“crain’s detroit business” puts ypsi under the microscope

It was just brought to my attention by a reader in Detroit named Charlie that the new issue of “Crain’s” has an article on Ypsilanti. While I object to the central premise, that we should aspire to be “the next Ann Arbor,” the article is quite good… Here are a few of the highlights:

…Cheaper real estate, a major university and the same talent pool from which Ann Arbor draws are the selling points Ypsilanti business and civic leaders plan to use in efforts to attract new investment and jobs.

Long considered both a bedroom community and a working-class industrial town, Ypsilanti is trying to chart a new economic course. The state awarded the city a $25,000 grant for a downtown revitalization plan, and business, civic and academic leaders have organized a group to drive investment using new tools and programs.

They plan to put a new business incubator in motion and do a better job of replicating strategies of leading university towns.

Ypsilanti has attracted about $18.5 million in investment based on permits filed in the last five years. Developer Stewart Beal has been in the forefront of new private projects in the city because he believes Ypsilanti is ripe for investment. He was behind the $3.5 million West Michigan Loft Apartments project that saw 20 luxury lofts built in five downtown buildings.

“I think there’s far less risk in investing in Ypsilanti than Ann Arbor based on percentage of return on investment,” he said. “You can buy real nice property with only $30,000 in Ypsilanti. In Ann Arbor, you need as much as five times that.”

Beal’s latest Ypsi project is the Thompson Block redevelopment in the city’s Depot Town area, turning a collection of former Civil War barracks into 16 loft apartments atop 10,000 square feet of commercial space. The $4 million project is slated to open in 2008….

Over the past several years, I’ve been doing everything that I can to promote economic development and job creation in Ypsi. I suspect, however, for reasons alluded to in this article, that I’ll officially switch to defense at some point. It’s a difficult line to walk. I want good, solid businesses here, hiring local people, rehabbing buildings, pumping money into our economy, but I realize that, if we’re successful, the homogenization will eventually come.

I don’t consider myself anti-Ann Arbor. It’s a good town with a long liberal tradition, and its generally well-educated and kind-hearted citizens do one hell of a job at supporting the arts and pushing progressive causes forward. With all of that said, however, I think the city has gradually sold it soul. Ann Arbor’s not alone, however. Most American cities are beginning to look the same. The greatest asset that Ypsilanti has, I truly believe, is that we’ve been overlooked thus far by the forces of homogenization. No one’s cared enough about us to take an interest. At some point, however, that’s probably going to change. How many Starbucks can they put in Ann Arbor before it’s completely saturated? We’ve already got two on Washtenaw Avenue, between our towns. It’s only a matter of time before we have one at the heart of downtown, pulling business away from Bombadil’s and the Ugly Mug.

So, while we’re all planning for the worst, and trying to decide which public services should get cut next, as we continue our slide into insolvency, someone should be planning on the other possible outcome — What happens if Ypsilanti really heats up? For every 10 hours spent trying to lure businesses here, perhaps it’s worthwhile to spend 1 hour contemplating what makes Ypsilanti special and how to protect it.

There’s lots of other good, meaty stuff in the article as well. Here’s another clip:

…The city itself struggles with revenue, and has been forced to trim services over the past few years, including letting go 14 of its 50 police officers. Ypsilanti’s largest employer, Eastern Michigan University, doesn’t pay taxes, and the second largest, the ACH plant, goes off the tax rolls in 2008.

Because the tax roll is small, the city has one of Michigan’s costliest millage rates, which is seen by many as a major obstacle to new investment.

“The reason I don’t own 250 apartments in Ypsilanti right now is the taxes,” said Beal. The city’s rate of 71 mills is 14 mills higher than Ann Arbor.

City residents in November will vote on a proposal to introduce an income tax while mildly rolling back the property-tax rates. There is some opposition to the proposal because it’s perceived as hurting the poor, especially renters. More than a quarter of the city’s population lives beneath the poverty line, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, compared with 16 percent for neighboring Ann Arbor…

And then they get into the Water Street fiasco and the bond payments that are coming due… Eventually they circle back to the idea of a Michigan Avenue incubator.

…This summer, the Michigan Avenue district had an 11 percent retail vacancy rate, Vosburg said, lower than in past years. During the past 12 months, nine new businesses have opened in the district while three have closed. Another three have received their permits to open and two more are in the paperwork process…

Another initiative under way is Ypsilanti 2020, a task force of community members established by the city this year to develop long-range planning goals for the city, with a final report due in June 2008.

