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Wednesday, December 30,2009

The three wise locals

A look back at the decade with MSU President Lou Anna Simon, former Lansing Mayor David Hollister and developer Joel Ferguson

by Neal McNamara
City Pulse had only published two issues by the time the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 happened. In the Sept. 26, 2001 issue, we interviewed several local residents about where they were during the attacks and their reaction to them. One of those people was David Hollister, then the mayor of Lansing.

“My hope is that our response will be multi-national, in order to minimize the unforeseen consequences. That means keeping the European, Arabic and Asian communities with us. That then isolates the terrorists and treats them for what they are — extremists — and allows for military retribution and allows for sanctions that can isolate them and starve them rather than bomb them out of existence,” Hollister said of what the U.S.’s response should be. “To me, that’s the best-case scenario.”


It was a strange and awful way to begin a decade that had already hosted the most jarring political controversy — the dubious election of George W. Bush — in recent history, which set a tone of division between blue and red, right and left, and a lot of people lost in the middle. Though 2001 brought terrorism and extreme destruction like we’ve never known, we also got the iPod, the collapse of Enron, this newspaper (August 2001), and the opening of the General Motors Lansing Grand River assembly plant.


All of those things shaped this decade in some fashion. The iPod, now 8 years old, was arguably the most revolutionary advancement in personal technology ever. Enron gave us a hint of just how awfully corporate America behaves; years later our banking system would virtually collapse under evil loan practices, the results of which you can see in foreclosed homes all around Lansing. And who would have guessed that three years after GM opened one if its most advanced auto plants here, it and Chrysler would file for bankruptcy?


And, of course, eight years later, Hollister’s hopes for a reasonable response to Sept. 11 would be completely dashed, with a country still involved in two wars — one of which, Afghanistan, has been going on since shortly after Sept. 11 and was recently expanded.


“It’ s been a terrible blunder. The invasion of Iraq without international support eroded the unity that was there after attack,” he said last week during a radio forum discussing the last decade, the “naughty aughts” (though, that’s probably too sedate — “awful aughts” is more like it).


We interviewed Hollister, Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon and developer/ MSU Trustee Joel Ferguson. (A podcast is available at www.lansingcitypulse.com.) These three luminaries, we thought, were the best locals to guide us through the events of the decade. All are masters of their respective fields. Hollister was mayor of Lansing for more than a decade (the more prosperous and less globally tumultuous 1990s, but also for a few years in the new millennium), and now the head of the MSU-funded Prima Civitas, a community and economic development nonprofit; Ferguson was the first black Lansing City Councilman (1967); he’s an MSU trustee, and a powerful developer. Simon has been at the helm of MSU since 2004 after taking over for Peter McPherson (a neo-con who helped reconstruct Iraq after we invaded it), and has seen the university through accomplishments like the Zaha Hadid-designed Eli Broad art museum, which she says is going to break ground in March, and the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams that will one day allow researchers to look inside the tiniest bits of the universe from a building on campus.


The verdict from the three was that this decade has been a tough one. The events of the last 10 years might have even signaled the decline of the United States as a superpower. In Michigan, our economy has continued downward, especially in the arena of investment in education.


"We’ve lost a little bit of our swagger, and I think it’s been for our ill," Simon said, referring to the terrorist attacks and the vulnerability it exposed in our national security, and our psyche.


Ferguson, Hollister and Simon were asked to put a stamp on the decade. All three just said "the economy." Though not quite a headline, that phrase has become common over the past few years as a euphemism for all the economic horror we’ve endured, from Ponzi schemes, to mass foreclosures, to government bailouts. Michigan has had an awful decade from an economic standpoint. Our unemployment rate has been the highest in the country since 2003, and remains that way at the end of the decade: 14.7 percent in November, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, and speculated as high as 50 percent in Detroit. Since 2002, Gov. Jennifer Granholm has been liege of this recession-stricken land. Granholm’s leadership has brought jobs to the state, but not enough to turn the tide of a declining auto industry. Plus, she’s had to deal with a polarized Legislature.


"She is a strong person who tries to get along with everyone," Ferguson said.


"There’s no way that a governor could’ve prevented the bleeding of the auto industry as a matter of state policy," Simon said.


"The wheels came off the buggy the day she walked in. She inherited the worst economic storm to impact a state," Hollister said.


Hollister and Simon wished that Granholm had been quicker to embrace the "green" economy. Ferguson said that Granholm never played hardball with her opponents, Republican legislators, by, say, taking money away from their districts because it would not have been for the good of the state.


"History is going to be good to her," he said. "She has a vision."


On a local level, Lansing saw a change in its CEO — that is, mayor — twice following Hollister, who shepherded in the new millennium. In 2003 Tony Benavides, Lansing’s first Hispanic mayor, took over. Benavides was defeated in 2005 by Virg Bernero. Hollister focused much of his attention on economic development; his leadership saw the construction of the new GM plant and Oldsmobile Stadium and its team, the Lansing Lugnuts, among other developments.


