31 January 2012

Great Lakes Reps Want to Separate from Mississippi River

First appeared in Associated Press
Groups representing states and cities in the Great Lakes region on Tuesday proposed spending up to $9.5 billion on a massive engineering project to separate the lakes from the Mississippi River watershed in the Chicago area, describing it as the only sure way to protect both aquatic systems from invasions by destructive species such as Asian carp.

The organizations issued a report suggesting three alternatives for severing an artificial link between the two drainage basins that was constructed more than a century ago. Scientists say it has already provided a pathway for exotic species and is the likeliest route through which menacing carp could reach the lakes, where they could destabilize food webs and threaten a valuable fishing industry.

"We simply can't afford to risk that," said Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, which sponsored the study with the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. "The Great Lakes have suffered immensely because of invasive species. We have to put a stop to this."

The report's release is sure to ramp up pressure on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is conducting its own study of how to close off 18 potential pathways between the two systems, including the Chicago waterways. The corps plans to release its findings in late 2015, a timetable it says is necessary because of the job's complexity and regulatory requirements. A pending federal lawsuit by five states - Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania - demands quicker action.

"This study shows that hydrological separation is both technically and economically feasible," said Rep. Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican.

A spokeswoman said the corps would not comment until it could review the report.

The project that linked the two drainage basins began in the 1890s when engineers reversed the flow of the Chicago River to flush sewage away from the city and into a newly built, 28-mile-long canal that created a connection between Lake Michigan and the Illinois River, a tributary of the Mississippi. It is now a network of rivers, locks and canals.

In their report, the two groups call for placing barriers at key points to cut off the flow of water between the two drainage basins by 2029.

One alternative would put barriers in five locations near Lake Michigan. Another would erect a single barrier in the ship canal before it branches off into connecting waterways. A third plan would use four barriers.

The report does not express a preference but says the four-barrier plan would cost less than the others - between $3.26 billion and $4.27 billion. That plan, the report says, would cause less disruption of waterborne commerce and fewer problems with flood and stormwater control, all of which opponents contend would result from dividing the two systems. It also comes closest to restoring the natural divide between the watersheds, said David Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative.

The report doesn't make a detailed proposal for covering the costs but says the four-barrier plan could be done if the average household in the Great Lakes basin paid about $1 a month through 2059.

The five-barrier and single-barrier plans' price tags could reach about $9.5 billion.

Despite the high cost, the report's sponsors said the project would save money in the long run by shielding both systems from species invasions. Zebra and quagga mussels and sea lamprey already have exacted a heavy toll on the Great Lakes economy, and the region's leaders fear the Asian carp could make things much worse.

"Yes, it's expensive. But the cost of doing nothing is greater," Ullrich said.

Asian carp escaped from Southern fish farms and sewage treatment plants decades ago and migrated up the Mississippi and its tributaries, gobbling up plankton that is essential for other nourishing other fish.

The study, commissioned by the two groups and developed by a private engineering firm, will make the idea of separation easier for people in the region to grasp, said Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a Chicago-based environmental group.

"It's a natural, practical, on-the-ground map of how to get it done," Brammeier said.

Mark Biel, chairman of an Illinois business coalition called UnLock Our Jobs that opposes separating the watersheds, said the Great Lakes groups' proposals would take many years to carry out and would devastate cargo shipping and pleasure boating in the Chicago area while doing nothing to prevent species invasions elsewhere.

"Calling this a solution is ludicrous," Biel said.

But the report's authors said their plan envisions upgrades to docks and other infrastructure that, in the long run, would boost water commerce while improving water quality and flood protection. The barriers themselves would make up just 3 percent of the total cost.

The Army Corps of Engineers contends an electric barrier in the shipping canal is preventing Asian carp and other fish from swimming upstream toward Lake Michigan, although carp DNA has been found beyond the device. Eder said the barrier is a good temporary measure, but not a permanent solution.

"It's kind of like the old Clint Eastwood adage, 'How lucky do you feel?'" he said. "We can take chances that the electric barrier and other measures will work, but I don't think we should."

