Raja Rani to close its doors at the end of the month as a result of rising rents in Ann Arbor

    At the risk of further infuriating those who see these reports of mine about long-time downtown Ann Arbor businesses going belly-up as “tired tirades,” I feel compelled to share that yet another Ann Arbor staple will soon be closing its doors as a result of rising downtown rents. According to my source, the owners of Raji Rani, which has been a part of the Ann Arbor landscape since the 70′s, have told their employees that they will be shutting down the storied Indian restaurant for good at the end of this month. So, if you’d like to hit the buffet one last time, you’d better go soon.

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    I’m sure some will say that, if they were more savvy, and provided better value, they would have been able to adjust to the rising rents. And maybe there’s some truth to that. I’m sure others will point to the fact that other good Indian restaurants exist in Ann Arbor, and seem to be doing well. And that’s true too. It’s also true that, for cities to remain healthy, they need to change, adapt and evolve. I get that. As we’ve discussed in the past, though, I do think it’s likely, if we don’t intervene in some substantive way, that there may come a time when local entrepreneurs can no longer afford to exist alongside the new upscale housing developments and chain restaurant that are so rapidly expanding through downtown.

    I know I should’t complain, as this is likely good for Ypsilanti… The less unique and interesting Ann Arbor becomes, the more people will seek out authenticity elsewhere. I understand that, and I can see it happening already. (When Middle Earth announced their closing a month or so ago, my first thought was that it would be good for The Rocket.) At the same time, however, I can’t help but feel bad for Ann Arbor. It’s like when your once really interesting friend decides in middle school to start bleaching his hair, turning up his collar, and running around with a bunch of douche bags. It’s not that I don’t want Ann Arbor to change. It’s just that I feel as though authenticity is being sacrificed in return for slickness. And, I believe, in the long term, Ann Arbor will suffer for it. Yes, people can drive out on Plymouth Road and enjoy the food at Cardamom, where, admittedly, they’ve got a better handle on complex flavors, but I think we lose something when that old white house on Division goes away, only to be replaced by something like Ruth’s Chris Steak House. And it’s not just an issue of local versus non-local. It’s also slickness versus authenticity. While I think Babo is great, for instance, it’s just not the old Village Corner. It’s clean. It’s beautiful. And it could be anywhere. It’s rootless… Again, I know it’s a complex issue. I just want for us to be able to have an open, honest discussion about it.

    As for the “tired tirades” quote at the top of the page, it comes from my friend Dug Song, in response to the last thing I posted here about long-standing Ann Arbor businesses calling it quits. Here are a few of his comments, followed by my responses. If you find our exchange at all interesting, I’d suggest checking out that post, and all of the comments that followed it. It covers a lot of ground.

    DUG:

    Old hippie tschochke shops barely floating by closes up, owners retire, this all seem very normal and completely appropriate to me. Did any of you actually patronize these businesses in years? Do you feel as strongly about the cultural significance of the decrepit head shops that have been around for decades (vs. the new “vape” e-cig etc. ones that moved in)? Can we agree that the Wall of Bongs was actually not that impressive? Can we agree that some stuff should just fucking die, and it’s the natural order of things? Who wants to live in some antiques roadshow?

    We’ve got new Asian tschotchke shops to replace them (you know, prayer flags and bowls and other incense) and tons of new, locally-owned restaurants/cafes/bars started by young (20-something!) Asian entrepreneurs in town (Lab, Tomukun Noodle Bar, Tomukun BBQ, Songbird Cafe, Belly Deli, No Thai, etc.), or young women (Iorio’s, Babo and Aventura, etc.), or young men (Last Word, the Bar at Braun Ct., Espresso Bar, etc.) – is none of that significant? You’re going to cry over some new age books and fountains? I mean, there’s even a new, legit stoner burrito joint on campus (Menna’s – “ROLL ME A FATTY”)! New skateboard companies (Flophouse!), and expanding skate shops (Launch, now also off Stadium!).

    Nostalgia is fucking boring. I’m happy to see successful new businesses here, led by new, young founders. We could use more retail diversity, but what we really need are better businesses that can actually be successful competing downtown against restaurants for rent, and/or landlords who actually give a damn (kudos to Al Berriz for keeping blocks of Liberty St. local businesses, when Tim Horton’s and crap came calling). For instance, the Vault of Fucking Midnite!!! who are taking their brand of awesome-as-fuck to GR, Lansing, Detroit, etc.

    Successful businesses that aren’t restaurants, cafes, or bars are certainly hard to do with these downtown rents, and retail is generally suffering everywhere (DK’s “give me convenience or give me death” might as well be Amazon’s slogan). If we actually BUILT UP, tech companies would pay ridiculous downtown rents on upper floors to subsidize everyone fighting for ground-floor white box retail.

    Sucks about Woodruffs, but why can’t another Green Room happen? Ypsi’s got some creative, weird shit going on, and it’s awesome (even the nominally boring library shit in Ypsi is awesome, as I can attest to, having lined up after Mark for pony rides and soap carving). There’s a ton of opportunity, great properties available for handy and ambitious and people to try to do something. But is there enough vision? Will? Talent? Capital? People who care?

