All those orange traffic barrels can have a second life

By STEPHEN OLSCHANSKI
Capital News Service

LANSING — A Michigan company is recycling orange traffic barrels into an artificial snow surface that could combat fewer snowfalls in the future and is already turning backyards into ski slopes.

The Plainwell-based company called mSnow hasfound a home in at least two Michigan skiing hotspots – Mount Brighton and Crystal Mountain. Mount Brighton will showcase the product at its inaugural Fall Fest Oct. 21-22.

Whether the surface could address ski slope owners’ concerns over climate change is uncertain. Large-scale implementation of the mSnow surfaces has yet to begin and questions remain over its feasibility, said company co-owner, Luke Schrab.

The barrels, damaged by cars and beyond repair, are transformed into tiles and pieced together to make surface areas to practice skiing and snowboarding. They are used primarily by kids to practice in their backyards, but have begun to attract nationwide attention.

The average backyard setup costs between $200 and $300, Schrab said. To build a setup down a hill would cost a substantial amount. Also the surface isn’t for beginners or intermediate skiers. Larger slopes made of the surface become a bigger safety risk.

Simple falls on the surface can cause scrapes, he said. An entire slope of the surface would require more protection

“Even though a lot of areas are not installing it to be able to ski down a slope, there are little ways they use it,” Schrab said. One is mSnow’s development of tubing lanes to allow inflatable tubes to slide down slopes in the summer. Places that have instituted tubing lanes in the past include Breckenridge in Colorado and Brian Head in Utah.

Climate change could increase the demand for artificial surfaces.

But artificial surfaces are not an option in the foreseeable future as a replacement for snow as the ski industry is still alive, said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association.

Ski areas across the country have installed artificial surfaces for summer training and on a small scale at resorts but they’re not needed to replace a full slope, Berry said. “It’s not all doom and gloom in the industry.”

But large scale artificial surfaces could be useful because they don’t need much snow, Berry said.

The popularity of artificial surfaces has risen as a way to train and to combat less snow, he said.

Orange barrels are manufactured by private companies that rent them to construction companies with state  contracts. Instead of heading to the landfill, damaged barrels are bought by or given to mSnow by the companies that rent them to construction companies, Schrab said.

The barrels are cleaned, molded into tile pieces and an additive is applied to make them slippery, Schrab said.

Schrab and his brother competed across the Midwest in skiing competitions. To compete in inverted aerial events they had to train in the summer. After skiing on an artificial surface in Park City, Utah, they thought about developing their own surfaces.

“Those traffic barrels are a similar plastic to what gets used for ski surfaces,” Schrab said. “Normally, it is a polyethylene. There are other types, but that’s what the barrels are made of.”

Kids who crafted backyard practice setups from mSnow made them popular, Schrab said. Word of mouth at ski resort and trade shows prompted Mount Brighton and Crystal Mountain to pick them up.

Caberfae Peaks Ski and Golf Resort near Cadillac has implemented mSnow surfaces into its resort for liftoffs but has put more money into man-made snow operations, Caberfae general manager Pete Meyer said.

Used car sales rise as leases expire

By CARL STODDARD
Capital News Service

LANSING — Sales of used cars and trucks in Michigan are rising, thanks in part to more vehicles coming off leases.

For the past five years, sales of used vehicles in the state have been speeding up and still show no signs of slowing, said Terry Burns, executive vice president of the Michigan Automobile Dealers Association, which is based in East Lansing and represents more than 650 new-vehicle dealerships.

Unlike in some other states, in Michigan sales of new and used vehicles tend to be strong and less cyclical because of the state’s long-standing ties to the auto industry, Burns said.

“We’re the auto capital,” he said. “People like cars. People understand cars.”

People in Michigan have been buying more used vehicles as more cars and light trucks come off leases, he said, a trend that started around 2013.

Leasing was a popular option for new-car seekers until 2007 or 2008 when the nation  plunged into a recession, he said.

“Leasing was just about nonexistent” in those difficult financial times, he said. “Banks were under extreme scrutiny. The banking decision was to cut down on leasing at that time.”

