Meijer Tax Break Would Come At Expense Of Key Services

I’m generally skeptical of many tax breaks given to corporations for development projects. All too often, the projects come at the expense of tax revenue that could be otherwise used to provide social services. In many cases, projects fail to deliver on their promises of economic and neighborhood revitalization.

Most often, the local media acts as a cheerleader for development projects and never questions the need for tax breaks nor do they explore the basis on which the request was made. However, a recent article in The Grand Rapids Press–“Michigan rejects Brownfield tax credits for 28th Street Meijer store, but Grand Rapids may grant project local Brownfield status“–recently caught my eye because it was one of the few articles that I have seen that actually says what it will mean to give Meijer a tax break.

Meijer is asking for “brownfield” status on a project to redevelop their 28th Street and Kalamazoo store. According to Meijer, a 1 acre parcel of land that will be used in the development is contaminated. Interestingly, Meijer admits that it was the source of the contamination–its leaky gasoline storage tanks contaminated the groundwater.

However, The Grand Rapids Press reports that if the tax break is granted, it will come directly from money that could be used to provide key services:

If approved, the money will come from new property taxes generated by the store over the next 27 years. Those new taxes would otherwise fund city services, local public schools, Kent County operations, the Kent County jail, the local transit millage and Kent County’s senior millage.

So, the choice is clear–we can either fund critical social services, or we can have a redone Meijer store.

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Local and Michigan Headlines: Senate Republicans Looking to Cut College Assistance; Complaints against GRPD Increase

It has been a slow morning, but here are some interesting articles published elsewhere in the past twenty-four hours:

  • Senate Republicans to Cut Michigan Promise Scholarship, Other College Tuition Aid – Republicans in the Michigan Senate are looking to cut a variety of college tuition scholarships that help low income students attend college. The need-based programs they are looking to cut include the Michigan Promise Scholarship, the Michigan Work Study Program, the Part-Time Independent Student program, and the Michigan Education Opportunity Grants. I highly doubt such a move will do anything to help the state’s economy.
  • Granholm, MEDC Announce Over 11,000 New Jobs For Michigan – The local media–and the progressive blog Blogging for Michigan–is talking up an announcement from Governor Jennifer Granholm that over 11,000 new jobs are coming to the state. Included in that number are 3,100 new jobs in West Michigan.
  • As federal case continues, developers rush to finish elite golf course on public dunes – The Michigan Messenger looks at the continued development a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course in Benton Harbor. The course was built on the site of a former public park and has been at the center of a controversy between developers and citizens. Now, the company has begun construction while it awaits a federal court ruling on the development. It’s hoping to circumvent a full environmental review of the project. Despite all the controversy, Governor Granholm has praised the project as the kind of development that she hopes to see across Michigan.
  • Grand Rapids area in bottom 20 of Brookings Institution report, but economist sees hope – The Kent, Barry, Ionia, and Newaygo area ranks near the bottom of a Brookings Institution report that measures metropolitan unemployment, production, and housing. However, the Grand Rapids Press talks to a local economist who says that West Michigan actually is getting better.
  • Grand Rapids Police Department sees ‘unheard of’ increase in firearms discharge by officers; citizen complaints also rise – In less than two years, the GRPD has discharged their firearms six times–a substantial increase over previous years. Still, according to the GRPD, this hasn’t meant that there has been widespread injury to officers or suspects. Additionally, complaints are up, but the GRPD attributes that to a new reporting system.

Local and Michigan Headlines: Grand Rapids Considering Layoffs because of Budget Cuts; Senate Passes Foreclosure Bill

Here are some interesting stories covering Grand Rapids and Michigan:

If we missed anything, let us know in the comments.

Local/Michigan Headlines: Predictions that Michigan’s Economy will get even Worse; Grand Rapids Facing $7.1 million Revenue Decline

Here’s some interesting stories covering Michigan and Grand Rapids that were published elsewhere in the past 24 hours:

