change that. They’ve partnered with a Michigan State University researcher to grow oriental mustard seed and other plants on that property. Those plants will be harvested and processed into aviation-grade biodiesel that’s then used at the facility.
 
The project is believed to be the first of its kind in the Midwest, and it’s attracting attention from airlines, government agencies and even a former high-profile Ford Motor Company executive.

In the short term, it’s an experiment to see whether researchers can create an alternate fuel source grown in close proximity to airport users. In the long term, officials believe the biofuel industry in general and aviation-grade biodiesel in particular can make a significant economic impact in Michigan.

“It is going to take a concerted effort by farmers, by industry, by airlines and engineers and developers in order to see this all come to fruition,” said Dennis Pennington, a bioenergy educator from the MSU Extension leading the project, which is funded by a $476,000 state grant.

For now, the three-acre plots at Detroit Metro, Willow Run in Ypsilanti, Grand Rapids and Muskegon airports are primarily for demonstration. But even on a small scale, they have attracted the eyes of groups that could influence where the fledgling aviation biodiesel industry is headed.

Representatives from Delta Air Lines, Detroit’s primary carrier, the Air Transport Association, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative are among the dozen or so groups acting as stakeholders in the project.

Wayne County EDGE, an economic development arm of the county that houses Detroit Metro, is also involved.  It promotes the creation of an “aerotropolis” in the 11-mile stretch between Willow Run Airport and Metro Airport. It envisions a transportation hub that pools the area’s aviation, rail and highway resources. And, the possibility of attracting a fuel refinery or other companion biofuel businesses on or near airport grounds is intriguing.

“We want to become a region known for energy excellence,” said Azzam Elder, deputy CEO of Wayne County.

The Complexities

Getting there with regard to aviation-grade biofuels is complicated, however.

Biofuels is a broad term that includes soybean, corn ethanol, algae or other plants, like Pennington’s oriental mustard seed. Each source brings its own set of challenges in the growing, refining and delivery processes.

Whichever is selected, it must be processed into a standardized biodiesel that arrives at airports compatible with current fuel systems. And it must be used by all airlines — jet fuel is purchased by airports in bulk and shared among users. At Detroit Metro, approximately 300 million gallons of Jet A, essentially kerosene refined from crude oil, are pumped each year.

Investing in the infrastructure to make all that happen is expensive. Even a small refinery costs approximately $20 million. And the market is fragmented. Many entrepreneurs are waiting to see the results of experiments like Pennington’s to see which structure emerges as the most cost-competitive with gasoline before making large-scale investments.

They may now have more incentive. In August, President Obama announced that the Departments of Agriculture, Energy and Navy would invest as much as $510 million over the next three years in public-private partnerships to create drop-in aviation and marine biofuels, funding that stems from Obama’s efforts to diminish the country’s reliance on foreign oil. Ultimately, that’s the sort of investment needed for biofuels to find a niche, Pennington believes.

“Policy drives where this industry is going,” he said.

Focus on marginal land

Biodiesel accounts for approximately 2 percent of the nation’s overall 60-billion gallon annual diesel consumption. Market share is increasing: The government has mandated the production of 800 million biodiesel gallons in 2011 and 1 billion in 2012, through the Renewable Fuel Standards program.

It’s a nice jumpstart for a fledgling industry. Right now, the biggest challenge in taking advantage of it is ensuring the biodiesel cost structure is competitive with the rack price of regular diesel.

An aircraft departs Detroit Metro Airport to the south, flying past a field of plants that could one day provide its fuel.

On Friday, Jet A sold for about $3.06 per gallon in the Chicago market, according to the Oil Price Information Service. Biodiesel prices are volatile and can vary greatly based on the plant source. But a generally accepted industry rule of thumb is that biodiesel is a niche product that costs approximately 10 percent more per gallon — and that’s after a federal subsidy.

The significance of Pennington’s project is that it addresses the biggest component of those costs.

Jim Padilla, co-founder of The Power Alternative, a southeast Michigan-based company that focuses on biodiesel plant construction and process innovation, says that 80 percent of overall costs come from the crops and land used to grow them.

In many cases, like the growing of corn for ethanol, that land is also used in food production. Combined demand between fuel and food drives up prices. That’s why Padilla is enamored with Pennington’s experiment. None of the land in the aviation biofuel project is otherwise used for farming.

“With respect to that cost, one of the ways you decouple yourself from the agriculture market is to decouple yourself from food production,” says Padilla, a former executive with Visteon and Ford.

