31 January 2013

Let the wheels fly - Skee Town Skirtz ready to skate

Story first appeared on MLive.com (May 2011)

The home season for the Muskegon Skee Town Skirtz gets rolling Saturday when the all-women roller derby team faces the Black Heart Maidens of Hastings at the Lakeshore Sports Center.  A pair of k2 inline skates are just the thing for your own derby track.

Family-friendly bouts include a 6 p.m. blended scrimmage with Muskegon and Hastings junior league teams, ages 10-17, followed at 7:30 p.m. by a fast-paced bout between the Skee Town Skirtz and the Black Heart Maidens.  It only makes sense to use Roller Derby Inline Skates.

Saturday’s event is the first home bout for the Skirtz this year. Shawn “Dot Matrix” Abele, who co-founded the team in 2009, said home bouts are restricted to warmer months because the Lakeshore Sports Center needs ice for its rinks during the hockey season.

“With the center now available, we’re planning to play every month of the summer,” Abele said. “We’ve been practicing hard for this.”  Keep the practice rolling outside with a Rollerblade pair.

Abele said the junior league bout featuring the Mini Skirtz also will be entertaining.

“People really don’t want to miss the mini league,” she said. “The girls are good kids and practice just as hard as the adults.”

Other scheduled home bouts this spring and summer are June 11 against the Quad City rollers, July 9 against the Blue Water Roller Girls, July 23 against the Burning River Roller Girls, Aug. 13 against the Lafayette Browlin’ Dolls and Sept. 3 against MCDL.

The Skee town Skirtz ended their first season in 2010 with nine wins and three losses before sold-out crowds. Their record this year is one victory and two losses.

30 January 2013

Belle Island Deal Meeting Gets Rowdy

Story first appeared on Detroit Free Press -

The Detroit City Council will probably get another rowdy earful Tuesday before its scheduled vote on leasing Belle Isle to the State of Michigan, a scenario similar to the one that played out Thursday as council members discussed the proposal to turn the island into a state park for as long as 90 years.  There is a Southfield Diabetes Clinic nearby to serve you.

Council members opposed to the deal accused Mayor Dave Bing and others of selling out residents and refusing to look at alternative proposals that would keep the park under city control. Council members JoAnn Watson and Kwame Kenyatta urged colleagues to reject the deal and then left the council table, along with Councilwoman Brenda Jones, just before a group of state and city officials gave a presentation on how the lease would work.

"I just think that it's unjust and it's unfair to only consider one proposal," said Kenyatta, a vocal opponent who said not leasing Belle Isle wouldn't break the city's bank, but approving the deal would "break the spirit of the people of Detroit."

Kenyatta accused the Belle Isle Conservancy, a nonprofit group that raises funds for the island and has been supportive of the lease, of helping mastermind what he and Watson argued is a takeover of a major city jewel under the guise of trying to pare down Detroit's deficit.  Southfield Gastroenterologist physicians are available.

Watson called the conservancy a bunch of "folks who think they have a right to run a city they don't live in just because they're rich" and railed against "this let 'em eat cake attitude."

Most residents who spoke at the meeting opposed the lease, some calling council members evil, disciples of the antichrist and sellouts who won't be re-elected in November.

"We're not going to win with this group -- already bought and paid for," said Detroiter Sandra Hines, 59. "We got to organize and mobilize against the evil that we are up against. This is a state takeover, period."

The comments came during meetings of the council's neighborhood and community services subcommittee, of which Kenyatta and Watson are members and Councilman James Tate is chairman. Kenyatta and Watson voted to recommend that the full council reject the plan; Tate did not support the motion.  It may be cold out, but a Michigan walk-in cooler company can meet your freezer needs year-round.

The meeting was held in conjunction with a larger gathering of the full council for a discussion on the deal in which the state would lease Belle Isle for 30 years, with the option of the city or state pulling out at 10-year intervals. The state would not pay the city cash for the lease, but would take over operations and maintenance, saving the City of Detroit $6 million a year. There also would be an $11 yearly admissions fee for motorists, valid at all state parks.

Bing's administration supports the lease, saying the state has pledged to invest millions in capital upgrades to the 985-acre park, which has been neglected as city parks funds dwindled.  Please contact a local Detroit Spinal Cord Injury rehab physician when you have been need.

It's a particularly emotional issue for Detroiters because Belle Isle has been a free park for decades. Previous attempts to impose an entry fee to pay for upkeep have failed.

Under the lease, the city would maintain ownership of the island, but Watson took issue with the length of the lease -- 30 years, with the option of two 30-year extensions.