Benavides continued this, though some say tepidly, with developments like the Stadium District, which was completed in 2008. Bernero continued a focus on economic development, though critics say he has focused too much on downtown. Bernero and his staff scored a huge victory
in 2007 when a deal was sealed for the Accident Fund insurance company
to renovate and move into the longvacant Ottawa Power Station. Though
most of the new developments announced during Bernero’s tenure have
either been put on the back burner (there’s that "the economy"), the
Ottawa Power Station and the controversial Lansing City Market deal
have shined through. Now, Bernero has his sights set on being governor.


In
response to a question about China’s rise as a superpower, Ferguson
took the issue from international to local. In America, and in Lansing,
he said, "We’ve lost a dog around here." Ferguson described a meeting
he attended in the Moores Park neighborhood before the November
election about a spate of shootings in Lansing. The problem, Ferguson
said, was being approached in the wrong way.


"We
feel that we have a case of babies having babies, and a high dropout
rate; we have no playground program in the summer; we have our schools
locked in the evening. We feel the way we solve this problem of all
these people who are disconnected and shooting each other and doing
things is to have more police. We’re busy attacking the front side of
life as opposed to the back side," Ferguson said.


Ferguson
said that at the meeting, Lansing Police Chief Mark Alley told
residents that the department could use a grant to hire a new police
officer. Ferguson questioned whether the addition of a new police
officer would solve social problems that incubate violence in our
streets. Just like hopes that the answer to Sept. 11 would be to
isolate and eliminate the terrorists rather than all-out war.


"We’re
chasing a bogeyman to our own detriment," Ferguson said of the U.S.
response to terrorism. "Which hurts us more than if they’d crashed into
another building."


The answer, Ferguson said, isn’t totally just to hire new police officers, but to talk more about education and job creation.


In
response to a question about whether this was a "lost decade" for the
state — as pronounced by former Gov. John Engler — Ferguson gave an
answer with a developer’s spin: "It’s hard to talk about a building
that’s falling down when you left it without a foundation."


Hollister
said that there are plenty of things to note that happened in this
decade — the rise of the Internet technology and insurance industries
in mid-Michigan — that will benefit us the next decade.


Concerning the possible decline of America, and China’s rise, there are things China is doing that America and Michigan are not.


"They’re investing in higher education," Hollister said. "They’re leaving us in the dust."


China
didn’t melt down economically in the Aughts because it invested in
education and has engaged its middle class in the building of its
economy.


"It really isn’t a new playbook," Simon said. "(China) is willing to pay for it and they’re willing to expect it.”


Ferguson
and Hollister, both Democrats, said that historians will frown upon the
leadership of George W. Bush. His administration guided us through
terrorism, Hurricane Katrina and the beginning of the financial
collapse. Simon, who referred to herself as apolitical, withheld
judgment.


"He will
be judged (by history) worse than what we think of him today," Ferguson
said, posting blame, too, on the men and women Bush chose to help him
run the country (a special nod from Ferguson went to Michael "Brownie"
Brown, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for his
botched response to Katrina.)


"I
think he will be one of the bottom five presidents in history,"
Hollister said citing a decade dominated by a larger gap between the
rich and the poor, pernicious anti-intellectual and anti-international
policies, and domestic policy driven by ideology.


But,
the decade also ended with the election of Barack Obama, America’s
first black president, who spread a message of "hope and change." As
hopeful as Obama’s message was, his style of governance is emerging as
more pragmatic than might have been expected. Obama symbolized not only
a break from Bush but also as America moving itself forward.


The three agreed that of all the elections over the past decade, the 2008 presidential election was the most important.


"We
have come a long way. When he was elected, I cried. I didn’t think I
had the capacity to cry over an election, except maybe if I had lost
one," Hollister said.


“The
most important one is the one we lost, which made the most important
one the one that we won,” Ferguson said, referring to the 2000
election, which made the retaking of the White House by Democrats in
2008 the most important election.


Looking forward, Michigan’s most important priority may be to raise taxes to support higher education and K-12 public schools.


"There’s
no more important priority than higher education and K-12 schools, and
maybe preschool," Hollister said. It may take the broadening of the
sales tax, or new "sin" taxes, but it must be done, he said.


“We
don’t have enough time for this slowchurn incremental change,” Simon
said, referring to an overhaul of the state’s taxes and investment in
education.


Ferguson
also views raising taxes to support education as highly important, but
also reforming sentencing so that prisons are not overcrowded and
sucking from a pot of money that should be going toward education.


For
Simon, the future for MSU will be of the continued work on FRIB and
groundbreaking for the Eli Broad Museum on March 16. Hollister predicts
that the next decade will see the emergence of universities as a strong
economic development tool in the state. Ferguson says he’s got some new
development projects in the works, and, as an MSU trustee, he will
continue to support Simon’s efforts as president.


"We have to deal with the front side of life more effectively. We’re still in this backside mentality," Ferguson said.

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