A second, arguably more prominent public-private group seeking to reshape the city is called the Eastern Leaders Group. The initiative is led by academic, government and business leaders and aims to open the city and the eastern side of the community to development and new jobs.

The group, formed in May, has established three task forces, said David Behen, the deputy county administrator. They’re responsible for:

– Putting a business incubator/ accelerator on Michigan Avenue.

– Studying how EMU can help local school districts improve.

– Examining best practices of successful university communities.

“We need to re-educate and retool out there,” Behen said of the eastern side of the county, especially Ypsilanti. The task forces will provide a report Sept. 24.

Ann Arbor Spark, the regional economic-development group, is assisting with the incubator.

“Focusing on the main street, Michigan Avenue, getting some of those storefronts reoccupied is key (to new investment),” said Michael Finney, Spark’s executive director…

I could write about this one article for an entire week, but that’s all the time I have tonight. If you get a chance, read the whole thing, and leave a comment on your favorite, or least favorite, part… And make a note to remind me when September 24 rolls around. I’m curious to see what this “arguably more prominent” group comes up with.

And no offense to the reporter, but I walked by the Thomspon block yesterday and there’s no way in hell that anyone (without a hard hat) is going to be in there in 2008.

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23 Comments

  1. Posted September 11, 2007 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    Great article.

    I can kind of see the point about not making Ypsi into the next Ann Arbor, but…

    I think sometimes entirely too much bashing of Ann Arbor goes on in Ypsi. Yes, there are too many Starbucks in Ann Arbor. But for every Starbucks, there’s several more long-time local businesses there. The downtown mimics one of a major city, but still has a small town feel. For example, with bookstore, I can go to “corporate-sell out” Borders, but still go to Shaman Drum, a number of used book stores, and a few more independently owned ones. The same goes for almost any kind of store down there.

    I was born and raised in Ann Arbor – and I had a great experience. The schools are some of the top in the nation – and the diversity is excellent. The parks are outstanding. There was a lot to do. We used ride our bikes or take the U-M bus and go hangout downtown, or get a car load of people and go play basketball at the CCRB in the winter, or in the parks in summer. I could really go on and on.

    Ann Arbor has attarcted a lot of companies, but not neccesarily evil empires. There’s a lot of technology and environmental companies that create job opportunities, and to be able to have Google come in a build a division is a huge opportunity.

    The history of Ann Arbor’s political and cultural achievements are also very significant, but I won’t get into that.

    Instead of Ann Arbor bashing so much, maybe it might make sense to look at our close proximity to the city as one of our biggest assests and paths towards rebuilding.

    Now, Ypsi does have it’s own sense of character and soul – and I think it has it in a way that, like Mark was saying, we could rebuild around. Initially, this is how Ann Arbor was built – all the corporate stuff came later. I think it’s just a slow, organic process for this to happen. The goals that 2020 have layed out are awesome – and I also
    like the goals of the other group, particularly looking into how EMU can help the local school districts -which I think is a big factor in families wanting to move elswhere (like Ann Arbo).

    One thing I’d like to see – there’s always talk of re-building Michigan Ave, but what about Depot Town? Fix that huge building on River and do something there! Improving Depot Town could spill over to Michigan; I almost think that Depot Town is as big an asset as downtown. Sidetracks is always packed every night – I think a few more restaurants and bars down there could do very well.

    The 2020 group is such a great asset to Ypsi – and with enough hard work and positive promotion like this article, Ypsi can grow while maintaining it’s uniqueness.

  2. Colonel Will
    Posted September 11, 2007 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    Mark:

    While I see your point, I think Ypsi has a long, long, long ways to go before we need to start worrying about becoming another Ann Arbor. Let’s get a legitimate downtown and improve our housing stock and solidy our tax base so we can shore up our schools before we start worrying about whether we’re selling our souls. Ann Arbor has the kind of problems that I sincerely hope we’re having to address in the next decade or so.

  3. edweird
    Posted September 11, 2007 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    “And no offense to the reporter, but I walked by the Thomspon block yesterday and there’s no way in hell that anyone without a hard hat will be in it in 2008.”
    Yeah dude, totally with you here. I freaked when I saw the big sign go up saying it was going to be habitable in one year. I want what their smoking. Seriously. Until people are actually living there, I’m not going to believe it.