Kenyatta said Bing has refused to look at alternate proposals by private investors, including one from members of the family that once ran the Boblo Island amusement park to build a water park and hotel that would generate money. The city would keep control of the island.

Council President Charles Pugh said he was "firmly on the fence," saying Kenyatta's impassioned argument that other options should be considered had swayed him. Tate said he favored the lease.

Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown said he still had concerns about locking the city into a long-term deal because Detroit's finances may turn around. But, he added: "The beauty of the finances of this deal is that we're going to be able to attract revenue from around the state. I don't want to see just Detroiters taxed to take care of Belle Isle."

28 January 2013

Got your MBA and want to work at Caesars? Hope you have a good poker face!

Story first appeared on The Detroit News:

Texas hold 'em contest a recruiting tool for students -

Forget the firm handshake and networking chitchat. Business students who want a job at Caesars Entertainment need to work on their poker faces.

Nearly 300 Master of Business Administration students and alumni anted up for a three-day Texas hold 'em poker contest last weekend in hopes of hauling in a corner office. Hiring managers and corporate executives schmoozed with candidates during breaks in the action.

The annual MBA tournament on the Las Vegas Strip was little more than a marketing gimmick until last year, when Caesars decided to add cocktail hours and high-level interviews, said Tijuana Plant, who works in the company's human resources department.

Now, the event is a serious recruitment tool. The festive atmosphere and real-money stakes help the company screen for the critical thinking ability and social aptitude needed in the gambling industry, where business is often mixed with pleasure, Plant said.

"We like to see analytical people," she said. "Poker players are analytical and are willing to take strategic risk, and that is what we're looking for."

Caesars held a networking reception Jan. 18 and a two-hour presentation about its corporate culture Jan. 19.

The next day, 20 lucky MBAs were invited to formally interview with casino bigwigs for a spot in the company's 10-week management trainee program, which pays $16,000.

Apprentices perform a variety of high-level jobs, including masterminding marketing strategies and working with general managers to troubleshoot on properties, Plant said. Last year, four of the 12 people accepted into the trainee program played in the tournament.

Students flew in from prestigious programs including Harvard Business School, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and the MIT Sloan School of Management. But executives were on the alert for nerds.

"We're not selling insurance. This is a fun industry, and we're selling a lifestyle," Plant said. "We're watching for whether they're not having a good time at all and just focusing on the job, or if they're having fun and looking for a job at the same time. It's kind of our test."

Amtrak in Michigan: Beware of Cost Spike

Story first appeared on The Detroit News

Michigan's costs for passenger rail service will quadruple this fall under a federal act requiring the state to
subsidize its busiest Amtrak route.

The 4-year-old law shifts an annual subsidy of about $25 million from the federal government to the state.

Added to the $8 million Michigan provides for its other two Amtrak lines, the state's tab for passenger rail
service will jump to about $33 million.

Tim Hoeffner, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation's rail office, said the state has little
choice but to absorb the added cost if it wants to meet a growing demand for passenger train service in the lower half of the state.

Ridership on the Pontiac-Detroit-Chicago route, Amtrak's most popular with three daily trains, has risen to nearly a half-million passengers per year. Ridership totaled nearly 800,000 on all three state routes last year, a record.

"I don't think if we reduced the quality of service we would continue to grow our revenues," he said. "Our
business model is that you have to grow your way to prosperity."

Under a different philosophy in the late 1990s, the state cut subsidies and reduced service. The result was drops in ridership and revenue that were proportionally greater than the decrease in service, Hoeffner said.

The subsidy shift — atop other federal dictates — irritates House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, who will be asked to OK it as part of the state budget.

"I'm so mad at the federal government for its continuation to force our hand, to try to tell us what to do,"
Bolger said. "We need to evaluate on our own what's right for Michigan's citizens, what's right for the
transportation structure in our state.

"What bothers me about this is the federal government coming in and telling us what to do when they can't even get their own job done," said Bolger, referencing spending battles in Congress.

But the state is in the midst of a major financial commitment to improve departure and arrival schedules, travel times and amenities.

In December, Michigan's Transportation Department signed a deal with Norfolk Southern Railway and the federal government to buy 135 miles of track between Dearborn and Kalamazoo for $140 million.

Work begins in 2014 to upgrade the track so trains will be able to reach speeds as high as 110 miles an hour on that section of what will become high-speed service along the Pontiac-Detroit-Chicago route, which Amtrak calls the Wolverine.