    My next great hope (cos we got our skatepark DONE) is that Maynard Battery turns into our version of AS220 (like a legit, non-hovel Tech Center), and not some extension of the arts-and-crafts Art Center. Free culture for all. There are still some freaks in this town. We can shut down the streets with a circuit bending noisecore parade. Actually, that is a great idea, even if Leif Ritchie and Joe Bay and Nautical Almanac did it decades ago. Where’s our inspiration if not each other?

    We just can’t be scared, and we have to want it, and we have to work for it. Old ones (due respect) had their time. But as Nas said, the world is yours.

    MARK:

    Great points, Dug. And I agree with a lot of what you say. I’m not crying over Falling Water closing, and I actually think it may be a good thing that Middle Earth is closing as it might drive more business east of 23, to The Rocket. My point wasn’t that we should lock everything down in amber, and resist change. My point was that the environment in Ann Arbor is changing and smaller businesses are being forced out due to rising rents. As Curtis Sullivan told us here not too long ago, the reason Vault of Midnight can stay downtown is that their building’s owner believes in them, and didn’t push them out make room for the next 7-Eleven or Starbucks. I think that you can lose the sense of a place. I think that’s a very real danger. I don’t disagree that some interesting things are happening around the fringe, but I’d argue that the bigger trend is toward homogenization. Ann Arbor is losing its sense of place. Yeah, there’s a skateboard park a few miles out of town, which is awesome, and some stoners are selling burritos, but you can’t deny that market rates are pushing the unique out in favor of chains.

    DUG:

    You apparently, literally, don’t think anything of the local entrepreneurs that indeed started all of these businesses in the last 5 years, at escalating market rates, successfully competing against chains like Tim Horton’s and Big Boy trying to come in (often supported by landlords taking the long view). They are an existence proof against your tired tirade. There have been more new local successes than chain-based franchises. And there have always been franchises, including local ones.

    It’s hard, yes, and only some of them are good enough to succeed, but all of them are brave enough to try. Where chains like Big Boy’s @burger failed, Tomukun has flourished. You’d be more correct in calling out homogenization of Asian restaurants and cafes than local vs. chains. We lost some franchise record stores, but support the local ones (including Ypsi graduates Underground Sounds). We got new head shops bookstores, sex shops, tattoo parlors, clothing stores, etc. May not be what you want or care about, but they all happened in downtown Ann Arbor.

    I have a lot more concerns about the loss of any live music venue in Ypsi, and the increasingly.limited options in Ann Arbor. That sucks, and for some crappy Mexican food is just insult to injury. What are you guys doing over there???

    MARK:

    “You apparently, literally, don’t think anything of the local entrepreneurs that indeed started all of these businesses in the last 5 years, at escalating market rates.”

    Not true. I think quite highly of them. And, in fact, I interview them often on this site. (You should read through the archive sometime, Dug.) To name a few, over the past few years I’ve interviewed Curtis Sullivan (Vault of Midnight), Lisa Waud (Pot & Box), Helen Harding (Eat), Bill Brinkhoffer (Argus Farm Stop), Phillis Engelbert (Lunch Room), Paul Saginaw (Zingerman’s) and Tanya Veilleux (Safety Girl) at length. And there are numerous people that I’ve reached out to over the years who I’d like to interview, but the stars just haven’t aligned.

    So, with all due respect, when you say that I “don’t think anything” of the local entrepreneurs doing things right now, you’re wrong. I love you. But you’re wrong.

    Also, as I’ve said before, I don’t want to see Ann Arbor trapped in amber. I like change. I like evolution. So please stop telling me that I suffer from nostalgia, and that I’m just upset because some of my favorite stores are closing. That’s not it at all. I never shopped at Falling Water and I never bought a guitar at Herb David. This has nothing to do with nostalgia, or the fact that I don’t like development. So do me a favor and stop trying to lump me in with those old hippies who don’t want density in Ann Arbor. Density is good. But it comes as a cost. And all I’m suggesting is that we have an open, honest conversation about the change that’s happening, and possible solutions that would make it easier for locally-owned, independent businesses to have a presence downtown. The rates are rising, the small local players are getting squeezed, and it’s having an effect on the personality of the city. It just is. Your locally-owned startup can’t pay the $60 a square foot that Pot Belly does. It’s just math.

    And I’m sorry if you find this a “tired tirade,” but I find it worth discussing. And, based on the response that this post continues to get after over a year, others do too.