19 January 2012

Legislation to Tax Internet Purchases?

First appeared in Up North Live
Governor Rick Snyder is set to deliver his state of the state address -- and many retailers hope that this year he takes action on a bill that would close a tax loophole on online sales.

If you shop online, chances are you're probably breaking the law. That's because internet retailers like Amazon.com don't collect Michigan's 6% sales tax. They don't have to, but you are legally obligated to pay it.

The loophole is something many local businesses want changed.

Horizon Book Sales Manager, Amy Reynolds says it puts them at a competitive disadvantage.

By forcing internet retailers to charge the sales tax it could also bring millions of much needed revenue to Michigan.

The legislation would require online businesses to offer a link to another website where the buyer would make purchases and the internet store could then collect the taxes.

Michigan Unemployment

First appeared on Associated Press
Michigan officials say the state's unemployment rate fell sharply again in the latest month to 9.3 percent, the lowest level in more than three years.
The state said Wednesday that December's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was down 0.5 percentage points from November's 9.8 percent and down 1.3 points from October.
The national unemployment rate was 8.5 percent in December.
The Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives says the number of Michigan residents working rose for the fourth straight month in December. Meanwhile, the size of the civilian labor force continued a drop that saw 100,000 fewer people working or looking for work last month than one year earlier.
The last time the Michigan unemployment rate was lower was September 2008, when it stood at 8.9 percent.

Windpower Project Cancelled

First appeared at Up North Live
Duke Energy pulls plans to build 112 turbines in Northern Michigan

After months of debate, Duke Energy has decided it will no longer move forward with it's wind project plans in Benzie and Manistee Counties.

The company spent more than a year signing contracts with dozens of landowners, setting up job fairs, and hosting public input meetings.

Community members were divided over the Gail Windpower Project that would have created 112 turbines in their backyards. The issue even led to the recall of three Joyfield Township board members in 2011.

Duke Energy says the decision was made because they couldn't secure a long term agreement with a power purchaser.

The company notified landowners earlier this week about their decision.

11 January 2012

GM Sales Soar

First appeared on CNN Money
General Motors is poised to once again be No. 1 in global auto sales, after three years out of the top spot.
It's a comeback that will be official when final 2011 sales figures are reported in the coming weeks.

Recapturing the top spot seemed unthinkable in 2008 when GM lost the title. At the time, the company was in a tailspin. Its very future was uncertain, and a bankruptcy filing and federal bailout loomed.

Toyota held the title between 2008 and 2010.

GM's feat is also a contrast to other U.S. industries that lost leadership to overseas competitors, never to see it return.

Cool cars from the Detroit Auto Show

GM (GM, Fortune 500) never lost the lead in U.S. sales, but its market share here slid nearly continuously for decades, from 44% in 1980 to only 19% in 2010. But for at least the last two years that trend has been reversed, helping GM quickly return to profitability in the wake of its bankruptcy.

But its home market is only part of the sales story.

It is also the largest automaker in China, which has become the world's largest market for auto sales. It sold about 2.5 million vehicles in China, narrowly edging out its U.S. sales once again, as it increased both sales and share there.

"They continue to be awfully strong in the U.S. and China. If you can conquer those two markets, you've got two-thirds of the world," said Rebecca Lindland, director of research for IHS Automotive.

GM CEO Dan Akerson downplayed the significance of the title when speaking with reporters at the Detroit auto show Monday.

"I like profitability more than I do market share," he said. "We're a mass producer, and scale matters to us, therefore we're pleased with that accomplishment."

Market share vs. profitability: In the past GM had held onto market share and its No. 1 rank by cutting prices on cars to the point where they were unprofitable. Bob Lutz, former vice chairman of GM, said worrying about their market share rank did the companies more harm than good. (Fiat 500 sales goal 'incredibly naive')

"There is absolutely nothing to be gained by being the world's biggest," he said. "I tried to tell them to say, no, it's not our objective to be No. 1. But they just couldn't do it."

But Lindland said GM can be pleased that it got back on top without that kind of deep discounting and grab for market share.