There's been additional progress on MDOT's high-speed rail project: Trains have been able to run at 110 mph for almost a year on 80 miles of the 100-mile portion of the Wolverine route between Kalamazoo and the Burns Harbor area of Indiana.

It's the first stretch of rail outside the northeastern U.S. rail corridor to see that speed, Hoeffner said.

"We'll raise the speed as much as we can in as many places as we can along the route," he said.

Hoeffner said the state's higher tab to subsidize Amtrak will be included in the 2013-14 fiscal year spending plan Gov. Rick Snyder presents to the Legislature Feb. 7. The new state budget takes effect Oct. 1.

MDOT officials knew this was coming. It's mandated by the Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008, which shifts Amtrak subsidies from the federal government to the states on routes shorter than 750 miles. The Wolverine route is 283 miles long.

There is a trade-off: The federal act also awards millions of federal dollars to Michigan to cover the full cost
of new passenger cars Amtrak will start running on the state's lines in three to four years.

Most Amtrak routes are subsidized because ticket revenues fall short of costs.

In Michigan, the state has been subsidizing two routes, the Blue Water and the Pere Marquette. Until now, the feds had provided the subsidy for the Wolverine.

Besides setting a new ridership high in Michigan in 2012, Amtrak took in a record $29 million. The official
ridership figures for the year: The Blue Water route, once daily between Port Huron, East Lansing and Chicago, 187,991 passengers. The Pere Marquette, once a day between Grand Rapids and Chicago, 109,501. The Wolverine had 495,277 riders.

$2.3B offer for Compuware Purchase Rejected

Story first appeared on The Detroit News

Hedge fund to make new offer as tech firm plans $60M in cuts -

Compuware Corp. rejected an offer Friday by a New York hedge fund to buy the company for $2.3 billion and also announced it would cut costs by $60 million over the next three years through undisclosed moves.

Elliott Management Corp., which owns 8.1 percent of Compuware, offered to buy the Detroit-based technology company for $11 a share on Dec. 17, but the Compuware board of directors said in a statement that Elliott's bid "significantly undervalues the company and is not in the best interest of shareholders."

Elliott responded Friday, saying it plans to make another offer.

Compuware's announcements, made in a Friday morning earnings conference call, directly address shareholder concerns about mismanagement and increases the price for future offers, analysts said.  Task Management Software products allow for business growth with ease, and without an increase in staffing.

"This is the dance everybody does," said Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan. "What

Compuware is saying is that 'OK, maybe we haven't done well but we're on the ball now … look at all this good stuff that we're going to do to make our company more valuable.'"

At the time of the December offer, Elliott's bid was 15 percent more than what the shares were worth. The stock has since risen above $11 a share and closed Friday at $11.57, up more than 7 percent — its highest price since April 2011.

Compuware also said it plans to issue an annual dividend of 50 cents a share and spin off remaining shares of its Covisint Corp. unit to Compuware shareholders following an initial public offering in December.

"We are committed to creating value for shareholders and the actions announced today are focused on increasing profitability, building on the momentum of our transition to higher-growth businesses, and returning capital directly to shareholders," Compuware CEO Bob Paul said in a statement. "Today's actions, including the spin-off of Covisint, will sharpen our focus and reduce costs, delivering greater profitability and meaningful value for shareholders."

E. Han Kim, a University of Michigan professor of business administration, said that move is to appease the
shareholders.  A solution to be considered for business today, Shipping Software.

"When you're saying no to an offer of a 15-20 percent premium, you have to do something good for your
shareholders," he said.

An independent analyst asked about further cost-cutting during the earnings call, when the company reported its third-quarter profit rose 17 percent to $25.3 million from a year ago but the net income through the first nine months fell 24 percent to $46.4 million.

Paul said he would not comment about specific cost-cutting measures, but that there is a detailed plan in place.

Gordon said those measures would most likely involve layoffs. "It's thought of as being a pretty fat and lackadaisical company, at least by its critics," he said. "It's people-driven; they'll cut people."

Some shareholders and analysts had pressured Compuware about cutting costs.

New York hedge fund and Compuware shareholder Sandell Asset Management said in a report late last year the Detroit firm had a "bloated workforce" and needed to reduce expenses by outsourcing more of its information technology work. Elliott, in its initial takeover bid, had previously said the company was mismanaged.

Elliott was pleased with Compuware's decision to keep discussions open.

"This is a good outcome," Jesse Cohn, portfolio manager at Elliott Management, said in a statement."Compuware has granted our request for access to diligence to confirm an offer for the company. … We remain very interested in the company."