    My point is really simple. Ann Arbor is getting to be too expensive for small, not-tech entrepreneurs. And before you submit another list of successful businesses, I’ll agree with you that some folks are still making it. Yes, there are examples of local businesses that can make it in this environment. I never argued that there weren’t. What I argued was that things are trending in a dangerous direction. Sure, people will push back, and some will be successful. But the trend is still toward homogeneity, where there’s less and less room for the weird, the unusual and the quirky. Sure, one day a year we can bring our giant puppets out, and shut down a few streets, but it doesn’t change the fact that Ann Arbor is becoming a less unique city, one in which the poor and the creative are being pushed out. (Over the past month I’ve had conversations with two downtown Ann Arbor business owners who anticipate that, within the year, they’ll be priced out of the City.)

    But, yes, it’s awesome that food carts are making inroads. It’s awesome that Pot and Box opened. It’s awesome that Vault of Midnight exists. That doesn’t demonstrate a trend, though. If anything, it helps make my point. The food carts are happening in response to the fact that restaurants can’t be opened. Vault of Midnight exists in part because they found a building owned by good people who wanted to see a bookstore there. And Pot and Box isn’t technically in downtown. Sure, bright people will find a way. It’s just getting harder. And we need to realize that.

    I agree with you about Woodruff’s, though. We desperately need another live music venue. And I’ve been trying, to the best of my ability, to coerce Hassan into making it happen.

    Now let’s see if we can lure Raja Rani to downtown Ypsi.

    Posted in Ann Arbor, Local Business, Locally Owned Business, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 42 Comments

    So, who shall we vote for, Ypsilanti?

    1860Ypsivote

    While I have a policy against endorsing local candidates on this site, I don’t see any problem with opening up a thread and inviting those of you with strong opinions one way or another to weigh in on the various races we’ll be voting on come November 4. So, have at it… All I ask is that you be respectful, and try your best to keep an open mind.

    While I imagine that some folks could get worked up over the school board race, as every seat is up for grabs this time, my sense is that the only contest that’s likely to really put people at one another’s throats is the Ward 3 City Council race between Democratic incumbent Brian Robb and Independent candidate Tyler Weston. Or at least that’s the sense I get from talking with folks around town. I guess we’ll see once the comments start rolling in.

    And also feel free to weigh in on the various proposals we’ll be voting on. By my count, there are 13 of them.

    [Regardless of where you might happen to be in Michigan, you can find a copy of your ballot here.]

    Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 50 Comments

      The History of Wiard’s: From Plows and Cider to Soda and Scare-tainment… an American story

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      As a rule, I try not to talk about local businesses unless I have something good to say about them, which is why, over the 12 years or so that I’ve been posting here, I’ve never mentioned the “agri-entertainment complex” that is Wiard’s. Call me old fashioned, but I like my cider mills without paintball, apple cannons and people jumping out from behind styrofoam gravestones with bloody axes, screaming “Arrrrrgh!” I can accept the occasional, tastefully-appointed corn maze, but that’s pretty much as far as I’m willing to go beyond the cider the donut basics. When you have kids, though, you find yourself doing things you normally wouldn’t. And, yesterday, we finally broke our “No Wiard’s Ever” rule, and took Clementine there to meet up with some school friends who wanted to spend their afternoon running between haunted houses and hayrides. And, to be honest, we didn’t have a horrible time. Arlo enjoyed riding the fire truck through the woods, and, judging from the photos, Clementine didn’t have such a bad time either. Sure, I was freaked out by the silently-staring dog-men who, in my opinion, are 100-times more terrifying than anything one might encounter in one of the several haunted houses on the property, but it wasn’t as panic-enducing as I’d feared. If you look beyond the “scare-tainment” aspects, and the dollar store Disney feel of it, there are actually some things to like on the “89 acres of terror,” like the giant bin of dried corn kernels that you can submerge yourself in, and the surreal karaoke stage, where kids line up to sing Pharrell’s “Happy” one after another in the shadow of a warehouse labeled “insane asylum.” And, best of all, if you’re a loser like me, there’s the little history area behind the wall of carmel apples and apple fritters, where I learned that, about 5 generations back, the Wiards used to bottle soda here in Ypsi.

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      At some point, I’d like to write a more exhaustive post about the Wiard family, who first opened their cider mill and apple orchard 177 years ago, on the the property that is now home to the Willow Run airport. (George Wiard, the son of Lyman Wiard, who first arrived in Ypsi in 1826, bought the land in 1837 and planted the orchard. His ancestors then moved the orchard a little over 100 years later, after selling the original property for the construction of the Willow Run bomber plant.) I’ve spent the last few hours reading through what materials I could find online, and trying to determine what brought this branch of the Wiard family here from the east coast, where they owned a profitable business – the Wiard Plow Company. (The company, founded in East Avon, New York by Thomas Wiard, a blacksmith and farmer, in 1804, moved to Batavia, New York in 1876, when the citizens of that town apparently lured them away with financial incentives. The company remained in business, producing plows and agricultural equipment until the 1950′s. If you’re interested, you can find one of George Wiard’s 1881 plow design patents online. This, I’m assuming, is a different George Wiard than the one who started planting apple trees in Ypsi in 1837, but I suppose I could be wrong.) While I don’t have any clue what brought Lyman Wiard here, it would seem, based on the fact that the Wiard Plow Company operated a warehouse on Woodward Avenue, in Detroit, that a connection remained between the New York Wiards and the Michigan Wiards. (The pamphlet cover below references the Detroit facility.)