  • Economist predicts worst is yet to come for Michigan – An economist with the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy is predicting that unemployment will be between 17% and 20% by the end of the year.
  • House lawmakers weighing changes to bias crime laws – Lawmakers in the Michigan House of Representatives are hoping to pass legislation that would make it illegal to target a person because of their real or perceived involvement in any of a variety of protected classes, such as sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, veteran’s status, race or religion. Similar legislation passed last year but failed to pass in the Senate.
  • Supreme Court puts off decision on attire rules – The Michigan Supreme Court put off a decision on whether or not judges could force witnesses to show their faces in court. The question stems from a lawsuit brought by a Muslim woman whose case was dismissed because she would not remove her face covering.
  • Drop in state revenue sharing, sharp decline in income tax revenue mean deeper cuts in Grand Rapids – City Commissioners were told yesterday to expect a $7.164 million decline in overall revenue due to falling income taxes and less state revenue sharing money. In 2010, there will be a $7.34 million reduction.
  • Over 2 Million Michigan Families Spend More Than 10% On Health Care – Families USA reports that the number of insured people in families paying 10 or 25 percent of their pre-tax income on health care has climbed dramatically, a symptom of the runaway costs plaguing the U.S. health care system.
  • Grand Rapids joins vigil on anniversary of massive Iowa immigration raid – St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in Grand Rapids was part of churches nationwide that held vigils Tuesday night to mark the one-year anniversary of a huge immigration raid in Postville, Iowa. Those commemorating the raid called for immigration reform to prevent more raids and deportation proceedings. Sadly, this article from the Grand Rapids Press has nothing about the specific reforms sought.
  • Pair of rallies in Wyoming call on Americans to save manufacturing jobs, buy U.S. goods – The Grand Rapids Press reports on two rallies in Wyoming calling on elected officials to save manufacturing jobs and revive the middle class. The rallies focused on the closure of the General Motors plant in Wyoming and the need to make changes to the auto industry that protect worker–and union–jobs.
  • West Michigan, statewide foreclosure filings fall in April – Foreclosures are down in West Michigan and the state, but Michigan remains in the top 10 states in the country with some of the highest numbers of foreclosures.
  • Michigan Has Become a Buyer-Beware State – Banks, mortgage brokers, debt collectors, finance companies, home improvement contractors, new and used car dealers, auto repair shops, funeral homes, plumbers and electricians, and builders are all excluded from Michigan’s Consumer Protection Act. According to Blogging for Michigan, the state supreme court’s weakening of the law is driving people out of the state.
  • GOP Plays Politics With Michigan Infrastructure – Even with the release of a new report documenting the poor state of Michigan’s infrastructure, Republicans are unwilling to pursue additional funding for infrastructure because they don’t want to be associated with a “tax increase.” The reason? The 2010 elections.
  • MPA: Newspapers are “alive and well” – This piece on Michigan Liberal features some email correspondence between the Michigan Press Association (MPA) and members of the Michigan House of Representatives. In it, the MPA reminds legislators that many cities and counties are required to print notice of legal proceedings in newspapers. What does this mean when the newspaper business is continuing to decline? Is it just the newspaper industry trying to protect a source of interest that it has the monopoly on?

If we missed anything, please leave a comment.

City of Grand Rapids Tracks Stimulus Projects in the City

The City of Grand Rapids has a new web page online to track how Grand Rapids is spending its share of the federal stimulus money. According to the site, the City is committed “to ensuring transparency and accountability and to making sure that every dollar received by the City is spent on strategic projects that will enhance the quality of life in the City.”

Thus far, the money has been allocated in the following way:

050809-city_stimulus.gif

The web page also contains information about how the money in each area will be spent, although relatively little has been disclosed at this point.

More Stimulus Resources

For those wanting more information on how the stimulus funds are being spent as a whole, there are a few websites worth consulting.

The Michigan Recovery & Reinvestment Plan site details projects across the state and contains announcements of new projects.

Recovery.gov–operated by the federal government and receiving considerable hype initially–aims to bring some transparency to the process. For example, it has a page highlighting spending in Michigan, but it contains relatively few details.

The excellent news organization ProPublica also has extensive coverage of the stimulus, with a focus on transparency and where the money is going. Aside from special reports, it also maintains a regularly updated blog on the subject.

Green Grand Rapids “Actions” Meeting Next Week

Green Grand Rapids

Next week, the City of Grand Rapids is holding its third “Green Gathering” to update the 2002 city-wide Master Plan and the Parks and Recreation Master Plan with an emphasis on green initiatives.

You can find out a lot more about what has been done thus far on the City’s Green Grand Rapids website. There is a wealth of information relating to specific ideas and possibilities, some of which would be useful to review before next week’s meeting.