Compuware said it will sign a nondisclosure agreement with Elliott so the two can privately talk about the
company's assets and determine what a more appropriate offer would be.  Compuware is providing several new services related to its core software, including swim lane diagram modeling and consulting services that helps companies analyze workflow.

"This is very typical," Gordon said. "Elliott doesn't put its best offer on the table any more than you would when you walk into the car dealership. The real negotiations happen behind closed doors."

Winter Fly-fishing? Zen-like experience on Michigan river

Story first appeared on USA Today -

Anglers know something that tourists don't. You can fly-fish all year round, even in winter.

Beyond skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, skating and winter zip-lining, the latest tourist attraction in northern Michigan is getting in a float boat and having A River Runs Through It experience in the dead of winter.

"People say, 'What?' They think the river freezes," says Ethan Winchester of Boyne Outfitters. He is head fly-fishing guide at Boyne Mountain, which for the first time is offering winter fly-fishing as an activity for its guests. "Rivers don't freeze up like a lake. The trout don't leave. They become somewhat dormant and slow down, but they're still in the river."

This time of year, steelhead and trout are theoretically there for the catching -- but they are elusive.

Winter fly-fishing has other challenges. If it's sunny and in the 30s, conditions are glorious. Great waterproof waders keep anglers dry. Gourmet lunches and hot coffee keep them warm.

"But a lot of times when you come out here and it's 10 or 20 degrees, the rods get covered up with ice, and the reels freeze," says Tom Menas, another guide. "It adds a different element to it."

Which may be the understatement of the year.

Crystal ice and melting snow -

On this January day, we start at Chestonia Bridge, a few miles south of East Jordan.

We are lucky. It is above freezing. And it is sunny.

Winchester backs up the Jeep and its trailer to a snowy embankment and slides the boat downhill like a sled, where it gathers speed and splashes into the water of the Jordan River. Soon, we are floating in the Hyde-McKenzie-style drift boat, with paddles like a river raft. Winchester guides the boat past low-hanging branches, eddies, swirls, minor rapids, sharp limbs and fallen trees. We dodge hollers and shadows, dark water and open areas.

We fish at holes the anglers know, murky spots called Two Logs, Brown Trout Alley, Lawyer's Lounge, Sucker Hole.

We fish. We fish. No bites yet.

The day is all crystal ice and melting snow, at times completely silent except for the sharp cracking snap of our drift lines. A merganser duck honks and flies overhead. The burbling water calls out its winter song. My feet feel warm in their waders with boots, waterproof as a tarp on a roof. I sip hot coffee. I cast my line, again and again. The guides show me how to flick my wrist, cross over, then repeat until it becomes automatic, even beautiful.

Winchester and Menas are ardent fly-fishermen. They have caught plenty of trout in winter. But not every day. Perhaps not this day.

"The fish keep you humble," says Winchester, 25. He used to be a fly-fishing guide in remote Alaska. He grew up in Charlevoix and knows this area like the back of his hand. Still, he doesn't always get lucky.

The Boyne guides prefer to take clients on the Jordan and Sturgeon rivers in winter, adding others in summer. The Jordan is a favorite. Rarely above 52 degrees even in July, it is clear, fast-moving, and the banks are quiet and forested.

"There are a lot of proverbs about fly-fishing, and one says that each river has its own soul and character," Winchester says. "This river has just about everything to put you at ease."

Today, the 3 1/2-mile route takes us six hours. We stop many times to fish from the boat and wade in the water. We stop longer on a riverbank to eat lunch and fish some more.

Winchester grills steaks, asparagus and new potatoes and heats brownies on a portable grill. The sun shines. The river shimmers. Menas and I walk slowly downstream through the frigid January water, casting our lines. You don't want to fall into the river this time of year. We are so careful, especially walking back upstream against the tugging icy current. My boots feel like they weigh 1,000 pounds apiece. But they are stable. It's the oddest feeling, to walk through water up to one's knees in the middle of January and not be cold or wet.

Afloat on the wintry river -

You can do winter fly-fishing all across the state. But mostly it's confined to hard-core anglers "who just need that fix," Winchester says. For newcomers or people who want the help of a guide, a more structured program is definitely the way to go -- and the big ski resorts like Boyne are happy to oblige. Resorts across America are adding other unusual activities to keep skiers busy and attract new guests. Water parks, spas, zip lines, yoga, ice skating, cross-country skiing -- and now winter fly-fishing -- beckon to winter lovers who used to show up just for the downhill skiing.

