On the road, Changing Gears explores small-town economies throughout Midwest

On the corner of Main and Division in Ishpeming, Mich., Buck's Restaurant is known for serving big breakfasts and big portions to residents who depend on the mining industry for survival.

Changing Gears reporters have been out on the road. Our team has traveled through the Great Lakes in search of places where local economies, and town cultures, revolve around a single employer. Some are actual company towns – but not all of them can be defined that way.

Often overshadowed by bigger cities like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, citizens of these places have experienced the Midwest economy in their own way, and developed different approaches to riding out the Great Recession.

Starting Monday, we’ll bring you stories of five such places.

Niala Boodhoo begins our reports in Kohler, Wisc., a planned village created by the Kohler Company in 1912. The company remains a lynchpin of the town, as well as a global leader in plumbing products. She also visits Decatur, Illinois, the unofficial soybean capital of the world and home to food-production kingpin Archer Daniels Midland, a Fortune 500 company.

Continue reading “On the road, Changing Gears explores small-town economies throughout Midwest”

Has House Lock Exacerbated Unemployment Numbers? Not Really, Chicago Fed Says

House lock has prevented some homeowners from moving for better jobs, but the problem isn’t affecting the nation’s overall unemployment rate in a substantial way.

That’s the conclusion of a study authored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, which found scant evidence of a link between geographic immobility and a national unemployment rate that reached 9.2 percent in June. The study was released Wednesday.

Using census data, the economists compared state-to-state migration rates among both homeowners and renters and found neither group had veered from historical recession rates. “We find that homeowner and renter migration rates fell roughly in tandem,” Fed vice president and advisor Daniel Aaronson wrote. “The difference is economically small.”

Continue reading “Has House Lock Exacerbated Unemployment Numbers? Not Really, Chicago Fed Says”

Midwest Memo: Illinois governor learns from Israel, plus Midwest home sales tick upward

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Illinois learns from Israel. In a collaborative effort to learn more about green technology, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn is traveling to Israel this week for what his staff has called “an educational mission.” Our partner station WBEZ says the governor will visit a company that develops automotive battery chargers and sign a water pact that encourages Illinois and Israel to work jointly on clean-water issues.

2. Median income falls in Michigan. Numbers released from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey show the median income for Michigan households plunged by more than $9,000 over the past decade, according to partner station Michigan Radio. Adjusted for inflation, the median income in 2000 was $54,651. By 2009, the amount had fallen to $45,255.

3. Home sales inch upward. Existing home sales rose 1 percent across the Midwest in June, according to data released by the National Association of Realtors on Wednesday. Sales reached 1.04 million, but remain 14 percent below June 2010 levels. The median Midwest price fell to $147,700, down 5.3 percent, year over year.

Midwest Memo: Clean Energy Could Bring Midwest Economic Boost, Study Says

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Tenure changes near for Michigan teachers. Gov. Rick Snyder will likely sign legislation that alters Michigan’s tenure system for teachers. Supporters say the law will make it easier to fire bad teachers; opponents decry it as a “legislative attack” on teachers and union rights, according to our partner station Michigan Radio. Further legislation could require teachers to play a larger share of their health insurance premiums.

2. Borders: Too big, too fast. When Borders Group announced Monday that it would seek liquidation, it was natural to assume the bookseller went bankrupt because of a shift in readers’ preferences online. In an opinion piece on AnnArbor.com, Nathan Bomey argues the retailer’s rapid expansion shares in the blame. The Boston Herald reports that DJM Realty will oversee the sale of Borders Group real estate and bidding for 259 leases.

3. Study: Clean energy would boost Midwest. A study released today reports Midwest states could reduce electricity use, create jobs and boost the economy  if they strengthened clean energy standards. The Union of Concerned Scientists said that clean-energy investment could drive businesses and create “thousands of jobs” in the report, “A Bright Future for the Heartland.”

Growing the Region’s Clean Economy

Algal Scientific's demo project at an Ohio landfill. Photo courtesy of Geoff Horst.