Through the first three quarters of last year, GM's 6.8 million vehicles sold was well ahead of both No. 2 Volkswagen, at 6.1 million, and No. 3 Toyota Motor (TM), at 5.8 million.

VW has reported final global sales of 8.2 million for the year, but GM should easily top that mark, analysts said.

How long GM will be able to hold onto its lead is uncertain. Toyota is is expected to post a sharp rebound this year after disruptions caused by the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March.

"I don't think we've set the goal to be the largest manufacturer in the world. I think the lead is going to trade off," said Akerson. "I wouldn't count Toyota or any of our competitors out. But we're having a good run now. I'm very pleased by our product."

Lincoln Needs to be Good for Ford

First appeared in CNN Money
It's been a long time since the Lincoln car brand has been a serious luxury contender, but Ford Motor Co. hopes to change that, starting with new the MKZ sedan, a preview of which was unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show.

The MKZ concept car is sleek and elegant and, perhaps most importantly, looks like something you'd expect to pay real money for. It also sports some intriguing technology like automatic adaptive suspension that, Ford executives boast, will give the car a combination of smoothness and performance that will stand up against the best in the business.

Also planned will be a panoramic sunroof that actually opens wide over the entire cabin for a near-convertible experience.

Panoramic sunroofs aren't new, but most only open over the front seats.

Now that Ford (F, Fortune 500) has sold off the European luxury brands -- Aston Martin, Land Rover, Jaguar and Volvo -- and killed off the mid-level Mercury brand, the automaker wants to turn Lincoln back into a real luxury player.

Cool cars from the Detroit Auto Show

"We don't have the luxury of getting anything wrong," said Kevin Cour who's in charge of sales and service for the brand.

Others have gone down this path before and made it work. Ford needs only to look at GM's success with Cadillac and Buick, experts say.

In fact, Ford's task with Lincoln may be easier than GM's with Buick. Buick had a negative image with many car shoppers, having long been seen as a maker of cars for the elderly and infirm.

"With Buick it was like 'What? Are you getting me a fedora as well?" said Rebecca Lindland, an industry analyst with IHS Global Insight. "Well, guess what. Fedora's are back in style and so is Buick."

Lincoln, by contrast, is simply big question mark to many Americans.

And with younger shoppers now entering the car market, it's a good time to shape a new brand image, Lindland said.

"The consumer has a very open mind right now," Lindland said. "It's helping Kia and Hyundai and it could help Lincoln."

The image Lincoln is going for, said Jim Farley, head of marketing at Ford, is something different from what most other luxury brands have aimed at. Lincoln won't be targeted at those looking for a brash "get out of my way" luxury image.

Instead, Lincoln is looking at more of a "boutique image." Where other luxury brands have a few high-style models like the curvy Mercedes-Benz CLS or the bulbous BMW X6, Lincoln wants to do only high-style cars with nothing middle-of-the-road in the line-up.

To hone Lincoln's image, Ford hired designer Max Wolff away from GM where he had been in charge of exteriors for Cadillac.

But Ford is faced with somewhat of a conundrum with Lincoln, said Ed Loh, editor-in-chief of Motor Trend Magazine.

GM (GM, Fortune 500) turned Cadillac back into a player by tossing out the "platform sharing" playbook -- where the same bone structure is simply re-skinned to create "different" models.

Today's Cadillac cars, like the CTS, the SRX and the upcoming XTS, aren't Chevrolets -- or some other GM product -- with a different body. They're uniquely Cadillac products.

Today's best American cars

While Ford has reportedly invested as much as $1 billion into remaking Lincoln and has even given Lincoln car designers their own separate building to work in -- like Cadillac designers have -- they're unlikely to go so far as to make the cars truly unique under the sheet metal, said Loh. That would go against Ford CEO Alan Mulally's stated mission to cut costs by sharing as much engineering globally as possible.

The MKZ, for example, still shares its underlying engineering with the new Ford Fusion mid-sized sedan.