      wiardplow150As I’ve yet to really put any significant work into my own genealogy, I know I shouldn’t be spending my time researching the lives of Charles Griswold Wiard, George Darius Wiard, Lyman Wiard and the rest of the Wiard clan, but I do find it incredibly interesting, and I suspect that I’ll keep digging. It’s fascinating stuff… a family of driven entrepreneurs, beginning with plows shortly after the American Revolution, and evolving into “agri-entertainment” and “scare-tainment” in the modern era. I mean, it’s interesting enough that 8 generations of this family has been here in Ypsi, but, when you add to it the fact that they’ve morphed so dramatically in terms of direction, it’s really kind of poetic, and reflective of the ever-changing world in which we live. Weird, yes. But beautiful. And very American. I’d say there’s probably a book in it somewhere.

      For the time being, though, I’m just interested in finding out more about Everett Wiard, the founder of the Ypsilanti Bottling Works. (Everett was the third son of George and Ann Wiard, born in Ypsilanti in 1871.) Here’s a listing from the 1905 City Directory.

      WiardBottlingWorks

      I’d known, of course, that regional soda companies had existed, but I’d never heard of the Ypsilanti Bottling Works, and I’d like to know more. So, if you’re aware of any details about the company, the extent of their operation, or how they made their products, please let me know… My guess, and I could be absolutely wrong about this, is that Everette began by bottling apple cider, and decided to branch out into mineral water during the Ypsilanti mineral water boom, and that the sodas came later. That’s just a theory, though. And I’d love to know what really happened.

      As for the Wiard’s of today, I wish them well. It’s not easy to make money in today’s world, and they’ve apparently found a way to do it. It may not be a business that resonates with me, but I can appreciate the fact that others enjoy what they’re doing, and I’m happy that they’re providing jobs for people in the area. (Where else can a man confined to a soiled dalmatian suit find steady work these days?) When I first started thinking about this, I was of the opinion that their ancestors, if they could see what was happening at the orchard right now, would start spinning in their graves. (“Apples are for eating, you morons, not for shooting out of a cannon!”, I imagined them screaming.) Now, though, after having thought some more about the entrepreneurial lineage of the Wiards, I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m pretty certain that they’d be happy that their descendants had found yet another way to make money from apples.

      Posted in Uncategorized, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

      Awesome Things You Should Know About: The Ann Arbor District Library has theremins, guitar pedals, synthesizers, solar chargers, telescopes and all kinds of other cools things available for checkout

      A few days ago I found myself wandering around the main branch of the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL). As I’m on the Ann Arbor Ypsilanti Reads 2015 selection committee, I’d been asked to come in and pick up copies of the two books we’d be choisng between, and, as I hadn’t been in the building in a year or so, it took me a while to get my bearings. So I just kind of stumbled around for a few minutes, bouncing between various displays. And, before too long, I found myself staring at a large wall of items that could probably be best described as non-traditional, at least within the context of a public library. Among other things, there were solar chargers, synthesizers, and telescopes, all packed up neatly in black bags, ready to be checked out. Intrigued, I followed up later with that evening with a friend at the library who put me in touch with AADL Deputy Director Eli Neiburger. Following is our discussion.

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      MARK: I’d been aware, since first moving to Ann Arbor about 20 years ago, that people could check out works of art though the library. I wasn’t aware until just recently, however, that you’d branched out so broadly with regard to non-traditional items. What’s been the impetus behind it?

      ELI: First off, thanks for your interest in our Unusual Stuff to Borrow collection… And we love your blog!

      As you noted, it all started with the art prints. The AADL has been circulating them since it was the AAPL. And the collection’s been a big success for over 35 years… Then, a few years ago, we started a circulating telescope collection in partnership with the University Lowbrow Astronomers. The demand was huge, so kept adding to it. (We now have 30 telescopes in circulation!) Then, we applied for an IEEE (Electrical Engineer’s association) grant to create a circulating collection of small synthesizers. We didn’t get the grant, but we decided to try it anyway, and established the Music Tools collection. Since then, we’ve added Science Tools, Home Tools, and Outdoor Games. And we just launched Art Tools.

      MARK: What is it that’s been pushing you in this direction?

      ELI: Beyond the demand we’re seeing for these collections, the strongest impetus comes right from our mission statement, which includes, “We are committed to sustaining the value of public library services for the greater Ann Arbor community through the use of traditional and innovative technologies.”

      Public libraries are very good at sharing scarce objects efficiently and equitably. And a lot of commercially-produced materials are no longer very scarce. Things are moving online, and content is becoming less scarce and less valuable. But it’s going to be a long time before you can download a telescope, or a set of lawn checkers! Acquiring some of these truly scarce and unusual objects, and making them available for public usage, sustains the value of the public library, and offers a truly unique service to our cardholders.