And I do recommend winter fly-fishing, as odd as it sounds. The winter river, with its bowing cedars, yellowish and curving, is something to see. Newly fallen trunks and limbs lie this way and that (Winchester and Menas bring a chainsaw in case they encounter an obstacle). Snow hugs the banks. A midwinter sun looks as chilly as a circle of lemon sorbet in the sky. Ice clings to bare twigs like glass. You can breathe out here. Deeply.

A Zen-like silence -

I do have one weird question for my guides. Have they ever caught the same fish twice? Yes. If a fish has a scar or special marking, they may recognize it. Also, anglers know these rivers, know where the fish are, at least sort of. Because it's catch and release, fish often return to the same general area where anglers caught them last time.

"We know their address," Menas says. Still. The entire venture to me seems delicate and chancy, the rod so light that it seems it would be torn from your hand should a trout have a notion to eat lunch.

Most new anglers who try fly-fishing can be intimidated, partly because of the 1992 film A River Runs Through It, which made the fly rod seem like Brad Pitt's magic wand. Even today, guides see some people with A River Runs Through It Syndrome, which is a compulsive need to do a figure-8 twirling of the line, "like you're doing a ribbon dance," scoffs Winchester, flicking his wrist and sending the line straight out into the fast-moving current.

Boyne Mountain is going into winter fly-fishing full throttle, plus preparing for spring. There's a stocked trout pond near the ski runs. There are fishing poles available for guests. They teach fly-fishing and fly tying.

After we leave the river and return to the resort, Winchester asks if I want to catch a trout in the pond.

But it seems a violation of the zen of fly-fishing, contrary to the acceptance of the fish's wishes on this day not to be caught.

Anyway, I kind of get a kick out of picturing the lazy steelhead huddled along depressions in the winter river. I picture them watching plankton drift by, the steelhead equivalent of watching "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" on TLC. They feel a boat passing, hear voices, see that nice juicy bug or clump of eggs dangling above, but ... nah. They'll doze on this January day until they feel spring coming for real. Crazy humans, they murmur as the boat passes, then all becomes silent again.

Contact Ellen Creager: 313-222-6498 or ecreager@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @ellencreager.

If you go:

Winter fly-fishing is offered by many fishing guides in Michigan, but the big ski resort Boyne Mountain has taken it up a notch, offering it for the first time this year to guests through Boyne Outfitters on the property.

Several packages are available, including the classic described in this article, the Traditional Float: Float down the river and fish from the boat and in the water. Instruction, equipment, waders and lunch included in the full-day tour; $375 for two people.

Also offered is a half-day tour for $275.

24 January 2013

They are staying in Detroit, but, Free Press & Detroit News to move out of historic building

Story first appeared in Crain's Detroit Business

The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News, along with their joint business and advertising operation, will move 600 employees out of their current downtown offices in the next year to 18 months and into a "more modern building" elsewhere in the city.

That's according to an emailed memo from Detroit Media Partnership President Joyce Jenereaux to staffers that was obtained Wednesday afternoon by Crain's and confirmed by management.

No site has been identified, said Rich Harshbarger, the partnership's vice president of consumer marketing. A site facility study will determine the location and size of the new offices, which will be leased.

The current building, garage and parking lot will be sold, and the relocation will happen independent of the sale.

The partnership has hired Joseph Rosenberg, senior vice president at CBRE Group Inc. in Southfield, to handle the process.

Both newspapers and the business operations will remain in the city, Harshbarger said.
"We're looking at all possibilities. It could be Midtown. We're committed to Detroit," he said. "We're looking at the same number of head count downtown."

The News has been in the Albert Kahn-designed building at 615 W. Lafayette Blvd. since it opened as a printing facility in 1917. The partnership moved in during 1989, and the Free followed in 1998, Harshbarger said.

"The goal is to put us in more comfortable, attractive and functional offices in an environment that's more vibrant and stimulating than our current location on the edge of downtown — while saving the extraordinary expenses of maintaining a nearly 100-year-old building," Jenereaux said in the staff memo.

Jenereaux noted that the current building was designed largely as a printing facility, and converted pressroom and newsprint storage areas are used as office space. A newer office will be cheaper, too.

"Our current building is historic, but it's been obsolete for decades," she wrote. "The building has more space than we need, and as it has aged, it has become difficult and costly to maintain and operate."

The Free Press and Detroit News are linked through a 25-year joint operating agreement signed in 2005 to handle as one business unit the advertising, printing and distribution of the papers. The newspapers are printed at a plant in Sterling Heights.