Pennington has focused on farming marginal land, or acreage that’s never been farmed for food. Airport sites make attractive options. Muskegon County Airport has 1,500 acres used for approach protection, according to airport manager Marty Piette. Together, Detroit Metro and Willow Run hold 1,700 acres suitable for use, according to the Wayne County Airport Authority.

In addition to airport property, Pennington has also farmed sites along highways, behind rest areas and vacant urban lots. Padilla is growing crops on a former Superfund site in Detroit.

In Michigan, there are approximately 4.5 million acres of marginal land not being farmed, Padilla said. It would be inconceivable to suggest every available acre could be utilized, but he uses the figure to illustrate the untapped potential of land that does not compete with food crops. What sort of dent could Michigan’s unused land put in meeting fuel demand?

Using mustard seed, Pennington says it would take roughly 200,000 acres to supply enough crops for a processing plant that makes 50 million gallons per year. On 4.5 million acres, that could yield 1.125 billion gallons per year — roughly the same amount of biodiesel that flows through the U.S. each year.

If a burgeoning industry could tap just a fraction of that potential, it would create “infrastructure to handle it, crush it and get it into a plant to refine it into a fuel,” Pennington said. “That’s job creation and economic development.”

Federal government subsidies help biodiesel close the cost gap by approximately $1 per gallon. Their funding levels have been uneven, which hurt production this year and pointed prices upward. But in the long run, Padilla said there would be an economic payoff on that investment.

“Obviously, that provides a little heartburn for people,” Padilla said. “But there’s a couple things around that. One, is the multiplier effect to fuel that’s being produced locally. Two, is that’s effectively 1 billion gallons we’re not importing. It’s domestic content. And domestic content equals domestic jobs.”

Why Detroit works

A chance meeting led to Detroit Metro’s involvement in Pennington’s project.Officials at the Wayne County Airport Authority wanted to explore using some of the acreage surrounding the airport — in what way, they weren’t sure. A consultant recommended biofuels as an option to Michelle Plawecki, who manages DTW’s noise-mitigation program.
She knew nothing about biofuels. So she attended a green-energy conference at Henry Ford Community College, at which Pennington happened to be speaking. Intrigued by his presentation, she approached him afterward.

Officials believe a nascent biodiesel industry could one day provide jobs in the Detroit aerotropolis region.

“Aviation as an industry is interested in developing alternate sources of jet fuel,” Plawecki said. “There’s a lot of land near the airports in urban areas, and if that could be used to create a renewable natural resource, wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

In many ways, Michigan in general and Detroit Metro are ideal places for the experiment.

Agriculture ranks as the second-largest component of the state’s economy. Conventional supply chains already in place. And Michigan’s two-fold winters offer a two-fold benefit: some crops used for biodiesel can be grown in the winter months when farmers and their fields are otherwise idled, and cold weather typically means better performance for biodiesels.

From an entrepreneurial standpoint, southeast Michigan also was intriguing. In December 2010, the Michigan state legislature passed laws that created the aerotropolis as a regional authority that melds jurisdiction from two counties and seven municipalities surrounding Detroit Metro and Willow Run Airport. Tax incentives are available to companies settling within its borders.

When Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder traveled to Asia earlier this month on a trade mission, the aerotropolis and its energy potential was a fixture in his recruitment efforts. Much of that was focused on advanced-battery technology, but biofuels were also part of the conversation, according to Elder.

Citing the two interstates and two airports within the aerotropolis borders, he said, “we are definitely in a great position to encourage the businesses of biofuels and refineries, that’s the easy part for us. If you can move cars, you should be able to move fuel.”

Twenty-five years from now, the aerotropolis region could employ 64,000 more workers and add more than $10 billion of economic activity, according to a study completed by Jones Lang LaSalle, one that the authority officials like to tout.

Whether that growth actually happens or remains a pie-in-the-sky prediction like so many other reclamation projects around Detroit remains in question. But the fact that a biofuel contribution has the potential to touch multiple industries — from farming to engineering to aviation research and development — makes it an intriguing proposition.

“The question then becomes, ‘Can we get a critical volume?,’” Pennington said. “We burn an awful lot of fossil fuels in the U.S. every year. I don’t have a silver bullet or magic answer. But I certainly believe we have got to come up with some kind of alternative.”


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. First UAW rejects Ford deal. UAW Local 900, which represents workers at three Detroit-area auto plants, has narrowly rejected a tentative contract agreement with Ford, the Associated Press reported today. Local 900 was the first to vote on the agreement reached last week, and 51.1 percent of 2,582 voters nixed the deal. More votes are scheduled this week and next week. Bill Johnson, bargaining chairman of the Michigan Assembly Plant, tells the AP that workers are angry the contract does not restore some items lost in previous concessions.

