Plain old conversation works for lakes’ advocates

By STEVEN MAIER
Capital News Service

LANSING — Representatives from multiple Great Lakes-based organizations gathered recently in Ann Arbor but not to tackle any threats to the lakes.

They came for happy hour.

“It’s just sort of a casual thing that happens a couple of times a year,” said Kristin Schrader, a communications manager for the Great Lakes Observing System, a regional data-sharing partnership based in Ann Arbor.

It started six years ago, when Schrader was working for Ducks Unlimited. She thought her organization would benefit from conversations with members of other groups – something that happened only at infrequent events with scheduled programs. Schrader wanted an event conducive to casual conversation.

And the Great Lakes Happy Hour was born.

The gathering creates “cross-pollination, in a casual way,” she said. Individuals from nonprofit organizations, government agencies, private firms and even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have attended. And the soirees feature a mix of political leanings -– evident in the distinction between self-identifying “conservationists” and “environmentalists.”

Both groups advocate for preservation of natural resources, although environmentalism is often associated with liberal political ideologies and conservation with those of the political right.

Although onlookers might expect some tension there, they won’t find it, said Drew YoungeDyke, a communications coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center.

“We’re all looking out for the Great Lakes,” he said. “We’re all about the resource, though we may have come to appreciate that resource from a different perspective.”

Poor weather at the most recent event forced a last-minute change of venue from a beer garden to a local brewery and drew a smaller crowd than usual. Fewer than 10 attended.

The event has drawn audiences of up to 30 in the past.

Schrader said representatives from the Great Lakes Observing System, Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, Great Lakes Commission and the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research attended.

Members of Ducks Unlimited, League of Conservation Voters, National Wildlife Federation and the private environmental science firm LimnoTech have come in the past, she said.

YoungeDyke said, “We get together and have a beer, and just kind of discuss the issues that are going on. Pretty informal, but a good spot to kind of get in the loop on what’s coming up.”

Steven Maier writes for Great Lakes Echo.

Book reveals history of Detroit’s forgotten streetcars

By IAN WENDROW

Capital News Service

LANSING — Detroit once was home to the world’s largest municipally owned streetcar enterprise, an industry with a history stretching from the city’s early founding through the 1950s.

Now a new book, “The Thirty-Year War: The History of Detroit Streetcars, 1892-1922” by Neil Lehto, provides an in-depth look at the origins and development of that public transportation system.

Lehto is an attorney representing Michigan townships and villages in cases involving public utilities, with a focus on telecommunications. Before he was a lawyer, Lehto cut his teeth working for a Royal Oak newspaper while attending Wayne State University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

The combination of municipal law and journalism fueled his desire to write the book.

“I had the occasion to write an article about the renewal of the Detroit Edison franchise in the city of Berkeley,” said Lehto, who lives there. “And I became curious about public utility franchises and their regulation because it seems to be kind of peculiar.” Continue reading

Hardwood trees one way to stop Detroit scars, film argues

By MORGAN LINN
Capital News Service

LANSING — Blight harms Detroit residents every day.

It lowers the perceived worth of a community and makes residents feel unsafe walking in their own neighborhood.

That’s why John Hantz, a finance mogul and long-time Detroit resident, decided to help replace that blight with the world’s largest urban farm.

He promised $30 million of his own money to renovate 10,000 acres of Detroit.

“It’s an investment in a livable neighborhood,” said Mike Score, a Detroit native and the president of Hantz Farms, Hantz’s company.

But Hantz met unexpected resistance from some local residents who saw the move not as charitable, but as a grab for land by a wealthy, white business executive.

The project also led to the release of the new documentary “Land Grab,” about the creation of Hantz Woodlands and the political uproar surrounding it.

Director-producer Sean O’Grady had heard about the controversy and wanted to find out why residents opposed a project that could benefit them.

O’Grady, who grew up in Saginaw, previously produced two other documentaries, “In a World” and “Big Sur.” Continue reading

Clock is ticking on dark stores

By KAREN HOPPER USHER

Capital News Service

LANSING — A delay in changing the tax math for big-box stores could cost local governments big bucks for generations, say supporters of a bill that would stop the stores from claiming big tax breaks.

