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Wednesday, October 26,2011

Yes, we have bananas

Bob Trezise Jr. moves on, albeit just a few blocks from Washington Square to Michigan Avenue: An exit interview

by Lawrence Cosentino

Economic development types live by Power Point-y principles. Strategize comprehensively. Collaborate regionally. Measure outputs.


Bob Trezise Jr., president and CEO of the Lansing Economic Development Corp. and part-time poet, added an exotic variation: When your banana tree brushes the ceiling, move on.


Two conspicuous organisms in Trezise’s office have achieved significant growth in the past six years, but only one of them is portable. Therefore, Trezise will soon have to part with his 12-foot-tall companion and listening post. 


“We don’t know how to get it out of here,” Trezise shrugged.


Beginning Nov. 7, Trezise, 45, will head the nonprofit Lansing Economic Area Partnership, or LEAP, a public and private regional development group.


The banana tree isn’t the only thing in Trezise’s office that is facing limits.


Cities and townships are tightening their belts. State officials are looking for ways to yank the tax incentives that Trezise and his boss, Mayor Virg Bernero, leveraged into a string of urban renewal coups in Lansing.


“We have very few projects right now,” Trezise said. “The banks are in almost total lockdown, and there’s enormous uncertainty about incentives.”


But Trezise senses a big sea change.


“It looks like, finally, regional cooperation is actually going to happen,” he said. “Until now, it’s been a fit and a start, a few modest examples here and there, but nothing real.”


A new cooperative landscape is already taking shape in Michigan. Earlier this month, the Collaborative Development Council, a group of senior development gurus, came to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and the Michigan Economic Development Council with a map that breaks the state into 10 development regions. Trezise said LEAP is poised to be the lead agency for the region covering Clinton, Ingham and Eaton counties.


Trezise is already hip-deep in regional work at LEDC. Last week, he shuttled from his downtown office to the Capital Region Regional Airport, working on tax sharing agreements with neighboring DeWitt Township to put together an “aerotropolis” straddling both jurisdictions. 


Another hot item on Trezise’s plate is the proposed sale of the Red Cedar Golf Course, which the city argues would jump-start development along the Michigan Avenue Corridor that connects MSU, East Lansing, Lansing Township and Lansing.


“So in a strange way, that’s what our office is primarily doing anyway,” Trezise said.


LEAP, formed in 2007, is often described as “troubled,” but Trezise thinks the agency is poised to lead — with the right top banana.


“Now the pressures are great on municipalities, and you’re going to see a great evolution in how government is operated,” he said. “I find that very interesting.”


He’s keen to flex the same organizational skills he used at the LEDC when he took charge of the quasi-municipal agency in 2006, championed by the newly elected mayor.


Early in Trezise’s tenure at LEDC, a prospective investor took him aside and told him the agency’s former headquarters on North Washington Square was a “total embarrassment.”


“It was a basement with cockroaches and mice and the entrance was off of an alley,” Trezise said. With Bernero’s approval, the LEDC leased offices at ground level of the newly renovated Arbaugh Building downtown, with big windows suited for nurturing investors and other living things.


While Trezise was unpacking, community activist Jessica Yorko, now a Lansing City Councilwoman, brought him a 3-foot-tall banana tree, some plant food, a little scoop, a spray bottle and care instructions simple enough “for an idiot.”


“For the whole six years I’ve been here, talking to this tree every morning,” he said.


The tree still hasn’t produced a banana, but the conversations seem to have borne fruit. The LEDC offices are studded with awards and mementoes, many of them marking the administration’s signature achievement, the redevelopment of the derelict Ottawa Power Station into the world headquarters of the Accident Fund Insurance Co. of America.


Next to the Ottawa project, Trezise is most proud of the scrambling and re-organization of Lansing’s Principal Shopping District into Downtown Lansing Inc. Trezise’s choice to lead the agency, Mindy Bilodeau, quickly organized a series of new downtown events. Last week, the office was buried in boxes of Halloween candy for Trick or Treat on the Square, which drew 15,000 people downtown last year. 


“I couldn’t believe the capital city could have a downtown with basically no festivals, summertime activities, sidewalk sales,” Trezise asked.


For some, the city’s controversial plan to tear down the old City Market and build a new one as part of a larger riverfront development was the zenith of the Bernero administration’s my-way-or-else hubris, but Trezise doesn’t see it that way.


“It wasn’t a low point, it was one of the greatest high points,” Trezise said. “We won. People are going to be living and working down there. We changed the riverfront.”


For all his reputation as a hard charger, Trezise has a softer side. He has written hundreds of poems, which he shows mainly to friends and family.


“They’re mostly about nature, modern man, how do we fit in, the pressures of family life,” he said.


“Lansing Evening” describes a sunset over the Capitol: “The sky rivers of blues, yellows, oranges and reds/Drain from the basin of space.”


In another poem, “A City’s Ghost,” the poet and CEO arrives at work early in the morning. “I stand still, the only soul in the city,” he muses. It’s a lyrical image, easily translated into PowerPoint for his new staff at LEAP: Be at work before everybody else.

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