2. Michigan State creates economic development center. The U.S. Economic Development Administration has given Michigan State University a $915,000 grant to create an economic development center that will focus on innovative ways to generate Michigan jobs. MSU will partner with other colleges, local and regional governments, private businesses and other groups to identify innovative ideas and practices. Rex LaMore, the head of the initiative, said many economic development practices have become outdated in what has become a knowledge-based economy.

3. Construction begins on Chicago rail project. Fourteen Amtrak, 78 Metra and 46 freight trains vie for rail space each day near 63rd and State Street in Chicago. On Tuesday, workers broke ground on a $133 million project aimed at breaking that bottleneck. U.S. Senator Dick Durbin tells our partner station WBEZ that the project allows for expanded Amtrak service around the Midwest, and will create more than 1,500 jobs. But one union laborer who watched Tuesday’s groundbreaking was skeptical of that number. “They say they’re going to hire from the community, but I’ve been hearing this for years,” Bob Israel tells the station. “It’s just a dog-and-pony show. Trust me.” The project, called the Englewood Flyover, is due to be completed in 2014.


The U.S. high-tech industry lost 115,800 net jobs in 2010 that represented approximately 2 percent of the overall high-tech workforce, according to the annual Cyberstates report compiled by the TechAmerica Foundation.

With one notable exception, states across the Midwest reflected the national trend.

Illinois lost 6,400 tech jobs, approximately 3 percent of its high-tech workforce. It was the fifth-biggest decline in the U.S. and the state slipped to eighth place in the country in terms of overall technology jobs. Minnesota lost 2,900 jobs, Wisconsin lost 1,900 tech jobs, Ohio 1,400 and Indiana shed 300.

Michigan, on the other hand, trended in an upward direction.

After eight years of declining numbers, it added more tech workers than any state in the country, according to the report. Michigan added 2,700 high-tech jobs and ranks 15th nationwide in total technology employment.

“The fact that Michigan added more tech jobs in 2010 than any other state may surprise people, including people within the state,” said Ed Longanecker, the executive director of TechAmerica. “But job gains in key sectors like software and research and development have helped the state recover from hard economic times.”

That recovery is, by no means, complete. In 2001, Michigan had 201,800 high-tech jobs according to the report. Even with this year’s growth, Michigan currently employs 155,100 high-tech workers.

Overall, the U.S. high-tech industry employs 5.75 million workers, according to the report. While 115,800 total jobs were lost across the country, the decline was less than half of the 249,500 jobs lost in 2009.

Despite its losses, Illinois still employs more tech workers than any other Midwest state. Here’s how they stack up:

Illinois: 201,436
Minnesota: 120,800
Ohio: 162,900
Michigan: 155,100
Wisconsin: 81,300
Indiana: 70,300


Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Unemployment rate unchanged. American’s unemployment rate remained unchanged at 9.1 percent in September even as the economy added 103,000 jobs, the U.S. Labor Department announced Friday. Among those struggling to find work, more than 1 in 4 respondents to a Rutgers University survey said they are opposed to a renewal of extended unemployment benefits. An extension proposal is part of President Obama’s jobs bill, according to The New York Times, which explored the sentiments of the unemployed. Theresa Gorski, a pharmaceutical rep from Detroit, tells the newspaper she once shared skepticism about prolonged benefits, but after 17 months of unemployment, her views have changed.

2. Software chief: Michigan needs more education. For Michigan companies, a strong education base is more important than lower taxes. That’s the opinion of Bill Wagner, co-founder of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based software firm SRT Solutions, who writes the dismantling of education throughout the state has painted a grim picture to prospective global employers in an AnnArbor.com op-ed published today. He believes budget cuts have harmed the state’s education infrastructure, and that savings from reduced business taxes, among other things, amount to less money than his company spent last year on a summer intern.

3. Sara Lee may move headquarters. The headquarters of Sara Lee has only been based in Downers Grove, Ill. for six years. Its’ already looking to move. Our partner station WBEZ reports the company is exploring a move within Illinois, possibly to downtown Chicago or another suburb. “We do believe that a downtown location would provide our new North American Meat Co. with an environment that will be energetic, that will foster breakthrough thinking,” a company spokesperson told WBEZ. Sara Lee currently employs 1,000 workers in Downers Grove.