Midwest Memo, Monday, May 23, 2011

Economic activity has seemed to be on the rise. But the Federal Reserve of Chicago says its National Activity Index fell in April, to the lowest level since August 2010. The Chicago Fed said the index, which tracks broad categories in the economy, turned negative for the first time since December 2010. It said there are concerns of “subdued” inflationary pressure in the economy in the coming year, much of it due to high oil prices.

Toyota’s reputation for quality suffered a significant blow the past two years in the wake of millions of recalls. Now, a blue-ribbon panel says the world’s biggest carmaker has to give more authority to its executives and employees in North America,  and pay more attention to outside input, in order to avoid repeating that experience.

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Give Americans More Authority, Toyota Told

Toyota’s reputation for quality suffered a significant blow the past two years in the wake of millions of recalls. Now, a blue-ribbon panel of outsiders says the Japan-centric carmaker must give its managers and employees in North America more authority to jump on problems, in order to prevent another such crisis.

The Toyota North American Quality Advisory Panel also said it found Toyota paid less heed to problems reported by its customers, regulators and outside experts, than it did to those inside the company. Moreover, its quality and safety efforts were hindered by its slow decision making process, the panel said.

“Although Toyota is in the car manufacturing business, it — like most modern corporations — is also a decision factory,” said a report from the panel, issued this morning. “Toyota’s reputation in North America increasingly will be based as much on the quality of its decision making as on the quality of its vehicles.”

Toyota Tundra


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Behind the register at Moveable Feast Geneva (Niala Boodhoo)

CHICAGO – This week marks the last we’ll be seeing of new broadcasts of the Oprah Winfrey Show. I’m someone who basically has grown up with the show (to be exact, the nationally syndicated show has run for 25 years). It’s spawned the empire of all things Oprah – including her magazine and now her own cable network.

Over the years, Oprah’s singled out many products for her Favorite Things list. Regrettably, the video montages of people hysterically screaming during those episodes are quickly removed from YouTube, so I can’t embed them here. But what people don’t realize is that many business owners are just as excited about trying to get their products on the show.

Whether they’ve tried to get on the list or  not, it’s an incredible opportunity (hat tip to my our reigning Changing Gears punster Dan Bobkoff, who coined the phrase Oprah-tunity) for companies as varied as Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor to Nonnie’s Southern Food in Spring Valley, Ohio.

To find out what happened to those businesses years after Oprah’s spotlight has left, I started out in the west suburbs of Chicago, in a town called Geneva.


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Midwest Memo: Friday, May 20, 2011

Some good – but not great – news for northeast Ohio. Our partner station Ideastream reports today that a glitch in a reporting system led to an overly optimistic April home sales report. Revised numbers still show a 4.6 percent increase in sales from March.

Ohio’s unemployment rate dropped substantially in April and now ranks below the national average, according to Crain’s Cleveland. More than 100,000 have returned to the workforce over the past year across the state.

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Midwest Memo: Thursday, May 19, 2011

As a child, Don Barden sold vegetables from a roadside stand. As a teenager, he worked for a shipbuilder in Ohio. And as an adult, Barden emerged as one of Detroit’s most well-known entrepreneurs, building successful cable television and casino empires.

He died early today at Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit at age 67.

Our partner station Michigan Radio has details on the life and career of Barden, who built his cable company into one of the nation’s largest black-owned businesses before he sold to Comcast in 1994.

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Midwest Memo: Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sears once seemed synonymous with downtown Chicago.

But the landmark skyscraper once called the Sears Tower name officially changed its name in 2009. Now, Sears may disappear from Illinois entirely. A tax-incentive agreement with the state expires next year, and parent company Sears Holding Corp. is exploring the possibility of relocation.

“We do owe it to our associates and shareholders to consider options and alternatives and intend to be very thoughtful and thorough in our deliberations,” spokesperson Kimberly Freely told the Akron Beacon Journal. Changing Gears reporter Niala Boodhoo examined the future of Sears in March.

Sears has been around since 1893. (Niala Boodhoo)

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Pete Bigelow: Choosing to Stay in the Midwest

A steady stream of U-hauls headed in the opposite direction should have been a sign of turmoil ahead. But as I drove a northbound stretch of Interstate 94 near the Lake Michigan shoreline four years ago, en route to a new job in Ann Arbor, I was oblivious to the severity of the economic crisis here.

Pete Bigelow

Less than three years later, the scope of the Great Recession became all too apparent. The Ann Arbor News, where I worked as the sports editor, shut its doors. And like so many others who fell victim to the wave of layoffs and closures, I had no idea what came next.

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When Arts Funding and Financial Constraints Meet

Amid dwindling budgets, can cities and states afford to support the arts?

That’s the question posed today by our partner ideastream’s “Sound of Ideas” program. It looked at public subsides for art in age of fiscal constraints.

The five theatres at the Cleveland Playhouse draw more than a million visitors annually. Photo by Sanford Kearns via Flickr.

Northeast Ohio may be better positioned than many areas in our region because of a voter-approved cigarette tax that generates as much as $15 million per year for arts funding. But supporters of the arts argue that during economic recessions, it’s important to remind taxpayers of more than their cultural benefits. Arts can be economic drivers as well, they say.

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Midwest Memo: Tuesday, May 17, 2011

One day after his inauguration as Chicago’s new mayor, Rahm Emanuel started trimming the city’s budget deficit.

Today, he is expected to announce $75 million in cuts. The savings would be realized by merging the city’s Fleet Management Department, which maintains city vehicles, with the General Services Department. It’s the first of several developments expected in the short term from the mayor’s office. Here, from the Chicago Sun Times, are six changes that may be coming soon to Chicago, ranging from longer school days to garbage collection.

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Midwest Food Trucks Hit Legal Roadblocks

Gourmet food trucks have become all the rage in big cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Boston. They’re transforming the way people think about street food and entrepreneurship in the restaurant business. And they’d seem like a natural for the Midwest, as we reinvent ourselves. But food trucks are having a harder time catching on here. Why is that, and what are food truck owners doing about it?

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