Tysons Corner, Va.-based Gannett Co. Inc. owns the Free Press and 95 percent of the partnership. The News is owned by Denver-based MediaNews Inc., which has the other 5 percent of the partnership.

MediaNews paid $25 million in stock to acquire The News from Gannett in 2005. Gannett, in turn, bought the Free Press for $262 million from now-defunct Knight Ridder Inc.

23 January 2013

Lafayette Towers being revamped for young professionals by Detroit Developers

Story first appeared on The Detroit News

The Lafayette Towers, like the rest of the Lafayette Park neighborhood, was once considered a shining example of urban revitalization.

Designed by famed architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and built in 1961, the apartment towers were part of a planned community that included a shopping center, a 19-acre park and a school to attract young professionals to live near downtown.  There is a spinal cord injury Detroit service leader available.

Today, as the city undergoes its latest round of urban renewal, investor and lifelong Detroiter Gregory Jackson said he wants to use the aging modernist-style glass and aluminum high-rise community to reinvent Detroit living.

He bought the 22-story, 584-unit apartment complex from the city for $5.8 million in November with a promise that he would pay to bring the iconic structures back to their original glory.  A brain injury Detroit physician is near this location.

"I wanted to be part of the renaissance that's taking shape in Detroit," said Jackson, who lives on the city's west side.

The renaissance that Jackson and other developers refer to is tied to rising demand in certain neighborhoods for rental housing for the city's new class of young professionals. Their migration has resulted in a more than 90 percent occupancy rate in Midtown and surrounding areas, according to Midtown Detroit Inc., which tracks housing trends.

State and federal tax incentives as well as easier availability of financing make renovating empty and historic buildings more appealing for Detroit investors than new construction, real estate experts said.

In October, Bloomfield Hills-based Princeton Enterprises bought the shuttered, historic Milner Hotel in downtown with preliminary plans to convert the 10-story building into apartments and rename it The Ashley.

In November, the 34-story Broderick Tower accepted its first tenants after completion of a two-year renovation project. And as investors bid on the Free Press Building on Lafayette Boulevard, there was talk that the historic structure would be converted into housing.

"The city has prioritized restoration rather than new construction. Detroit would like to see the empty buildings back into the market," said Richard Baron, chairman of the St. Louis-based development firm McCormack Baron Salazar.

Baron, who has years of experience rehabilitating historic buildings, is in talks with Susan Mosey of Midtown Detroit Inc. on a $25 million project to restore a vacant building on Alexandrine, just west of Woodward Avenue, into rental residences.

Though demand for housing in certain areas continues to climb, incentives for developers to embark on new construction projects aren't there, Baron said.

Jackson said an investment of as little as $5 million could help attract new, younger tenants.

The Lafayette Towers, he said, noting that it is more than 50 percent occupied, already has some amenities that would appeal to potential younger tenants. The complex is equipped with an Olympic-sized pool, fitness center and 360-degree panoramic views of the city. It's also within walking distance of Greektown.

Rents at Lafayette Towers range from $500 a month for a studio to $1,400 a month and up for a three-bedroom unit, with approximately 30 units that qualify for government subsidies.

Jackson said units can run as low as $1 per square foot, compared to other units downtown where rentals such as the Broderick Towner and other recently renovated buildings charge a much higher rate.

The rates at Lafayette Towers will eventually go up, but Jackson said he does not plan to raise rents until after all renovations are made.

Preliminary improvements, he said, will include adding shuffleboard courts and cabanas to the rooftop pool area, replacing equipment and offering classes in the fitness center, and updating kitchens and bathrooms in apartment units. Jackson said he also plans to install bicycle racks, improve Wi-Fi service and allow residents to use rooftop lounge spaces to hold receptions.

Jackson said he hopes to have initial renovations completed within 18 months.

Molly Dougherty, 24, a high school English teacher, moved into the complex in August with her fiance.

"(We) decided to move to an exciting part of town," Dougherty said.

Dougherty came to Detroit about a year and a half ago from Omaha, Neb., to volunteer at Cristo del Rey High School. She eventually got hired permanently at the parochial school and decided to move out of a roommate situation in the Mexicantown neighborhood to a more cosmopolitan living experience.

"There's a certain energy in an urban area. I like all the diversity — every day you see different people," said Dougherty, who regularly walks to Greektown for its restaurants, bars and casino.

Wilbert Sherrod, 73, a retired dentist who has lived in Lafayette Towers for 38 years, shared similar sentiments. When he moved into the city more than 40 years ago, he was immediately drawn to the air of affluence that the complex inspired.