And without that, Lincoln is unlikely to be taken seriously as a big-league luxury player. It's not impossible -- Toyota (TM) pulls it off with Lexus -- but, more likely, Lincoln will be relegated to some sort of second-tier "near luxury" status similar to GM's Buick which, unlike Cadillac, openly shares engineering with brands like Chevrolet.

Not that that that would be the worst place in the world.

"I bet, secretly, they would die to have the resurgence Buick's had," said Loh.

09 January 2012

Saginaw Too Expensive for Solar Firm

First appeared in Contra Costa Times
The chief executive of a San Jose-based solar power company says a lack of market demand and costs to operate its Saginaw plant led to its decision to relocate to the northern part of Michigan's Lower Peninsula.

The Saginaw News reported Friday that GlobalWatt Inc. CEO Sanjeev Chitre held a news conference in Saginaw County's Kochville Township to discuss cancelling plans to stay and grow in the area.

Chitre says GlobalWatt would have paid $35,000 a month for the Saginaw location. It has moved equipment to a renewable energy product maker in Copemish, about 25 miles southwest of Traverse City.

He called it a "manufacturing partnership."

Chitre says GlobalWatt hasn't received taxpayer money and could return to Saginaw if the market grows and prices stabilize for solar panels.

06 January 2012

Popular Retro LL Bean Styles

Appeared first on Yahoo! Finance
A nearly century-old hunting boot is catching on with a younger generation that sees the utilitarian footwear as hip.

L.L Bean's familiar duck boot with leather uppers and rubber soles — designed for slogging through mud and snow — has become something of a fashion statement owing to its newfound popularity on college campuses, the company says. Another reason is new styles, including something Leon Leonwood Bean surely never envisioned in 1912: bright blue and pink leather, new for spring.

Part of the success of the boot is its versatility, in barnyards or in cities, in snow or rain.

At Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Zina Huxley-Reicher, of New York, wears her dark brown, shearling-lined boots nearly every day, with a skirt or jeans. She has only one pair, but some classmates have several.

"They are very practical, but they've also become a fashion trend," she said. "They're simple and kind of have that rugged look that has been adopted as a fashionable thing."

Sales have grown from 150,000 pairs four years ago to about 400,000 this year, said Jack Samson, L.L. Bean senior manager for manufacturing in Brunswick. Next year, demand is projected to reach 500,000.

Defying a trend toward offshore production, the outdoors retailer is adding 125 full-time employees to its Maine-based manufacturing operation to keep pace with orders.

The well-known boot appears to be benefiting from a retro trend, whether it's penny loafers or the Gap's 1969 series blue jeans, said Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail in New York.

"It's sort of like the Coca-Cola bottle or the sleek silver lines of Apple. It's iconic. And when you have that kind of icon, you leverage it," Corlett said. "The good news is that L.L. Bean's icon from decades ago is striking an emotional chord with people who're yearning for the good old days."

Another factor that could be helping Bean: There's been little that's new and exciting in footwear in recent years beyond UGG boots and Crocs, said Alexander Geyman, editor of Focus on Fashion Retail, outside Los Angeles. Trendy UGG boots and the Timberland brand outstrip Bean's in sales, he said.

The original hunting shoe is not revered just at L.L. Bean. It's become something of an unofficial symbol of Maine, like the rocky coast and lobsters. There's a giant L.L. Bean boot outside the 24-hour retail store, near the company's headquarters in Freeport. Tourists regularly snap photos.

This holiday season, L.L. Bean featured one of its factory workers in a national television advertising campaign that capitalized on the boot's popularity.

The boots carry the "Made in the USA" label, something that's hard to find these days in footwear. Nationwide, the number of shoe-manufacturing jobs dropped from more than 200,000 in the 1970s to 12,500 this year, according to the U.S. Labor Department. In Maine, shoe-manufacturing jobs peaked at more than 25,000 in the 1960s, and last year there were 1,300 jobs, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

Well-known Maine brands like G.H. Bass, Cole Haan, Sebago and Dexter are now made abroad. But L.L. Bean has resisted the notion of making its Bean boots overseas.