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      MARK: Generally speaking, is this a trend in libraries across the country, or would you say it’s relatively unique to Ann Arbor?

      ELI: There are many instances of this kind of collection going back decades, and there are certainly other libraries experimenting, and putting new things on their shelves. There are a bunch of tiny libraries in the rural midwest that have cake pan libraries, and our telescope collection was inspired by a program in New Hampshire. But there are certainly tools in AADL’s collection you won’t find at any other library, like a theremin, or a resonance bowl, or a Sabertooth Cat skull. We’re also following ideas from other libraries; the Chicago Public Library recently launched a circulating robot collection, and we’re testing those same Finch Robots for circulation as well.

      volcabeats (Large)MARK: What’s the process by which you test out new ideas and determine whether or not to move forward with specific items?

      ELI: Some ideas come from library staff, and some are suggested by the public. Jody Harnish is the production librarian who does most of the development of this collection, and he does the research to see what’s available, what items are well-reviewed, and which are most suitable for shared use and circulation. We look for things that are more expensive than just an impulse buy, that aren’t needed for very long, and that aren’t needed very often. This rules out things like screwdrivers or lawn mowers. Once we’ve identified some potential items, we’ll typically get one or two to test. We’ll first do some test usage among library staff that are interested or experienced with that type of item, and, if the item is working well, and it’s easy to use and support, we’ll do some test checkouts directly to super patrons who have experience in that particular area. And then we’ll ask for feedback about the item, the included accessories, the accompanying documentation, etc. And, if everything looks good, we’ll determine if any further development is needed. (We sometimes have to create more detailed instructions.) Then we’ll get a few more of the item and prepare them for circulation, including cataloging, final packaging, and such… Then it hits the shelf, where it’s ready for use by AADL cardholders!

      MARK: Are there additional areas that you’d like to move into in the future?

      ELI: We’ve recently added guitar pedals to the Music Tools collection, and those have met with strong demand too, so we’re looking at other things that bands might occasionally need, like a portable PA. We’re also testing thermal imaging cameras now, and we’d like to try GoPro cameras too. There’s a lot of room for the collection to grow and a lot of stuff that people would like to have infrequent, temporary access to.

      MARK: What are some of the more interesting requests that you’ve received from the community?

      ELI: One of our earliest requests was for a drum carder and a spinning wheel to help turn wool into yarn. We’re working on those! We also recently had a request for the Philips Hue LED bulbs that you can change the color of from an app. We’re taking a look at those too, although that’s more of a try-before-you-buy sort of checkout, which isn’t a major focus of the collection.

      crittercombopack (Large)MARK: It’s interesting to think about the role of libraries in a word where so much written work is being delivered in non-traditional formats (i.e. via Kindle). I suspect that this is something that keeps you librarian types up at night…

      ELI: Well, only if you don’t have a vision for libraries beyond the book. This is a golden age of reading and writing. More humans are doing it than ever before. It’s just not all print anymore. But, in the 3,000-year history of libraries, we’ve seen a lot of formats come and go. There’s still very strong demand for print, and the reports of the death of the book have been greatly exaggerated. We’ll have physical media on the shelves for as long as people are coming in to check them out. But diversifying library services to appeal to a broader audience is a win-win for libraries and the communities they serve. There are certainly people who don’t read much print anymore, and it’s their library too.

      MARK: Is there any chance we might see things like this expanding throughout Washtenaw County? Might we one day see an instrument wall in the downtown Ypsi library, or telescopes available through interlibrary loan?

      ELI: That would be up to the other libraries in the county! These collections are funded through our normal materials budget, and any library could choose to do that. Interlibrary loan isn’t likely as the systems that handle it are built around easily shippable books. I’m not aware of libraries that have these “realia” collections (the library science term for things that aren’t media) that send them out via interlibrary loan, probably because of the logistical challenges.

      MARK: Do you foresee a time when 3D printers and the like might be available at the AADL?

      ELI: That’s already a big thing in public libraries. The “maker” movement has taken many libraries by storm and they’re buying 3D printers and laser cutters and such. AADL isn’t typically an early adopter on that kind of thing, and here in Ann Arbor there’s already All Hands Active, and the UM 3D Lab which is open to the public, and the membership-driven Maker Works, so there’s already opportunity to try that stuff out. The tech is also still really young and more of a novelty at the moment. Ultimately, I think 3D printing will become a staple at public libraries just the way that 2D printing did, and, while it’s a great service to provide, it was more an iteration than a big transformation of library service. Libraries have been centers of access and creation for centuries, now it’s just moving beyond the written word, as text has become ubiquitous.

      MARK: Is there anything else you’d like for people to know about the AADL realia collection?

      ELI: Come try it out! Even if you don’t live in the AADL district, you can try the items in the building. And anyone can buy into the AADL and get borrowing privileges for quarterly payments of $37.50… a single checkout of many of these items pays that back right away, without even glancing at our book, DVD, or Blu-ray collections. And we want to hear from our users what they’d like to see on the shelves, especially when it’s an item they know something about!