"As soon as I came into the city," Sherrod said, "I said, 'I want to live here.' "

Sherrod said he loves summer walks to the RiverWalk, Renaissance Center and Greektown. He does most of his grocery shopping at Lafayette Foods down the street. In fact, after retirement he sold his car and rents one occasionally if he needs to go to the suburbs for errands.

But Sherrod said security and maintenance declined at the complex over the years.

By this past summer, Lafayette Towers was in danger of being sold by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in a foreclosure auction after then-owner Northern Group failed to make mortgage payments. The city stepped in and bought the property, with the understanding that it would seek a private buyer who would invest in its long-term revival.

When Jackson heard about its financial woes, he approached the city.

"I've been looking for an opportunity to invest in a city that I love," Jackson said.

Sherrod, who lives in a unit overlooking Ford Field, Comerica Park and Gratiot Avenue, said he is ready for the proposed revival.

"I hope this gentleman is truthful with his promise," he said.

22 January 2013

Critics may derail fast track for Blue Cross Blue Shield reform

Article first appeared on The Detroit News

Gov. Rick Snyder wants the Legislature to quickly pass Blue Cross Blue Shield reforms, but some critics are demanding a second look that might delay passage and keep the Blues from offering low-cost insurance under the federal health care act.

The Legislature approved a two-bill package in late December. But Snyder vetoed the legislation earlier this month over anti-abortion provisions added minutes before passage in the lame-duck session. The provisions required women to buy separate, elective abortion coverage.

The bills were reintroduced in the Senate on Wednesday without the added language and are likely to breeze through the Senate. It could be tougher in the House, which has more than two dozen new representatives and has yet to make committee assignments.

"We have 26 new people so we can't do a quick thing like the Senate," said Rep. Pete Lund, R-Shelby Township, who last year chaired the House Insurance Committee. The number of Democrats also has increased in the lower chamber, where the GOP has a smaller 59-51 majority.

House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, said his caucus' concerns include getting continuation of Medigap subsidies for seniors extended beyond the four years in the bills.

"We're interested in making sure that seniors are protected from any unduly high premiums in their Medigap insurance," Greimel said.

Snyder supported turning the Blues into a taxpaying nonprofit mutual insurance company to streamline the rate approval process and increase competition among insurers. Blue Cross dominates with more than 70 percent of the market. The Blues also support the reforms.

But critics contend the proposal does little to inject more competition and would make it easier for the Blues to raise rates for consumers -- meaning little if any money would be saved.

Among the legislation's biggest critics is Attorney General Bill Schuette, who argues the prior legislation failed to protect consumers. The Legislature ignored Schuette's early calls for an independent valuation of the Blues' assets to determine the nonprofit's worth before entering into a deal.

The legislation requires the Blues to contribute $1.5 billion to an independent foundation to carry on their charitable mission, but Schuette questioned if it is a good deal for taxpayers.

Future of Medigap subsidies:

Schuette also fears that seniors would not have the cost of Medigap, secondary insurance to cover costs not paid by Medicare, subsidized beyond 2016.

"The attorney general negotiated a historic Medigap rate freeze, and this legislation does not address what happens when that expires, (when) thousands of seniors could face rate increases of up to 66 percent," Schuette spokeswoman Joy Yearout said.

Blue Cross spokesman Andrew Hetzel counters the legislation guarantees Michigan's lowest-income seniors will continue to get Medigap subsidies for nearly a decade.

"We believe that the legislation provides extraordinary protection for seniors," Hetzel said. "It guarantees not one penny of rate increase in our Medigap product for four more years, and after that the legislation calls for continued subsidy for Medigap for five more years for the lowest-income seniors."

Schuette and at least one business group also worry that the proposal diminishes the attorney general's role to intervene on behalf of taxpayers. Although Michigan is rated the third least competitive state in the nation for health insurance by the American Medical Association, the Blues would receive no more scrutiny than any other insurer.

"If (the attorney general's) oversight is removed," Yearout said, "seniors would no longer have an advocate to keep these rates down."

Still, the legislation Snyder vetoed had important new rules for the insurance industry, said Rick Murdock, executive director of the Michigan Association of Health Plans that represents non-Blues insurers.

They included a prohibition against an insurer contracting with a health system to give it a lower cost that couldn't be offered to another system, and ensuring the Blues pay their fair share of Medicare and Medicaid costs, he said.

If those provisions are kept in the new bills, Murdock would rather get them approved and worry about other changes later.