According to the City’s website, participants at the gathering will:

integrate the community’s ideas into a series of achievable plans. Citizens will be asked to identify partnering opportunities, funding strategies and prioritize the City’s work plan

In practice, this means that:

the public is invited to review three park special studies – Joe Taylor, Ball-Perkins and Butterworth Landfill – and three Grand River special studies – 201 Market Street, eastside riverwalk extension from the Blue Bridge to Wealthy St. and a “rapids” run on the Grand River. Future action then will be prioritized based on recommended strategies for Natural Systems, Greening, Parks and Recreation, Connections, the Grand River and Local Food.

The meeting is being held Wednesday, May 13 from 6:30pm to 8:30pm at Harrison Park Elementary. Harrison Park is located at 1440 Davis Ave NW.

A final meeting is being planned for this fall. Two meetings were held last year to generate ideas and discussion.

Grand Rapids Bike Summit Shows Possibilities and Limits

Grand Rapids Bike Summit

Yesterday, the City of Grand Rapids sponsored Grand Rapids first Bike Summit. The gathering brought together a wide variety of people–members of local government, regional planning groups, advocates, cyclists, and others–to discuss the state of biking in Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids: A Bike Friendly Community?

One of the primary goals of the summit was to talk to about the possibility of Grand Rapids being designated as a “Bike Friendly Community.” The League of American Bicyclists certifies municipalities with a four-level classification system, bronze, silver, gold, and platinum based on how “bike friendly” they are. Among the things evaluated are a city’s planning for bikes, its plans to measure improvement, the amount of on-road and off-road facilities (for example, trails, bike lanes, and bike parking), and programs to encourage people to bike.

Bill Nesper of the League of American Bicyclists spoke to the benefits of biking, saying that many car trips in the United States are for short distances. He said that 40% of trips in the U.S. are under two miles and that 90% of those trips are made by cars. Aside from the obvious physical and environmental benefits of riding a bike, Nesper said it’s also cheaper for cities. $100 pays for parking for two bikes, but a space to accommodate a single car in a parking ramp can cost as much as $40,000. Moreover, Grand Rapids would benefit by becoming a “Bike Friendly Community” as it would provide recognition of its work thus far, a vehicle for promoting biking, benchmarking, and technical help for city planners.

Nesper said that Grand Rapids has some things going for it as it moves forward with its application for becoming a “Bike Friendly Community.” He pointed to statistics showing that more people in the city are riding bikes, said that the city has a good advocacy community, and praised the summit as an example of the kind of work that goes into making a city a “Bike Friendly Community.” He said that two easy things that the City could do to improve biking would be to adopt a “Complete Streets” ordinance that would require new road work to accommodate all users (i.e. bikes, cars, and pedestrians) and to build more bike parking.

Ann Freiwald of Alta Planning and Design also spoke, sharing a number examples of best practices from bike friendly communities. She said that bike friendly cities such as Portland, OR and Madison, WI have cultivated a “bike culture” in addition to facilities and policy improvements that get more people biking. She also emphasized that it is important for cities to focus on the 60% of riders who are interested in biking more but are concerned about their safety.

Biking and Policy in Michigan

Josh DeBruyn of the Michigan Department of Transportation spoke about bicycle transportation in Michigan at the state level. He said that in a recent survey by the League of American Bicyclists, Michigan ranked 12th in the United States for friendliness towards bikes. Among the reasons for this ranking, DeBruyn pointed to Michigan’s education and encouragement efforts (both through the state and independent advocacy organizations), trails in the sate, and the prevalence of bike routes.

DeBruyn said that there are areas for improvement, especially in the policy realm. He said that in Michigan bicycles are not classified as legal vehicles and that there is no statewide “complete streets” policy.

Biking in Grand Rapids

Unfortunately, when Susanne Schulz from the City of Grand Rapids spoke, it became clear that much of what was talked about during the day–bike lanes, changes to roadways, and incentives for people to drive instead of bike–were a long way off. She showcased a number of “traffic calming” devices used by the city, but no bike lanes. She said that there are very real questions about who would maintain bike lanes and where funding would come from.

Nevertheless, she said that the city does envision a network of bike trails and paths for the city. She pointed to the Green Grand Rapids process, the city’s bike map, the 2004 Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan, and a recent ordinance change that requires bike parking to be built into new developments as examples of recent progress.

Downtown Grand Rapids Condo Project Faces Foreclosure

Yesterday, the Grand Rapids Press reported that the Icon on Bond condo project faces foreclosure. The bank that loaned the money for the project says that the father-son development team built the project, Joseph A. and Joseph W. Moch, owe more than $40 million–even after getting tax breaks from the city government.