“That’s the really scary thing,” said Greg Seppanen, a former Marquette County commissioner fighting low tax assessments as part of the county’s Citizens for Fair Share.

The Michigan Tax Tribunal hears appeals from taxpayers who think their municipality has over-assessed the value of their property.

In 2013, the tribunal agreed with a big-box store that said the value of its property had more to do with their business and less to do with property characteristics. This ushered in a wave of big-box stores demanding tax breaks and pointing to vacant big-box stores  as evidence that local governments were overcharging them.

Local governments say their revenues have been gutted as a result, and in some cases, they have to cut a check for tens of thousands of dollars to Menard’s or Lowe’s or Wal-Mart, said Chris Hackbarth, director of state affairs at the Michigan Municipal League. Continue reading

State grants give vets more counselors, faster service

By SHEILA SCHIMPF
Capital News Service

LANSING – Almost $200,000 in state money is on its way to veterans’ services offices in 19 counties, the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency said.

Another $50,000 could be awarded before the year ends, part of a $250,000 allocation from theLegislature, according to the veterans affairs agency.

Most of the county offices will use the grants for new technology and to hire more counselors. Wexford County will establish a new office.
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Service animals, not pets, qualify for new patch

By JASMINE WATTS
Capital News Service

LANSING — Miniature horses and dogs working as service animals will have easier access to public places thanks to a recent state law.

The changes, sponsored by Sens. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, \Margaret O’Brien, R-Portage, Rep. Tom Barrett, R-Potterville, and Rep. David Rutledge, D-Ypsilanti, makes it easier for businesses to identify dogs and miniature horses that are service animals.

A service animal is trained to help someone with a disability. Owners of such animals can apply to the state to receive an identification card and registered service animal patch.
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Michigan prepares for Syrian refugees

By ROHITHA EDARA
Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan nonprofit organizations are preparing for an influx of Syrian refugees after the U.S. Senate rejected a bill that would stop them from entering the country.

“We are expecting a new wave of refugees, especially that of Syrians,” said Ken Fouty, community outreach coordinator at Lutheran Social Services of Michigan based in Detroit. “We anticipate that it will happen in the summer.”

About 100 Syrian refugees were resettled by his organization in 2015. It is prepared to take about 300 more in response to the refugee crisis in Syria, he said.
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Few Access Problems For Vets, VA Center In Detroit, Ann Arbor Say

By ZHAO PENG
Capital News Service

LANSING — Nationally, a majority of veterans may wait more than 30 days for their appointments with doctors, according to a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. However, more than 90 percent of veterans in Michigan can complete their appointments within 30 days, according to VA centers in Ann Arbor and Detroit.

According to Lauren DeVol, a public information officer at the state Department of Military and Veteran Affairs, Michigan has more than 660,000 veterans, the 11th highest in the United States.

Of them, more than 220,000 — or 33.5 — percent live in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, DeVol said.

For the VA center in Detroit, the access problem is not that serious, an official said.
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ADHD contributes to higher ed learning problems

By MICHAEL KRANSZ
Capital News Service

LANSING — Nearly 12.8 percent of all Michigan residents ages 4 to 17 are diagnosed with ADHD, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics.

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, is marked by inattention, lack of focus and sometimes hyperactivity, and that can present problems for young learners as they move into higher education, said Adelle Cadieux, a pediatric psychologist at the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids.

That population of ADHD youths has increased by 39 percent since 2003, according to the latest CDC figures.
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Rural areas lack mental health professionals

By ZHAO PENG

Capital News Service

LANSING — Amid a national shortage of psychiatrists, and Michigan is among the states that lack enough mental health professionals and facilities, according to a new report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“There is a shortage of service providers, psychiatrists and physicians that are able to work with people that have mental illness and prescribe medications,” said Kathleen Gross, executive director of the Michigan Psychiatric Society. “There is shortage of funding in the state for community mental health centers to provide a great deal of service to the citizens.”

The U.P. and Northeast Michigan face the most serious shortages, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Among 15 U.P. counties, 13 are designated as shortage areas. Ten of the 11 Northeast Michigan counties have the same designation.
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