      Posted in Ann Arbor, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

      Andrew Clock, forced from his position as director of the Ypsi Heritage Festival, speaks out

      Yesterday evening, Andrew Clock, the director of the Ypsilanti Heritage Festival, announced on Facebook that he’d been asked by his board to step down from the position which he’d held since January, 2012. As his tenure at the festival started with an interview on this site, I thought it only fitting that we’d speak again now, as he was exiting. What follows is our conversation.

      clockout1

      MARK: So, I hear you got fired… What’s up with that?

      ANDY: Yes, I was asked to step down as Director of the Heritage Festival, essentially because of my contentious relationship with City officials.

      MARK: And this happened just a few weeks after you offered to quit?

      ANDY: Yes. At our board meeting two weeks ago, I told the board that, given our finances, they needed to ask for my resignation. At the time it was refused.

      MARK: You note that you had a contentious relationship with the City. How would you sum it up in a sentence?

      ANDY: In one sentence, my issues with the City center around the really poor business practices I’ve witnessed as a promoter of events in Ypsilanti.

      MARK: And this goes back to before you were with the Heritage Festival, right?

      ANDY: Yes, this goes back to the Ypsitucky Jamboree and a few other experiences that I’ve had.

      MARK: Going back to something that you said earlier…. You mentioned that you offered to resign for financial reasons. What did you mean by that?

      ANDY: Well, this wasn’t a great year financially for the festival. We incurred larger than expected expenses, especially for security and City fees, and donations from individuals dropped off dramatically compared to last year. When I looked at the bottom line, I didn’t see the money there to continue to pay my stipend, and so I strongly recommended that the board ask me to resign my position.

      MARK: And, just so I’m clear, how much of an annual salary are we talking about?

      ANDY: My compensation started at $12,000 in 2012, and was $18,000 this year, as a 1099 contractor. For reference, previously there were two contractors in my position, both making $10,000 a year. While we paid for services, I was the only person involved in the Heritage Fest to draw a paycheck, and payroll made up around one-fifth of our annual budget, so it clearly wasn’t going to be sustainable anyway.

      MARK: So you’re saying that, two weeks ago, you asked to be fired because, in your estimation, the Festival could no longer afford to pay a Director, given the financial situation?

      ANDY: Essentially, yes. There were other reasons; some of my key volunteers, like Malissa Eckely and Jennifer Hackett, had already told me they were too burned out to go on, and the stress, and the hours of the job, have been less than healthy for me, and for my relationship with Hannah. On top of that, it really felt like there was a disconnect between the festival board and the volunteers putting on the festival. I’m pretty sure Malissa alone put in more hours during our three week production ramp-up than the entire board put in over a year, and it meant her having to take vacation time from work, and giving up income and family time. When you have that on one hand, and then, on the other, board members are saying things like, “Well, you never told me that you needed help cleaning up on Monday,” it gets pretty frustrating pretty fast.

      MARK: So, you offered to leave for financial reasons, but you were ultimately let go for political ones?

      ANDY: Pretty much. I do know that at least one board member voted against me yesterday based on economics, not my politics, but, for the rest, I think it was due to the things that I’ve said about City officials. Once a majority was reached, the rest of the board members were not asked their opinion on whether or not let me go. I spoke to five of the eight active board members, and four of them indicated that they had not been consulted. And three of these four suggest that they would have voted against this move, at least in this situation. The fourth didn’t think such an action could be taken without a full board vote, regardless of her decision. And the fifth voted against me, but for the budgetary reasons mentioned earlier, along with all three officers. Reading our bylaws, these actions are more or less legit, if not totally transparent.

      MARK: How was the job presented to you when you first signed on?

      ANDY: The job was presented to me as a part-time, seasonal position (20 hours a week) coordinating the festival. (I was not hired to lead the festival corporation, which is essentially what I’ve been doing.) The job, as it turns out, was much, much more involved than that. And, during the weeks surrounding the event, I often found myself putting in 20 hours in a single day. That makes it pretty tough to have a “real” job on the side, which was my intention going into this. And, as a result, it’s been pretty difficult for my girlfriend and me to get by much of the time. But I felt it was a worthy cause, and I certainly enjoyed the freedom and flexibility it provided. But it was also the most stressful thing I’ve ever done in my life.

      MARK: When you say that the City employs “poor business practices,” what do you mean? Are you just saying that they were shortsighted in charging the festival too much to be sustainable, or is there more to it than that?

      ANDY: In 2011, well before I was hired, I went before City Council and told them that what they proposed to charge the festival was far too much. The YHF leaders at the time had come out against Pete Murdock’s proposal to charge a percentage of total receipts for ticketed events. Even though YHF wasn’t going to be affected by this policy, the leadership came out to say it was bad business, and, the next thing you know, the new policy hit Heritage Festival harder than any, and fees have gone up every year since then.