The Mochs launched the project with hopes back in 2003, saying that it would bring critical a critical development. However, the project has largely failed to deliver and has been a source of controversy for years. According to the Grand Rapids Press, only four of the 118 units have been sold and 50 have been leased.

Back in 2006, the project won tax credits from the city:

Moch International, led by the father-son team of Joseph A. and Joseph W. Moch, won approval for $1.7 million worth of tax credits and rebates to help build a $15.5 million, 171-unit apartment complex at 235 Grandville Ave. SW.

They won these tax breaks even after the Mochs “threatened” to build low-income housing if they didn’t get their way on two previously planned towers:

By an 8-1 vote, the city’s Planning Commission sunk Moch’s request for permission to build two 255-foot-tall towers that would house 398 apartments in the tax-free Renaissance Zone.

Moch said his new project will fit the city’s 165-foot height restrictions for downtown buildings. They will be aimed at low-income residents or “whoever can afford them,” he said. He estimated the new project would be about 17 stories high.

“There will be no doorman, no heated sidewalks,” he told reporters. Parking will meet the city’s minimum requirements and probably cause problems on surrounding streets, he said.

Asked if he would build federally subsidized housing on the land, Moch replied, “We are seriously looking at that.”

According to the article in the Press yesterday, the Mochs are hoping to get out of the deal, “Moch said he’s prepared to hand over the building and resign from the condo association board, if that’s what’s required.”

It’s really too bad the bank won’t just take this building back and give it to the city’s homeless–on the Mochs’ tab of course. It seems like the fair thing to do.

At the very minimum, hopefully the city takes these development projects a little more seriously in the future before awarding them tax breaks.

Bliss for GR: Downtown Alliance

City Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss hosts a monthly show on GRTV called Bliss for GR that folks on city government and what is happening in the City of Grand Rapids.

This month’s episode features a discussion with Sharon Evoy of the Downtown Alliance. The program gives a good–albeit quite flattering–portrait of the Downtown Alliance, but it’s worth knowing about if one wants to understand the role it plays in development downtown. Additionally, the program talks about some future projects and development in downtown:

As always, it’s good to ask questions about who benefits from these projects, who they are aimed at, and how they relate to downtown residents.

City Commission Meeting Tomorrow; Agenda Highlights

The Grand Rapids City Commission Meets Tomorrow

Tomorrow is the Grand Rapids City Commission’s next meeting. The agenda is available online and here’s a preview of what they will be discussing:

Morning Sessions

  • 8:10am – Committee on Appointments Meeting
  • 8:30am – Fiscal Committee Meeting
  • 8:30am – Community Development Committee (This meeting will include discussion of a variety of issues including the City’s citywide Internet project and various property sales)
  • 9:30am – Committee of the Whole

Evening Meeting Agenda Highlights

The City Commission meets at 7:00pm in the Commission Chambers at 300 Monroe NW.

Public Hearings:

  • Hearing to consider the creation of the Uptown Corridor Improvement Authority and the boundaries of an authority development area.
  • Hearing to consider an amendment to the Brownfield Plan related to the Meridian Building Company, LLC Project located at 20 East Fulton Street.
  • Hearing to consider an amendment to the amendment to the Brownfield Plan related to the former Steelcase Campus Project, Ashley Capital Grand Rapids, LLC Project located at the east side of Eastern Avenue between 36th Street and 44th Street, Grand Rapids.
  • Hearing to consider an application for an Industrial Facilities Exemption Certificate for Canal Street Brewing Company, LLC d/b/a Founders Brewing Company located at 235 Grandville Ave., S.W.
  • Hearing to consider an amendment to the Brownfield Plan related to the Seward, LLC – Drueke and Enterprise Buildings Project located at 601 Third St., N.W. (Drueke Building) and 528 Fourth St., N.W. (Enterprise Building).

Near the beginning of the meeting, there is time for public comment on agenda items. At the end of the meeting, there is time for general public comment on any issue.

A packet containing supporting documents for the meeting is available. Minutes from the February 3rd meeting are now available online as well.

Contact information for the City Commissioners is available if you wish to voice a concern outside of meetings.

Note

We’re now printing a preview of the City Commission’s agenda because too many people–from the local media to progressive activists–tend to ignore the City Commission. While there are always limits to how much success folks can have in petitioning the government, it does offer one possible course of action.