But as the recession eased, starting around 2012 or 2013, banks became more willing to offer automobile leases and leasing once again became a popular option, he said.

Now, those leased vehicles are coming back to dealerships and are available  for sale as used vehicles.

“It creates a little bit of a cycle. That’s why you’re seeing more used cars on the market,” Burns said.

When it comes to auto sales, he said, Michigan is a little different than the rest of the country.

“We don’t have the real highs and lows in sales,” he said. “We don’t normally follow the U.S. averages. We’re never seeing extreme swings.”

At the Fernelius dealership in Cheboygan, used vehicle sales are strong, said Travis Vizina, the pre-owned sales manager.

“We’re having a good year. August was a record month,” said Vizina, whose dealership sells Toyota, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram vehicles.

He said used vehicle sales tend to be “a little bit of everything.” The dealership sells cars coming off leases, as well as other used newer and older model vehicles, and the mix includes cars, trucks and sport-utility vehicles, he said.

Sales of used cars have been on the rise at the Serra Traverse City dealership, said Jerry Zezulka, its executive manager.

The dealership, which sells seven new-car brands, was acquired by the Serra Automotive group, headquartered in Grand Blanc, in 2015. It has seen used car and light truck sales increase since that time, he said.

“There’s a need for used cars,” he said, and many of the used cars and trucks the dealership sells were previously leased.

In Sault Ste. Marie, vehicles coming off leases are popular with buyers as well, said Craig Stump, used car sales manager at Rodenroth Motors Inc., a Buick, Chevrolet and GMC dealer.

“We’re in north country, so we sell of lot of SUVs,” Stump said.

Four-wheel-drive pickups also are popular and expected to be even more in demand as winter approaches, he said.

But while sales of used cars are up around the state, the number of used car dealers is not.

“There has not been any real increase or dramatic change in the number of used vehicle dealer licenses” in Michigan, said Fred Woodhams, the communications director for the Michigan Secretary of State.

“In fact, over the past five years, there’s been a small decrease.”

Currently there are 3,615 licensed used vehicle dealers in the state, down from  3,914 in 2012, Woodhams said.

The number of new car dealers in the state also is falling. There are 1,229 new car dealers, down from 1,304 in 2012, according to the Secretary of State.

Manheim Inc., an auto auction company based in Atlanta, said used vehicle sales at franchised U.S. dealerships last year rose for a seventh year in a row.

“We are now at that point in the automotive cycle where percentage gains in used vehicle sales start to exceed those of new vehicles,” Manheim said on its website. “That’s what happened in 2016, and it will likely occur again in 2017.”

Nationwide, dealers are benefiting as more cars and truck come off leases, “which means that quality used vehicle inventory will literally be driven to their door,” Manheim said.

Edmunds.com, an online resource for automotive information, reported that used vehicle sales in the U.S. hit 38.5 million last year, up 0.6 percent from 2015.

Prices of used vehicles also rose last year, Edmunds said. In 2016, the average retail price for a used vehicle was a record $19,183, up 3.4 percent from the previous year.

“Financing was one place consumers found relief from higher prices. Interest rates were at a record low, coupled with slightly longer loan terms,” Edmunds said.

New vehicle sales in the U.S. rose to a record 17.5 million last year, up slightly from the previous year, according to J.D. Power and Associates, a marketing information services company.

Commission moves to lift liquor store location requirements

By KALEY FECH
Capital News Service

LANSING – The state Liquor Control Commission is pushing to allow liquor stores to locate closer to each other, saying an existing rule prevents competition and denies opportunities for small business owners.

The commission recently voted to repeal the current restriction, in effect since 1979, which prohibits stores from being located within a half mile of each other, said David Harns, public information officer for the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules must agree to the change for the repeal to go into effect.

Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, who chairs that committee, said he supports eliminating the half-mile restriction.

“To say a company can’t operate within half a mile of another that sells liquor is anti- free market,” he said.

Harns agrees.

“The artificial half-mile boundary has stifled competition in an industry that should be open and free for small businesses to serve their local communities,” he said.