"We've made a commitment since it's our signature product, and because of our heritage, that they'll always be made in Maine," spokeswoman Carolyn Beem said.

As the story goes, L.L. Bean created the hunting boot for himself after his feet got wet and cold on a hunting trip, and it was not an instant success. Ninety of the first 100 pairs sold in 1912 were returned after the leather separated; Bean had a satisfaction guarantee, so he returned customers' money.

These days, the original L.L. Bean Hunting Shoe is available unlined or with various linings, including Gore-Tex, Thinsulate and shearling. There are plenty of other variations, including quilted, canvas and plaid, and even bright blue and pink leather. There are low-cut versions as well.

The hunting version has a softer rubber compound that allows a hunter to tread lightly, while the "Bean Boot" has a steel shank and tougher rubber compound that holds up better on asphalt.

All of them are still made by hand. The rubber soles are made by L.L. Bean workers in Lewiston, and they're sewn to the leather uppers at an L.L. Bean plant in Brunswick. All told, there are currently 320 workers at L.L. Bean's factory in Brunswick, making boots, dog beds, canvas totes and other products.

Each Gore-Tex liner is inflated and dunked in a tank to make sure it's watertight before being dried and put in the boot.

"If you're hunting in Alaska and your feet get wet, you appreciate that," Samson said. "I don't think it's overkill. It's who we are."

Near the back of the factory floor are bins of timeworn L.L Bean boots that have been mailed in by their owners to be refurbished. People become attached to their boots, and they'd rather spend $40 to $45 to have the rubber soles replaced than buy new boots.

The boots come in rough shape, sometimes caked in dirt or, worse, chicken or cow manure.

Joked Samson: "We keep telling ourselves it's mud."

Michigan Fundraising for Universities

First appeared in Detroit Free Press
When President Barack Obama wanted University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman to participate in a small group discussion about higher education issues, it was a reflection of her national stature. Michigan Honors Programs are concerned with similar fund issues.

When Coleman declined the invitation because she was already scheduled for two trips to Washington, D.C., it was a reflection of her busy schedule, mostly to raise money.

Increasingly, the U-M leader's schedule is being tied to fund-raising -- a necessary duty, she told the Free Press, because of recent cuts to state aid for U-M and Michigan's other public universities.

Coleman isn't alone among Michigan public university presidents in spending considerable time fund-raising.
Internal spending documents show the presidents of Oakland, Michigan State and Wayne State universities made about three dozen trips across the nation last school year, hoping to raise millions of dollars for their institutions. For example, half of MSU President Lou Anna Simon's 20 trips last school year were tied to development, financial records show.

U-M officials said they can't tie an exact amount of money coming in to Coleman's efforts. U-M raised $273.1 million last year in private giving. Through Nov. 30, the school has raised $78.6 million this school year, down slightly from the same time last year.

Coleman's travel and entertainment expense report shows 11 development trips, including two stops in Los Angeles and four to New York City.

Her travel expenditures for the 2010 calendar year, about $59,553, was more than double her spending in 2009. That money came from development funds -- not from the university's general fund, which is made up of tuition and state aid funds.

It was also more than double the presidential travel and entertainment budgets of Oakland, Michigan State and Wayne State combined. OU, MSU and WSU calculated their budgets over the 2010-11 academic fiscal year. There are Michigan Honors Programs that are thriving, though.

Coleman and her representatives said that U-M's national prominence, international alumni and need to build international relationships account for the time and increasing expense when compared with some of Michigan's other schools.

Coleman's largest travel expense, for example, was nearly $14,000 for a trip to China at the end of June 2010. U-M has numerous partnerships with universities there.

