The Chamber is conducting its fifth annual community Leadership Visit to learn from a peer city; this year heading to Michigan to dialogue with leaders from Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. A total of 71 Chamber member businesses, as well as civic, nonprofit, education, and other local leaders will participate in the visit September 11-13. This is the official blog of the trip. You can follow on social media using #COMO2A2.
The first-class charter flight took off from Columbia Regional Airport to head to Ann Arbor, Michigan. Passengers were treated with complimentary beverages on the flight and were able to travel in style.
The crew landed and were quickly loaded onto a bus to get a tour of Ann Arbor and the nearby community of Ypsilanti. The tour guides briefly talked about various topics including, history, housing, issues within each community and the demographics. This gave the group a solid foundation to learn from when the topics were brought up in sessions later during the day.
The group got off the buses on the University of Michigan campus and walked to its first session at Palmer Commons. They received an overview of the city from the Ann Arbor City Administrator, Lazarus Howard. Howard said with nearly 40,000 employees, the university is the largest employer in the area. However, it’s not the largest property owner. That recognition belongs to the City of Ann Arbor in which they own about 40 percent of property. Because the city relies heavily on property tax revenue, similar to how Columbia relies on sales tax revenue, the city does take a hit in that department. However, one of the most disturbing issues they’re addressing is the life expectancy difference between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Ypsilanti has a expectancy of nine years fewer than Ann Arbor.
Growth and Development
One topic the majority of the Columbia business community is interested in is growth and development. This session featured an amazing panel of:
- Brett Lenart, Ann Arbor Planning Manager
- Susan Pollay, Ann Arbor Downtown Authority Executive Director
- Christopher Taylor, Ann Arbor Mayor
- Andy LaBarre (moderator), Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Regional Chamber Executive Vice President
The biggest issue they face on a daily basis is the public upset with the development of the area. Panel members say the biggest reason is people are stuck on the nostalgic factor of the area changing from how it was when they first came to the area. They agreed that growth and development is needed to keep advancing the city in the direction that will keep them competitive on a local, state, national and international levels. Many of the concerns, other than that nostalgic factor, is the traffic. The public is growing restless with the amount of traffic in the area. Ann Arbor feature about 130,000 employees and many of them being commuters. Lenart said to ease these issues, the city is walking a fine line. He believes the city has done a lot of things and handle issues the right way over the last few years. They have an obligation to harness growth, but they’re not sure exactly what the city’s role in that needs to be. They’re constantly talking with all groups to try and develop the attack plan.
The panel agreed to ease the traffic issue, a mass transit system is needed. In a region of 4.5 million (which includes Detroit) there is no transit system and not wanted after it was defeated in an 2016 election. They’re looking into more options, including utilizing the services of Uber and Lyft.
Pollay said some other issues they’re facing is parking. Over the past several years, the city has focused on getting people in the downtown area. That included many high rise student luxury apartments. Now the public is demanding there be solutions to the lack of parking. What many people believe just adding more parking spots will solve the problems. However, the issue is much deeper than that. If they want to keep people coming to downtown, they need to focus on pedestrian traffic and keeping those people safe and spending money. Companies like Uber and Lyft are also putting the pressure on them to solve the problems asking the city to get rid of things like parking meters. However, city leaders are trying to change the conversation with them asking how bad they want to be in Ann Arbor and how much they’re willing to pay to operate.
With the minimal amount of things like affordable housing and inventory and the decreasing amount of available development space, this session had a lot to talk about. The panel consisted of:
- Albert Berriz, McKinley, Inc. CEO and Managing Member
- Teresa Gillotti, Washtenaw County office of Community & Economic Development Interim Director/Housing & Infrastructure Manager
- Ed Ridha, Charles Reinhart Realtors Associate Broker
Housing is considerably more expensive than Columbia. An 1,800 sq. ft. home costs about $400,000. Not only is this a high price, but it also causes problems for the area. Gillotti said about 90,000 people are commuting into Ann Arbor each day. According to Berriz, over the last four decades, commute times went from 12 to 45 minutes. He said the auto and health care industries are dominate and continue to pay well. Gillotti believes one way to solve this problem is to create housing that helps some of these commuters move to the city rather than cheaper surrounding towns. To keep up with the trend, she said they need to build 140 affordable housing units each year. Over the last several years, they’ve only been able to build 50. With rent and incomes so high ($60,000 median income), unfortunately, high prices to developers are a “no brainer.” Berriz said comparatively to the east coast, Ann Arbor is extremely affordable. With that mindset, east coast families have no problem sending their children to UM and paying these prices.
Ridha said there simply aren’t enough units on the market. Causing the situation to become even worse is that baby boomers are wanting to move into single story ranch floor plans and move out of their multi-story homes. However, developers don’t want to build these cheaper homes because the margins aren’t enough.
City and county leaders are prioritizing these issues. Gillotti said they are putting a list together of all available land that could be used for housing to see what can be done. They’re hoping to have a plan in place within a year.
The day began with a bus tour of the public and private sectors of Ann Arbor. This set the stage for the sessions throughout the day.