But the move has generated some opposition from existing retailers fearing competition and legislators concerned about having too much liquor in one place.

“I don’t see a reason for it,” said Joshua Botsis, owner of Southside Party Store in Holland. “It will only negatively influence the stores that already exist.”

Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, introduced a bill in June to make the half-mile rule a law. If the rule were to become a law, the Liquor Control Commission would be unable to rescind it.

“The rule for 40 years was that liquor stores had to be a half mile from each other,” Jones said. “Now an unelected board can change that rule.”

The Senate Regulatory Reform Committee has sent an amended version of the bill to the full Senate.

Jones said his concern is the potential increase in the number of liquor stores in a certain area.

“Cities are nervous about having a liquor store on every corner,” Jones said.

But Harns said such fears are unfounded. The Liquor Control Commission cannot increase the number of licenses allowed. The commission can issue one license for every 3,000 people in a city, incorporated village or township.

“The false claim that there will be a liquor store on every corner is absurd on its face,” Harns said. “It is impossible by law to have a liquor store on every corner unless the Legislature passes a law that would create more licenses.”

Jones contends that the change will impact small, locally owned stores.

“Families could lose their life savings,” he said. “When they opened their stores, they expected to not have any competition for half a mile. With this rule, a store could open right next to them and take away their business.”

Jeff Dobler, owner of the Beverage Company in Traverse City, said the rule benefits only large stores like Meijer.

“With this, a Meijer can build right next to a Costco and compete for their business,” Dobler said. “Small stores benefit from having a little bit of distance.”

Small stores will not be able to compete with big ones, Jones said. “This allows big box stores to run out the little guys.”

Holiday season underway for Christmas tree growers

By CARL STODDARD
Capital News Service

LANSING — The holiday season is set to begin for Michigan’s Christmas tree growers, who are hoping to at least match last year’s sales.

By the end of October, Michigan tree farmers will be harvesting trees and shipping them to stores and Christmas tree lots in several states. That’s all in preparation for the day after Thanksgiving, the unofficial start of the Christmas tree-buying season.

“The day after Thanksgiving, we will open the doors and there will be people waiting in line,” said Mel Koelling, who with his wife Laurie owns and operates Tannenbaum Farms in Mason, south of Lansing. “We are always optimistic.”

Koelling has been growing and selling Christmas trees for about 40 years. In that time, he said, sales have steadily increased.

About 80 to 100 of the farm’s 160 acres are planted with Christmas trees, and nearly all will be sold to individuals, primarily customers who want to cut their own trees, Koelling said.

“We certainly promote the experience,” he said. “We try to make it into an enjoyable, memorable experience.”

It is not unusual to see two or three generations show up together to get a tree, Koelling added. He encourages customers to make the selection of a tree a family tradition because Christmas is the “most significant of all American holidays.”

Also preparing for the season is Dutchman Tree Farms in Manton, which  owns and leases a total of 7,000 acres. Dutchman, owned by Joel Hoekwater and Chris Maciborski, is considered the largest Christmas tree farm in Michigan and sells nearly all of its trees to the wholesale market, said Pam Vanderwal, its office manager.

She said the farm expects an increase in sales this year, in part due to Christmas tree shortages in North Carolina and on the West Coast. Workers at the farm, which is near Cadillac, already are busy preparing for the upcoming Christmas season.

“We are in full gear here now, taking orders, trying to figure out how many trees we need,” Vanderwal said.

According to its website, the farm started by selling one variety, Scotch pine, at a farmers market in 1972. Today it offers nine varieties of cut trees, ranging from 3 feet to 50 feet tall.

Dutchman Farms also offers balled and container-grown evergreens, seedlings, wreaths and other Christmas greenery.

Tannenbaum and Dutchman are among the many farms that place Michigan third in the nation in the number of Christmas trees harvested, supplying about 1.7 million fresh trees to the national market each year, according to the Michigan Christmas Tree Association.

Michigan also grows and sells more than nine major Christmas tree species on a wholesale level, which is more species than any other state, the association said.