    And as for A2, I’ve lived in both towns back and forth since 1989. The big difference to me between the two is this one simple thing: I can walk down any street in Ypsi, see a total stranger walking towards me, say “Hello” and get a friendly response. That happens 9 times out of 10. In A2 it’s just the opposite. That’s why I bought my house in Ypsi and not A2. The people are just way more down to earth, and a little less self absorbed. IMHO that is.

  4. Posted September 11, 2007 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Cousins Vinyl – “that huge building on River” is the Thompson Block that’s mentioned. The City and State have granted a tax freeze to the property under the Obsolete Property Rehabilitation Act, which will allow the owner to spend $3-4m fixing it up while still paying taxes on it as if it’s a $300k building for 12 years. That’s a fairly significant incentive towards getting that property fixed up – and there’s only so much that can be done before the owner just has to take it from there! Once the Thompson Block is rehabbed, the Depot and the Freighthouse are the only big remaining projects.

    What else do you think could/should be done in Depot Town to fix it up? Considering that DT has a very successful regional brand, and significantly lower retail vacancy rates (essentially approaching 0%) than the regional average, I don’t know if I think it needs much messing with.

  5. Posted September 11, 2007 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    I think Mark and other Ypsi boosters are not bashing AA so much as fearing that Ypsilanti will skip the good block of Ann Arbor history (non-chained, liberal) and go directly into the municipal sea of Panera Breads and closeted Republicans that Cut Down Tree Town has slowly become.

  6. Posted September 11, 2007 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    As a side note, I put together the “investment” numbers for the article after a very last-minute call from the reporter. Value of building permits isn’t necessarily the best measure of “investment”, but it was what I could hand him on the spot.

    I gave him both “past year” and “past five years” numbers, and I kind of lament that he didn’t use the “past year” numbers, because an interesting tidbit popped out at me. If building activity were spaced evenly over time, we’d see 20% of the five-year total in each one-year period. However, the most recent year (9/1/06 – 9/1/07) had 25% of the five-year total permit value and 30% of five-year total number of permits issued, which I find a pretty interesting speed-up in investment in the past year.

  7. oliva
    Posted September 11, 2007 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Well, I have loved Ann Arbor, still do–lived there many years–but it’s sad to see, as Mark said, its soul being cast out (okay, he just said it was selling its soul!), and it would be a serious heartache for Ypsilanti to go that way (or the other way, toward Canton). What was so swell about Ann Arbor–aside from good people, good dogs, good parks, and great politics–was being able to walk in a half-mile circle and encounter a rich mix of small factories, hardware stores, university buildings, little groceries, residential homes, and on and on. Always with the good smell of cows and horses living just beyond the town. But now it’s Fancy Town, as people like to call it, and it seems to be on a race to lose its character. I think it hasn’t helped that the city administration got overrun by outsiders who are happy to see it shaped like any other wealthy anyplace. Makes their job easier? I don’t know, I don’t know.

    I hope that Ypsilanti can escape that fate and that Ann Arbor will start putting up a fight for its soul.

  8. Sidney
    Posted September 11, 2007 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    The murder at EMU and the talk of an income tax probably bought us a few years, but it’s inevitable. Ann Arbor is coming our way.

  9. Posted September 11, 2007 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    Murph-
    You might be right about leaving DT alone. I go back and forth because of the potential but I like that it is small and quiet.

    I’d like to see a couple more restaurants or casual bars. Also, once the freighthouse is restored I think it would be neat to have an artist’s market like Kerrytown does on Sundays.

  10. UBU
    Posted September 11, 2007 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    Hey, as a resident of Ann Arbor I was just wondering — where do I go to sell my soul? What are they paying these days? I hope its more than you guys pay your babysitters….

  11. UBU
    Posted September 11, 2007 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Oh, also, will I have to pose with my family next to a pair of panties?

  12. Steph
    Posted September 11, 2007 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    What if it’s just a little Starbucks counter inside an Urban Outfitters or something – that would be OK, wouldn’t it?

  13. oliva
    Posted September 11, 2007 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    UBU, I don’t think it’s individual residents selling their souls (ha, need those economies of scale) but instead that powerful creeping force that begins as a high-falutin’ oddity then becomes a trend and then develops into a situation so that good-hearted and unwitting individuals hardly stand a chance of fending it off. Or am I just being wimpy and fatalistic today?! (But you could start where Schlenker’s and the Del Rio used to be and head up Washington, veer off toward City Hall, inquire upstairs! All the while grateful for Washtenaw Dairy and the other good old things that last.)