·         "Certainly the expectation has always been there to have the president be involved in development efforts," said Coleman, who has been a university president for the last 17 years, including a decade at U-M. "In the last decade, it's really taken off. As we've seen a pretty dramatic drop every year in (state) funding, it's more imperative that the president focus much more on development."
  • MSU President Lou Anna Simon took 10 development trips last school year, records show. The largest development-only trip was $1,775 she spent on a December trip to Chicago. Her largest travel bill came to more than $4,000 for a six-day trip in June to Washington, D.C., for development events and meetings.
  •  WSU President Allan Gilmour traveled 11 times. His largest expense was $3,560 for donor visits in San Diego and Los Angeles in November 2010.
  • Oakland University President Gary Russi traveled 11 times last school year, including November trips to Phoenix and a February trip to West Palm Beach and Naples, Fla., that cost more than $7,000 -- a trip that made up 35% of his travel expenses.

Coleman said she doesn't often go the hard sell route; she educates donors about what U-M is doing and why it is threatened because of funding cuts.

When Coleman's travel expenses dipped in 2009 -- $25,762, down from $42,752 in 2008 -- university officials touted the decrease as her way of acknowledging tough budget times and working her schedule to contain costs.

Spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said Coleman's schedulers try to maximize tying development events to other events she may be at in different cities. Fitzgerald said the difference between Coleman's costs and others is tied directly to her prominence, which leads to a large number of requests for her time. Michigan Honors Programs have high hopes for funds.

Charter Schools in Michigan

First appeared on My Fox Detroit
Lawmakers in Lansing give the thumbs up to a bill removing the limit on the number of charter schools in Michigan. That means a new wave of schools could open soon. However, some people aren't happy with the likely change. There are hopes more students will end up in Michigan Honors Programs.

Walton Charter Academy in Pontiac, a 13-year-old school operated by Northern University, is celebrating this week's passage of legislation that uncaps the number of charters that can open in Michigan. Walton has had a waiting list in the past, making more charters good news for advocates there.

A lot of teachers prefer working in charter schools.  They feel more responsible and accountable for their students.

There are currently 255 charters in Michigan. A university can't charter more than 150. That will likely change.
Charter school leaders talk often about high standards for both students and teachers, standards they say set them apart from public schools.

Charter school teachers are accountable for the growth of each student which means they may later take Michigan Honors Classes in college.

However, not everybody is happy with this lesson plan that the legislature has put together. In fact, the Detroit Federation of Teachers is expressing their dismay. Members are even going so far as to say that students are being used as pawns to help charters make money.

Detroit Federation of Teachers believes the majority of Michigan charters schools are not matching the public schools in their communities. They also believe that charters don't take into account the many students who have special needs. There may be more need for Michigan Honors Courses eventually.

Governor Rick Snyder is expected to sign this bill into law next week, but there are some stipulations in it requiring charter schools to have more scrutiny about their past performance and also more transparency.

Unemployment Benefit Changes

First appeared in Associated Press (Lansing)
The Republican-led Michigan Legislature on Wednesday approved legislation aimed at stabilizing the state’s unemployment benefits fund, including a bill that could make it tougher for some to get and keep jobless benefits.

The bill that could affect jobless benefits eligibility passed the Senate by a 26-12 vote after clearing the House 61-47. Both votes were largely along party lines, sending the measure to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.

Republicans say the bill will deter fraud, prevent overpayments and encourage the unemployed to seek jobs before their benefits run out.

Democrats say it could weaken benefits for some at time they need the help most. Michigan’s unemployment rate has been falling but remains above the national average. That’s the major reason that the state’s unemployment fund has had to borrow from the federal government to make ends meet.

Two other, less controversial bills approved by the Legislature would help Michigan pay back loans from the federal government related to unemployment benefits. The debt, currently about $3 billion, would be paid off by allowing the state to issue bonds to cover the obligation.

“Michigan’s unemployment insurance system must address this growing debt to get back on stable footing,” said Rep. Wayne Schmidt, a Republican from Traverse City.

Snyder is likely to approve the legislative package pending final review, spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said.
The bill would further limit the ability of a person who was fired for cause or who may have left a job voluntarily to collect jobless benefits. An employee could be considered to have left work voluntarily if he or she missed several consecutive workdays without contacting the employer.

After a certain period of time, available work could no longer be considered “unsuitable” if it was outside the unemployed worker’s previous experience or if it paid lower wages in some cases. That clause could kick in after 10 weeks of receiving state benefits, which Democrats say would force Michigan families into a cycle of underemployment.