Next Generation Economy
This session focused on exploring the dominant and emerging industries in Ann Arbor. This panel consisted of:
- Donald Grimes, University of Michigan Economics Department Senior Research Specialist
- Shawn Planko, Expedia Engineering Manager
- Phil Santer, Ann Arbor SPARK Senior Vice President and Chief of Staff
Ann Arbor is a “tech startup hotbed.” The panel agreed there is definitely no shortage of qualified candidates in the region. Planko said the one issue they have is with job retention. He said a lot of the candidates want to work on the west coast because that’s where a lot of large tech companies are located. However, they’re starting to see some people wanting to come back to Ann Arbor. Planko attributed that to the lower cost of living and the high salaries in the region. This is leading to an even stronger workforce in tech because the individuals coming back are on their second or third jobs and are ultimately better employees with better experience.
Mcity is the facility where autonomous car research is being conducted. This state-of-the-art facility is working on developing these cars to where they can become the dominate form of vehicle. The Deputy Director of Mcity, Carrie Morton, said these cars are still a way off, but are getting closer. She emphasized there are five different levels of automation with level five being completely automated and having the ability to drive in bad conditions and level zero having absolutely no automation. However, Morton believes we won’t see level five anytime in our lifetime.
Morton said these vehicles use HD maps for guidance and have laser sensors to allow it to travel on roads. She believes these cars will start on the west coast and move throughout the country. Before that happens, there are a lot of logistics to work out. Things like who owns the data for maps, laws and dozens of other questions need to be answered before these become mainstream.
University Partnerships with Industry
This session focused on the university’s efforts to foster collaboration with industry. The speakers were:
- Stella Wixom, University of Michigan Business Engagement Center Executive Director
- Bryce Pilz, UM Tech Transfer Director of Licensing
Wixom said since the university started putting more efforts towards establishing relationships with businesses, they’ve seen a 300 percent growth and a huge presence with with engagement. They have become the leaders with this model. It’s been so successful they’re now considered leaders within the higher education community.
Pilz said these collaborations are important because they’ve had more than 500 inventions go through their office. The one thing Pilz believes they need to be convincing lawyers to basically become entrepreneurs so they can process these inventions. They have a program in place at the university to do just that. They’ve been successful with it, but they need to do more. Just last year, they licensed 21 new startups total, and nine of them were tech companies. With the university churning out one company every four weeks, there is a great need for this service.
Education & Preparation for Careers
The public school systems in Ann Arbor and around Washtenaw County are some of the best in the state of Michigan. They’re so popular it’s causing the private schools to dwindle in numbers. A panel of education leaders consisted of:
- Dr. Rose Bellanca, Washtenaw Community College President
- Karl Covert, Washtenaw Technical Middle College Dean/Superintendent
- Lee Ann Dickinson-Kelley, Ann Arbor Public Schools Assistant Superintendent
- Washtenaw Intermediate School District Superintendent
The panel agreed that parents want to send their children to the pubic schools. They said the option of charter schools are present, but they’re not necessarily better and also students have the choice of what school they want to attend. Because of the option, it has created somewhat of an unintended consequence with funding and academics because schools leaders don’t know exactly what students will be there until they are. Because of this, some schools have had to downsize the number of teachers.
However, there’s another option panel members say students can choose. It’s called middle college. This is where high school students can take courses at Washtenaw Community College and will earn college credits. This is a great option for students because even though they’re taking courses on the WCC campus, they can still participate in extracurricular activities like sports at their high school. This sort of collaboration between educational entities is a win-win for each entity.
Transportation & Infrastructure
Just like Missouri, local, state and federal entities need to work together on projects. The city, county and state all have to work together to get projects completed and done on time. However, each entity is beginning to work together and work with other entities mores than the past. For instance, the Michigan Department of Transportation now works with the city to make sure it’s meeting the city’s mission and desires for the area like walkability, parking, etc. Entities have had to change their mindsets for these projects and go to a “context sensitive design” model, which helps them complete the project while accommodating for the uniqueness of each community.
The majority of funding for roads comes through the state’s 26.3 gas tax. But for local entities like Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, they also have a tax that’s called a millage. From the current millage, the county receives about $7 million with 20 percent of that going to things like non-motorized programs like parks. However, the city uses it’s millage to go towards maintenance and snow removal, but not construction projects. For constructions projects, the city typically contracts that out because they don’t have enough employees to dedicate to those services.
Poverty & Inequality
The issue of poverty has not skipped the Washtenaw County area. Leaders said nearly 40 percent of people that are categorized as food insecure are it eligible for assistance not the region. The income poverty line for a family of four is $25,000. Much of that is attributed to the high cost of living and expensive housing market. Poverty and food insecurity are some of the biggest issues in the area, but there are many programs in place to help those individuals out as well as rebuilding some of the housing.
Community Engagement, Criminal Injustice
Washtenaw County is taking a different approach to law enforcement. They’re teaming up with mental illness and social service workers to assess individuals before detaining them. The majority of the times there is a mental illness. This has helped out more than just looking at the situation, people feel like they can trust the authorities more. Honest, grassroot relationships have been developed because these individuals don’t feel like they’re being treated as criminals, but as people. This helps not only learn more about the person, but helps the courts figure out what the appropriate courses of action are.
This has also spread to the schools. Anytime law enforcement shows up to a students house for one reason or another, authorities alert school leaders to “handle the student with care” and have talk to them to see if they’re okay.