    I love Ann Arbor. I just wish it had been able to repel some of the developmental downsides. Think it’s not too late if enough people really care. But I do think some people in charge, brought in from other places, don’t have the longtime residents’ interests at heart.

  14. Bill
    Posted September 11, 2007 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    It’s simple math. Building owners can get more from the national businesses than they can from the locals. It’s not that developers are changing the laws so that Drakes has to close or so that Discount Records becomes Potbelly Sandwiches. I’m sure they share some of the blame, but I think that greed is at the heart of it. Some communities are starting to fight back, enacting laws that require significant local ownership in downtown businesses. For a city as desperate as Ypsilanti is right now, I can’t see that happening though. Truth is, we’d all welcome a Starbucks right now. Hell, we’d even be happy to have a Walmart on Water Street.

  15. Posted September 11, 2007 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Ypsi isn’t necessarily doing well now, even if slowly-boiled Arbour frogs are sniping insecurely from Western Bunkers (unknowingly surrounded by encroaching Panerabucks?).

    I just fear “downtown strip-mall disease” might jump species, from developed cities like AA to undeveloped hulls like Ypsi.

    To further a horrid, hairy analogy: We’ll be microwaved Smeets if we don’t learn from Ann Arbor and Canton’s fates. (If we even have the power to stop the infection from both sides.)

  16. Posted September 11, 2007 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always been obsessed with Willow Run Airport. YIP is one of Ypsilanti’s luckiest circumstances. It’s been considerably underutilized since DTW replaced it as the region’s primary commercial airport 40 years ago. It could probably handle ten times the traffic it does now, with very little upgrade. It’s only about 4 miles from downtown Ypsilanti, but it’s in Wayne County so maintaining it and paying for it isn’t Ypsilanti’s problem. Ypsilanti can use it purely as a selling point to corporations which may be considering setting up shop in the area. There are a lot of very imaginative people around who I am sure could come up with many amazing ideas as to how this circumstance could be exploited in dramatic fashion, if they put their minds to it.

  17. egpenet
    Posted September 11, 2007 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    NOT IN MY AIRSPACE!

    I’ve been nagged when at relatives in Dearborn by the constant whine of airplanes over their neighborhood. And now, we have the occasional corporate jet or NW cargo flight less than 1000 feet overhead! Yikes! Why are they allowed to circle over our downtown … that’s what Townships are for! Why don’t they buzz Ford Lake or better, Belleville!

    WW is at once a great asse and a great pain in where I sit.

    On another note …

    While the Historic District of Ypsilanti incorporates much of the downtown, we do NOT discourage new construction nor renovation of existing buildings in contenxt. I give you the KFC building as an example of a chain that did a fine job building a new facility in scale and with taste. I am convinced to date that the grow local, buy local, walk-and-bike local people will encourage enough new entertainment and restaurant and boutiqie type places that will discourage the chains from “ruining” (which they do not necessarily) our fair city.

    Another great exanple is Jimmy Johns on Cross.

  18. Huckett
    Posted September 12, 2007 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    By the way, did anyone (everyone?) else get a green flyer about the proposed city income tax from Cheryl Farmer on their doors a few days ago? Mine was signed by her, “Sorry I missed you.” Is she really going door to door for this issue? Huh.

  19. Brian
    Posted September 12, 2007 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, she is going door to door. She stopped by my house on Forest street the other day and we had a nice chat about the proposed tax. I was suprised she was doing it too.

  20. Ed
    Posted September 12, 2007 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Maybe she feels responsible. Wasn’t her management to blame for much of the current mess?

  21. Suzie
    Posted September 13, 2007 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    Jimmy Johns on Cross is now a fantastic local bakery, The Queen of Hearts – you should go visit. yum!

  22. egpenet
    Posted September 13, 2007 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    Suzie … you’re thuinking of the old Quizno’s … Quiz relocated into some obscure township somewhere … but Jimmy Johns is on Cross near EMU across from Pease.

    Queen of Hearts is quite good … if you happen to have a sweeet tooth. (ALL of the few teeth I have left are “sweet.” Butter! Sugar! Yum!)

  23. mark
    Posted September 13, 2007 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    I assume that comment from “Ed” wasn’t from the “Ed” that’s our City Manager.

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