Leveling the playing field

Though the Blues package, without the abortion language, had bipartisan support, it was opposed by consumers' groups supported by many Democrats, as well as by some business groups.

"I think we'd like to revisit some of these issues," said Charlie Owens, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses.

As the state's insurer of last resort, the Blues for decades promised to insure everyone regardless of pre-existing conditions. In return, they've been forgiven roughly $100 million annually in tax payments. But under the federal Affordable Care Act, all health insurers have to insure such patients, so Snyder proposed it lose its special status.

The Blues agreed and want to compete on a level playing field when consumers start purchasing low-cost health insurance on the Michigan Affordable Health Care Exchange on Jan. 1, 2014. Hetzel said it will take about one year from the time the Blues bills are signed into law to complete the transition to a nonprofit mutual insurance company, so the Legislature would have to act now to ensure the Blues are ready at the starting gate, he said.

Time crunch for approval

The first hurdle comes March 31 when all of the state's insurers who wish to participate in the health care exchange must file a description of their products and prices with the federal government. The products have to be approved by the state insurance commissioner under existing rules. That means some products or prices might not get approval by the end of March.

If the Legislature hasn't passed the Blues legislation, "that puts Blue Cross at the huge disadvantage and it puts the insurance commissioner in a very difficult spot," Hetzel said.

State Insurance Commissioner Kevin Clinton agrees there is cause for concern, especially the lengthy eight- to nine-month process the Blues go through to get rates approved.

"They're going to be under a time crunch unless they can come up with a way to have their rates approved faster than they've done in the past," Clinton said. "Certainly you want your state's largest insurer to be on the exchange."

State Fails Higher Education Test

Article first appeared on The Detroit News

Business group says fund shift to prisons over colleges since ’02 threatens growth

The charts are sobering.

There, in stark type, stands a picture of Michigan that doesn't bode well for a state trying to break from the dysfunction of its past and embrace the promise of a growing, better-educated 21st-century future.

Between 2002 and 2012, state spending per student on higher education declined 35 percent even as public spending per prisoner increased 42 percent, Business Leaders for Michigan said Monday. In 2002, Michigan spent $2 billion on higher ed and $1.7 billion on prisons. A decade later, the state spent $1.3 billion on public colleges and universities and $2 billion on prisons.

Embarrassing? You make the call.

"We think it's going to affect our growth, if it hasn't already," says Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of the business group. "How do you best use the money that government takes in to drive growth? We think it's about people and infrastructure."

Now that Gov. Rick Snyder's Lansing has demonstrated the ability to balance budgets on time, reform business taxes and improve the state's business climate — critical goals of Business Leaders for Michigan's four-year-old turnaround plan — the group wants the governor and the Legislature to coalesce around spending priorities that attract and retain college graduates and spur economic growth.

"Ultimately, from a business point of view, we're interested in putting funds where we get the highest … return on investment — the best place to put the state's money," says Jim Nicholson, chairman of PVS Chemicals Inc.

Public higher education tops the list. The state boasts thousands of job openings in such hot sectors as nursing, industrial engineering and computer systems analysis, but roughly 80 percent of them require applicants to possess an associate’s degree or higher. And by 2020, according to data cited by Business Leaders, 900,000 workers in Michigan will need more than a high school diploma to land a job.

The implications are clear. As much as a restructured Detroit auto industry and a more business-friendly climate help, an under-educated workforce ill-prepared for the jobs of the present and future undermines the state's economic recovery and threatens longer term growth prospects.

Higher ed's predicament is not an accident. In the annual flailing that passed for budgeting in the Granholm years, higher education consistently got the shaft while other sectors (that happened, like prison guards, to enjoy strong union representation) benefited. Higher ed outlays account for less than 25 percent of general fund revenue, down from about 40 percent a decade ago, even as tuition and fees skyrocketed.

And prisons? Michigan's incarceration rate is higher than the average of Great Lakes states; its spending per prisoner is higher than the Great Lakes and national averages; and Michigan's prisons are generally smaller than those operating in other states, limiting the state's ability to reap economies of scale from operating larger facilities.

Worse, what does the fact that Michigan spends more on prisons than public colleges and universities say about its priorities today and its prospects to be competitive in the future? Not much good, particularly if the unmistakable trend goes unreversed.

That would be tragic. By now it should be clear to all but the deliberately deluded that Old Economy Michigan is quickly receding, that rising incomes and better job opportunities require more than a high school diploma, that smart higher education is as much about learning how to think and adapt as it is learning a set of skills.

Business understands that. Now the politicians need to demonstrate that they do, too.