In all, Michigan has about 27,000 acres in commercial Christmas tree production, with an annual net value of more than $27 million.

The industry makes an additional $1.3 million in the sales of wreaths, cut boughs, garland and other related items, according to the association. And, for every Christmas tree harvested, Michigan growers plant three new trees for future harvests.

While there will be plenty of trees for available for holiday decorating, the association warns that particular varieties might be hard to come by.

Amy Start, executive director of the 172-member Durand-based industry association, said years ago, Scotch pine Christmas trees were the top sellers in Michigan, but they have since been edged out by the increasingly popular Fraser firs. In fact, the Frasers are a little too popular.

“Fraser firs will be hard to get,” Start said. “There’s not enough to harvest.”

Tannenbaum Farms’ Koelling, who was a forestry professor at Michigan State University for 35 years, said about 25 percent of Michigan’s  growers produce trees for the wholesale market, shipping trees to stores and lots as far away as the Gulf Coast.

Most of those growers are in the less populated areas of the state, and together they produce about 75 percent of the trees sold in Michigan each year.

The majority of tree farms, he said, are in the more populated parts of the state, sell mostly to individual customers. However, they account for only about 25 percent of the  trees sold in the state each year.

Around the country, some 350 million Christmas trees currently are growing, according to the National Christmas Tree Association. The average growing time of a Christmas tree is seven years.

The national association says the top Christmas tree-producing states, in order, are Oregon, North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Washington.

Bill would create a council for beer, wine and liquor makers

By JACK NISSEN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Craft beer and liquor makers could soon see some money coming their way that originally only winemakers could access.

A bill introduced in the House would replace a statewide council for winemakers with the Michigan Craft Beverage Council for beer, liquor and wine makers. It’s music to some micro-beverage makers’ ears. The money they receive would go to researching and promoting all three beverages.

“Our bill really says, ‘Hey, this Grape and Wine Council has been a good thing for wine grape growers and small winemakers in Michigan. Let’s see if it can be similarly good for breweries,’” said Michigan Brewers Guild Executive Director Scott Graham.

Currently several winemakers appointed by the governor sit on the council, which is under the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Non-voting members such as Michigan State University researchers and Michigan Economic Development Corp. members advise the council on the best way to spend its money. The bill would remove those advisors and the department, which is the source of some concern.

“This bill removes us from being a voting member, and I have zero problem with that,” said Matt Blakely, the director of policy and legislative affairs with the department. “But it also removes other departments and people in the state from non-voting status that I feel is important to include in this.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Brandt Iden, R-Oshtemo Township, says that the industry has changed and the council needs to reflect that change.

“I took a look at the Grape and Wine Council and said, ‘it’s no longer just that industry in Michigan now,’” Iden said. “As we look at all the craft beverages — from distilling to, obviously, the many breweries that are in my district—I’ve said we really need to expand this. We need to be inclusive of all of this.”

The bill would mandate that the new council spend half its budget on research projects and financial aid programs. Blakley doesn’t like those restrictions.

“In the current Grape and Wine Council, members decide how the money is to be spent,” he said. “I would support letting the industry members as part of this new council choose how this money is to be spent. It’s the council’s money and they should get to decide how it’s spent.”

Last year, the council received $550,000 from small winemaker, brewery and distillery licenses that the Liquor Control Commission passes on. Under the new proposed legislation, the council would receive no additional funds.

But Iden said he hopes to work with the appropriations committee to get extra money for the council.

“That’s the next step, and I need to get the framework in place first and then I can look at some specifics of where those dollars could come from in the budget process,” he said.

The research supported by the council focuses on methods of planting, growing and insect and disease prevention. Adding beer and distillers to the group would mean looking into hop and barley production, a prospect that’s of particular interest to the Michigan Craft Distillers Association.

Local distillers  usually get their ingredients from out of state, said John O’Conner, the president of the distillers group.

If researchers could look for ways to more profitably grow those ingredients in Michigan, that would be great, he said

“We’ve had no seat at the table in the past, so we just appreciate getting tacked onto it,” he said.

New to the craft industry, the distillers association started in 2014 and now has about 30 members.

The Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association, which represents distributors, likes the proposal but remains officially neutral.

“Expanding the scope to include all of the craft manufacturers is probably a good thing,” said Spencer Nevins, the group’s president.

The distillers association hasn’t analyzed its Michigan revenues. Michigan wine generates $4.9 billion in economic activity, reports WineAmerica, a national industry analyst. Michigan’s beer industry is worth $10.5 billion, according to the National Beer Wholesalers Association and the Beer Institute.

Michigan has almost 200 craft breweries and 195 wine producers.

The bill has been referred to the House after the Regulatory Reform committee voted it out.

Local governments seek help to regain big box tax revenue

By CHAO YAN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Local governments continue to fight recent changes in valuing commercial properties that they say have cost them $100 million in lost tax revenue since 2013.

The problem, according to local officials and some lawmakers, is that the state’s Tax Tribunal is using methods to assess “big-box” retailers like Target and Menard’s based on sales of similar, vacant properties, often called “dark stores,” whose true value is not reflected.

That’s a shift from evaluating a store’s tax value based on more complete factors such as the cost of constructing the building and the amount of income it generates. Now, big retailers are appealing assessments and winning big tax breaks across the state.

Rep. David Maturen, R-Vicksburg, and dozens of co-sponsors are again pushing to solve the issue by insisting that the tribunal take more information into account when reviewing assessment appeals for any commercial property. Continue reading

Past pay should not affect women’s income, Dems say

By CAITLIN TAYLOR

Capital News Service

LANSING — Many women were forced to take pay cuts to do work they were overqualified for during the economic recession, Rep. Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, said.

And now they’re being penalized for it, Greig said.  

As women seek new positions, their future salaries or hourly wages are often based on previous compensation — even though their skills and experience would suggest higher pay. This, among other factors, creates a disparity between men and women’s pay known as the “gender wage gap.”

In Michigan, women earned an average of 74 percent of what men made in median annual earnings for full-time, year-round workers in 2015, according to the American Association of University Women. That’s worse than the national average of 80 percent. Continue reading

40 percent of households struggle in Michigan, study shows

By CHAO YAN

Capital News Service

LANSING — While state officials celebrate the plunge of Michigan’s unemployment rate from its 14.9 percent peak in 2009 to around 5 percent today, more than a million families are missing the party.

Some 40 percent of Michigan households, or 1.53 million, are considered as either living in poverty or among the state’s working poor, according to a new report from the Michigan Association of United Ways.

That group includes both the 15 percent of households living beneath the federal poverty level and the 25 percent of struggling households that earn too much to meet poverty standards but not enough to afford basic household needs.

The United Way, a nongovernmental health and human services provider, reached these conclusions after studying income and employment in the state from 2007 to 2015. Continue reading

If you want to find all the cops, they’re buying all the doughnut shops

By CARL STODDARD

Capital News Service

LANSING — What started as a simple rescue mission for nine Clare police officers has turned into breakout business success.

The nine officers, who made up Clare’s entire police force, learned that a longtime bakery and doughnut shop in their hometown was about to close. So they joined forces and bought the business in 2009.

Today it is called Cops & Doughnuts and is drawing customers from all over the world. The company also has rolled out other shops, called “precincts,” in Ludington, Gaylord, Bay City and South Bend, Indiana.

This summer, a fifth precinct is expected to open in Mt. Pleasant, according to Alan “Bubba” White, vice president of the Cops & Doughnuts chain. Continue reading

Small businesses warned against cyberattacks

BY CHAO YAN

Capital News Service

LANSING — An unwitting business employee clicks the wrong link and suddenly finds her files have been locked. A message flashes on the screen: You can have your data back, for a price.

Small businesses are falling prey to such “ransomware,” a type of cyber attack and one of a variety of networking threats companies now face.

“Small business is vulnerable to a wide variety of cyber threats, like web-based attack, scripting, phishing, ransomware…and ransomware is huge in Michigan currently,” said Zara Smith, the strategic programs manager for the Michigan Small Business Development Center. Continue reading