The clean economy is touted as a future economic driver of the region. But a new report shows that while Ohio and Illinois have added jobs to the clean economy, Michigan is the only state to have lost them. Changing Gears visited one scientist in Plymouth, Mich., who’s trying to nudge that number back up.[display_podcast]

Geoff Horst has a scientist’s air of geeky restraint. But when a little box arrived at his lab the other day he got excited. Inside were vials filled with stinky sludge: wastewater from a landfill in Ohio.

“It literally looks black — like black as Guinness beer,” Horst said.  “And so we like to tell people that we take it from Guinness to Miller Lite color.” Continue reading “Growing the Region’s Clean Economy”

Borders asks judge to approve liquidation

Instead of seeking a last-minute buyer, Borders Group has abandoned its search for a suitor and will ask a judge to approve a sale to liquidators.

The process could begin as early as Friday and conclude in September. On Sunday, a significant deadline passed in the bookseller’s efforts to find a buyer without success.

In a written release, Borders Group president Mike Edwards expressed sadness of the pending sale to Hilco and Gordon Brothers.

“We were all working hard towards a different outcome, but the headwinds we have been facing for quite some time, including the rapidly changing book industry, eReader revolution, and turbulent economy, have brought us to where we are now,” he said.

Borders employs approximately 400 workers at its Ann Arbor, Mich. headquarters and more than 11,000 overall.

Your Story: Highlighting the Midwest So People Will Stay

Andy Case is the founder of the "Midwestern Gentleman" blog.

Andy Case thinks the Midwest has an image problem. Even worse, he says, is that Midwesterners buy into the characterization of the Midwest as “flyover country,” or not as interesting as the East or West coasts.

Case, a native of Plymouth, Mich., says this mentality causes people to leave the region in search of economic opportunity. He decided to do something to try to change that way of thinking — and that led to his blog, Midwestern Gentleman.

“I didn’t see anything that said ‘I’m proud to be from the Midwest and here’s why,’ And, I think my blog is highlighting things that make the Midwest great, and why it’s great,” said Case.

“Hopefully, (people) identify with that and choose to stay in the region, and follow their professional careers here instead of somewhere else.” Continue reading “Your Story: Highlighting the Midwest So People Will Stay”

Midwest Memo: Cause of Stalled Economy May be End of Consumer Bubble

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Burst of the consumer bubble. David Leonhardt of The New York Times has heard every conceivable explanation for the nation’s prolonged recession. But he argues in a Sunday opinion piece that the underlying cause of the stalled economy is the end of a consumer bubble that had “been decades in the making.” He makes the case that it’s time for the nation to transition to an economy not as dependent on consumer spending.

2. Liquidation nears for Borders. A Sunday deadline has passed, and no new bids for Borders Group have emerged. The Ann Arbor, Mich.-based bookseller will likely continue take bids up until its bankruptcy auction scheduled for Tuesday. On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Books-A-Million Inc., a Birmingham, Ala.-based bookstore chain could be a potential suitor.

3. Ohio governor vetoes Great Lakes water bill. A state bill that would have allowed businesses to withdraw as much as 5 million gallons of water per day from Lake Erie without a permit has been vetoed by Ohio governor John Kasich, reports our partner station Ideastream. It is the first bill he has vetoed during his term. Environmentalists – and former Republican governors – argued the bill violated terms of the Great Lakes Compact, an agreement between seven states and two Canadian provinces that governs water usage from the Great Lakes.

Update: Ohio Governor Vetoes Lake Erie Bill

Ohio Governor John Kasich has chosen to veto HB231. The bill would have allowed businesses to withdraw up to five million gallons of water from Lake Erie without a permit. It had been criticized by some other Great Lake States as being too permissive. New York officials said the bill was a violation of the spirit of the Great Lakes Compact.

“Lake Erie is an incredible resource that demands our vigilant stewardship to maximize its environmental, recreational and commercial potential for Ohioans,” read a statement issued by Mr. Kasich. “While most of HB231 fulfills Ohio’s obligations without concern and helps meet the needs of Ohio’s industrial, energy and agricultural water users, portions of it must be improved. Namely, Ohio’s legislation lacks clear standards for conservation and withdrawals and does not allow for sufficient evaluation and monitoring of withdrawals or usage. I look forward to working with the General Assembly to make the necessary improvements to the legislation.”