      MARK: So, let me see if I’ve got this straight… Four years ago, Pete suggested that the City take a cut of the door for every event held in the park. This wouldn’t have affected the Heritage Fest, as it’s a free event, but the Heritage Fest board came out against it… As I recall, the Beer Festival and others came out against it as well… And, as a result, the plan didn’t go forward. And, instead, fees were raised across the board for all events. Is that correct?

      ANDY: More or less. The $1000 per day “capital improvements fee” was the result. And that fee, by the way, is applied per festival day. Reimbursements have also been raised by one-quarter to one-third. That’s the cost for things like police and fire personnel. There have been other costs added as well, like taking away free set-up days, and there are new charges for the use of equipment. The City maintains that these were fees they “should have been charging all along,” but never did. That’s baloney, though. If you didn’t charge a fee, and now you do, it’s a new fee.

      MARK: How much did the Heritage Festival pay the City in 2014? And what was that as a percentage of your budget?

      ANDY: To my knowledge, we haven’t yet gotten our bill for this year, but I expected it will be between $20,000 and $24,000. That makes up just about one-quarter of the annual budget. But there are other costs involved too, like the security we hire to manage crowds, something that Ypsi Police Department, for all the manpower they mandate that we have on hand, doesn’t do.

      MARK: What do you mean when you say that “the new policy hit Heritage Festival harder than any”? Do you just mean because yours was a non-profit event, that didn’t sell tickets?

      ANDY: The Heritage Festival is three days, so right there is an extra set of fees. Plus we’ve got fees associated with the parade (the Ypsi Fire Department loved to participate, but we had to pay for the Ypsi Police Department presence), like paying for the closure of Cross Street. It gets pretty expensive pretty fast. Then, last year, the City stripped the “value” out of all the park fees, adding fees for noise permits and for every possible piece of equipment we use. The way it works out now, you pay a fee to close the street, pay nearly full replacement cost for each sign, barricade, and traffic cone used, for the guy who comes out to put the signs up (if they show up – we often had to close the streets ourselves), pay to rent the truck he uses, the gas in the truck, and for the officers to enforce the closures. I’m all for paying for the worker and the officer (within reason, which is another discussion) but I think the City could find some room to cut a break on the pure fees. When it comes down to it, it would have been a drop in the bucket in the City budget. For us, though, it’s the difference between profit and lossl.

      MARK: In addition to fees, were there other issues with the City?

      ANDY: Yeah, there were plenty of other things. Calls and emails going unreturned for weeks, or even months. City employees cussing out Heritage Festival volunteers. Delays and foot dragging on important documents, such as our fee estimate. Dangling a City sponsorship in front of us and then refusing to even talk about it at Council. The first words ever spoken to me in an official capacity where, “You’re lucky we’re letting you have this festival at all.” That was said to me during my very first meeting with the City, in 2012.

      MARK: As you pointed out on Facebook today, though, you’ve also had plenty of good experiences with City employees over the years, right?

      ANDY: Yeah, I’ve said this again and again: I don’t want to paint a completely negative picture of my experiences with City government. There are some people doing some really great work, as evidenced by other projects I’ve worked on, like the Water Street Trail. But this good work is often overshadowed by decisions that don’t seem to support development.

      MARK: Is it safe to say that you didn’t feel as though the festival was appreciated by the City?

      ANDY: There is absolutely no appreciation for the economic opportunity events like the Heritage Fest can provide. No attempt to leverage the people we’ve gathered, turning them into return visitors, diners, or shoppers. We spent the money to market not just in Ypsi, and across Washtenaw County, but also in the metro Detroit region, but there’s no consideration given by the City for that help in marketing. We put all of our efforts into getting the people here. It should be the job of the City and the DDA to make sure everyone feels the impact of those visitors…

      When it came to assigning fees, though, the City wanted to consider the Heritage Festival just another event. But clearly isn’t. The City arranged to have the commuter train at the festival, to promote the coming of the rail stop. I asked the City Manager, “If we’re just another festival, why didn’t you bring the commuter train to Beer Festival, Elvis Festival, or the Orphan Car Show?”

      We tried to start a new 5k race on Saturday this year, for the specific reason that we wanted to get people into the downtown district, building on the audience that had already come out for the parade. We got back an $11,500 estimate for that event alone. That might be OK for the Color Run and their 15,000 runners, who pay $50 a pop, but we were hoping for more like 200 runners at $25 each. Lots of people downtown liked the idea, but we were priced right out of that one. Unfortunately, it took until the last days of June to tell us it would be that much, and, by that time, we had already spent substantial amounts on marketing materials, all of which had to be reprinted.

      MARK: I don’t suppose it helped that you and Laura Bien have been engaged in a very public tussle these past few weeks.

      ANDY: No, I’m sure it didn’t. That kind of thing was really frustrating, because she was really far off base and saying some pretty detrimental things that were absolutely untrue. It’s very frustrating when you try to show someone the information they claim you’re withholding, and they just keep yelling about how you won’t cooperate with them.

      MARK: She was suggesting, if I understood her correctly, that you weren’t being forthcoming with the Festival financials.