Republicans argue that the requirements simply would prompt unemployed workers to accept new jobs when they’re available.

The new requirements would come on top of an earlier law that will cut the length of time that jobless workers can get state unemployment benefits from the current 26 weeks to 20 weeks, starting with new filers in 2012.

Republicans say the overall package is designed to eliminate debt in the unemployment benefits system and ease the burden on employers who pay into the system. The legislation would require some employers to pay unemployment taxes on a larger portion of their employees’ wages. Other changes, however, would save money for employers paying into the state’s unemployment insurance program.

The bonding plan could allow Michigan employers to avoid higher payments that otherwise would be needed to repay the rising debt connected to the federal loans.

Michigan Rehabilitation Hospital Helping Patients Walk

Story first appeared in Detroit Free Press
The first generation of wearable robotic devices is here to help paralyzed people walk and regain independence.

The Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan, part of the Detroit Medical Center, is one of 10 leading U.S. rehabilitation therapy centers testing the Ekso Bionics exoskeleton.

It straps around people so they can stand upright and walk with a walker. The device is propelled by electrical impulses and robotic sensors that help keep users upright and gently propel them forward, a step at a time.

The device -- a forerunner of what the company says eventually will be lighter and more adaptable systems for private use -- currently is limited to centers like the rehabilitation institute participating in the company's study.

It is federally approved for sale and expected to be available later this year for consumers buying the devices for their personal use, according to a spokeswoman for the company, based in Berkeley, Calif.

The Rehabilitation Institute plans to offer the technology to other patients by spring.

For now, six are testing it, including Brendan Milewski, a Detroit firefighter paralyzed in 2010 in an arson.

"I'm hopeful" it will help, said Milewski, 32, of Washington Township, an 11-year member of the Detroit fire force who was injured along with six others at a cell phone shop on East Jefferson.

His life has been dominated by doctor visits and therapy since the accident.

The therapy is arduous, three hours at a time, three days a week. But he'd have it no other way.

Like many younger patients with paralyzing injuries, he yearns to be more independent and wants to regain the strength and abilities he once had. A 1997 graduate of Cousino High School in Warren, he had been an avid hockey player.

Any technology like the exoskeleton holds hope, if nothing else, of what's ahead.

"I'm ready," he said.

Milewski said he already has seen the benefits of his therapy. He couldn't move his arms after the accident, and his entire upper body was weak. Thursday, he looked strong. Tattoos covered his muscular arms, strong from therapy and wheelchair use.

Ekso physical therapist Darrell Musick compares the evolution of the device over the next decade with that of smart phones with dozens of extra functions far beyond the limits of the first cell phones.

"The opportunity in the next 10 years should be endless," Musick said. The devices "should be lighter, faster, more fluid, better turning and more functional."

The device currently costs about $100,000 and is unlikely to be covered by insurance. It is limited to people with some upper-body strength and designed for people who weigh no more than about 220 pounds and who are 5 feet 2 to 6 feet 2.

Still, the technology has benefits for both patients and therapists when compared with other types of electrical stimulation devices for spinal cord recovery, the company and Detroit rehabilitation hospital specialists say.

Other devices often are limited to stationary exercises such as bike pedaling or require several therapists to help move people's feet while walking.

By comparison, the exoskeleton is "a purely passive robot that does the work for you," said Paula Denison, director of special services at the Rehabilitation Institute.

Suited up and strapped in the device's black belts around his legs, Milewski looked like an astronaut awaiting takeoff or an actor in an action movie.

The half-hour trial session he and Max Faistenhammer, 29, of Grosse Ile went a bit slowly for both men. Faistenhammer was injured in a March 2010 motorcycle accident. Like Milewski, he is young and muscular from hours of aggressive therapies to regain his strength and abilities.

For now, it's more wait and see on just how many gains they will make with the robotic device.

Maybe some day ahead, they'll be able to take steps on their own. "It would be great to get in a car, strap this on and go somewhere," Milewski said.