      ANDY: Yes. And it turned out, when I finally nailed down our treasurer on the issue, that the big increase in expenses that she was pointing to was because we sold more beer in one day in 2012 that they had the entire year before. Not that beer is the important part of the festival, but it’s one of the few places that a free event can make money outside of sponsorships and donations. Laura was looking at our tax returns only, which don’t give a very clear picture of where the money went. You need the budget to decode that part, and she ignored several offers to provide that information.

      MARK: What was the straw that broke the camel’s back with your board? Do you think someone at the City talked with members of your board, telling them that, if they wanted to keep having the festival, they needed to find a new director?

      ANDY: Who knows… There have been emails from City staffers to our board complaining that I had complained to my City Council reps about the jobs these staffers were doing, and I got reprimanded for that too. Pretty backwards when you think about it, but we’ve still got some pretty strong, small town “good ‘ol boy” politics that goes on around here sometimes. I don’t think I’m the only person who has experienced that, and I think it’s one of the biggest issues holding back development. Officially, I was told that a tweet I sent from Bowling Green, Ohio about what a great job that mid-sized college town does in promoting itself as a destination, and how Ypsilanti could learn a lot from their example, was the final straw, but there were plenty of other things. I also had a lot to say about the City official who blamed us for the last-minute nature of our sponsorship request to City Council, when we had been waiting on her for months to provide the documents we needed to make the request.

      As for the organization, the structural problems predate anyone serving on the board or as a volunteer. When you look at long-lived events like the A2 Summer Festival, there’s careful foundation and grant work being done, along with investment. The Heritage Festival never had any of that, choosing to put its once considerable reserves from the old days into low risk, low yield investments, and calling it a day. If you’re looking to create an event that’s multigenerational, you really need to create a robust organization, not just look to see if you’d paid the bills at the end of the summer. By 2012, when I took over, the answer to that paying the bills question had become “not so much.”

      MARK: Going forward, post-Clock, how do you see the festival doing? Can it continue to exist as a volunteer-run organization?

      ANDY: I would never underestimate this community. We shouldn’t have made it as far as we did with what we were given to work with, but we managed. It would have to be a very well coordinated group of at least 15-20 people just to properly manage the planning, with another couple of hundred volunteers to invest in it. Maybe it can become an internship incubator for EMU. That was one of the avenues I was trying to explore at the end.

      MARK: When you first took this job, you knew that it might turn out like this, right? I mean, you took over a 35 year old organization with an aging board, in an environment of austerity, and you seemed intent on shaking things up. More beer. More things for younger people. All the politics aside, you must have known that it would be rough…

      ANDY: Yes, I knew that it could blow up in my face. But, at the same time, coming from the Jamboree, where we faced some really big obstacles, I thought I was taking the helm of a beloved event that everyone supported. Turns out that wasn’t the case. I have to say, though, the support we got from our volunteers and community partners still makes it worth it. Having worked with Malissa, Growing Hope, DIYPSI, 826, Ozone House, Kayj from First Fridays/Community Rebirth, and so many more, I’m just blown away by the work being done to support Ypsilanti, despite the lack of offical support.

      MARK: Anything else?

      ANDY: I would just point out that, if the City would have been willing to cut just the fees (not reimbursements for services) and scale back some of the new charges for equipment (like signs and traffic cones), the festival would have come within one or two thousand dollars of breaking even. And, again, that’s with the festival still paying for all police, fire, and DPW employee time. I have always thought that was a pretty fair trade-off for an event whose only mission was to promote all things Ypsilanti.

      It’s also importat to remember the festival’s mission in regards to nonprofits. Part of the reason for creating the event was to give Ypsilanti’s many community groups a chance at outreach and fundraising, and to this day, around 70 community groups participate each year. The festival represents the largest fundraising event for the Kiwanis, the Rotary, Boy Scout Troop 290, and many other groups. UofM, HVA, St. Joe’s and more partner for free health screenings. The local schools all take part. There are free kid’s activities from FLY, the Girl Scouts, YDL, and more. You would think what those groups alone give back to the community would be enough to get some support from the City for the festival, but that’s not been the case. A thin majority of the board has chose to blame my… shall we say… outspoken position on such issues, but I really don’t think that’s a proper assessment of the situation.

      In the end, I’m proud of what we accomplished, even if we were well short of my goal; which was to make the festival into something sustainable that I could hand off to another generation. I’ll get over any ill will that I have. I know that the actions the board took were, in their opinion, for the best interest of the festival. I’m aware that I can be abrasive and/or offensive, but I think that was pretty clear before I was hired. Ultimately, I’m looking forward to new opportunities, and finding something that puts a little less strain on my personal life. The festival was a great experience, but I’m ready to move on. Thanks to everyone who supported me over the last few years, and I’m looking forward to helping out with everyone else’s projects now. I’m pretty sure I owe infinite hours to a number of people.

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      [Still want more? Check out Andy's letter of resignation.]

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