Sunday, August 2, 2015

Many Up North are still down on their luck

The following was published in Sunday's edition of the Detroit Free Press.

Rogers City is a sleepy town with a tidy appearance, expansive waterfront and coastal views of Lake Huron that exemplify Up North during summer.

Glorious summer days are plentiful for tourists, who also receive an authentic glimpse of small-town life. However, life in Presque Isle County isn’t as postcard-perfect as it may seem.

Just ask 21-year-old Becky Talaske, who left for college in Big Rapids and isn’t coming back. “There are just no businesses that offer any opportunities,” said Talaske, a senior at Ferris State University. Talaske is studying criminal justice and expects to work downstate.

The unemployment rate in Presque Isle County, which rises and falls with the summer tourism season, supports Talaske’s claim. Last year, it peaked at nearly 20% in February and dipped to 8% in October. During those months, the state’s rate clocked in at 7.8% and 6.6%, respectively.

The jobless rate across the northeastern Lower Peninsula, including the so-called sunrise counties along Lake Huron, was in double digits for six of the seven years between 2008 and 2014, according to statistics from the state Department of Technology, Management & Budget.

Even in 2014, the one year with a single-digit rate, the region’s jobless rate was 9.8%, considerably higher than the state’s rate of 7.3%.

Though metro Detroit, and much of Michigan, has rebounded economically since then, this part of the state still lags. At the peak of the Great Recession and Michigan’s much broader Lost Decade in 2009, the jobless rate in Presque Isle County hit 18.7%, which was higher than Macomb County at 15.8%, Oakland at 13% and Wayne at 16.2%. In fact, only Alcona, Montmorency and Oscoda counties — also in the northeastern Lower Peninsula — were worse, with rates of 18.8%, 20.7% and 21.3% respectively, according to state statistics.

Even tourism, which Gov. Rick Snyder has called a “strong pillar in our state’s economic foundation,” is woefully underdeveloped along the Lake Huron coast, which lacks a four-star hotel and anything remotely approaching a full-service resort.

As a result, the quaint towns of Rogers City, Harrisville and the Tawases are mostly off the map, except to those with a cottage around there. This is the opposite of the northwestern coast along Lake Michigan, a part of Up North that’s practically synonymous with the ubiquitous Tim Allen-narrated “Pure Michigan” advertisements.

Of course, tourism is hardly the solution to Up North’s economic plight.

What Michiganders there need most are jobs. And not of the sort that perpetuate a cycle where too many work in the summer, only to rely upon unemployment benefits over the long winter.

A few years ago, it looked as if Wolverine Power Cooperative would build a new plant creating 6,000 construction jobs and another 100 full-time, permanent plant jobs in Rogers City. But it fell victim to out-of-state environmentalists supporting restrictions on new coal-fired power plants by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Good signs of late have been coming from nearby Onaway, where 13 workers at the expanding Moran Iron Works just finished a new 281-passenger ferry for Shepler’s Mackinac Island routes. 

Still, it’s good news that can’t come fast enough for those from here.

It’s probably too late to bring back Talaske, but maybe, just maybe, it might keep a few of those now in high school from leaving.

— Dennis Lennox

Thursday, July 30, 2015

On roads, Michigan voters need to get radical with lawmakers

The following was published yesterday on MLive.com.

Enough with the rehashing of failed ideas.

Republicans won't pass a net tax increase, no matter how good the repackaging. Democrats, meanwhile, are just as adamant against anything that doesn't bring more in more "revenue," which is political speak for a tax increase.

With both parties increasingly on election footing as the legislative year slowly ends and 2016 campaigns get underway — Democrats hope the prospect of the country's first female president gets them a majority in the state Legislature's lower chamber — now is the time to do something radical.

All 148 members of the Legislature — the 110 members of the House and 38 in the Senate — should resign en masse, thereby forcing a special election.

It could be held this November, allowing both sides to campaign for a workable majority with an unquestionable mandate from the public to once and for all fix the way Michigan not only funds but also governs infrastructure.

If that sounds crazy it isn't. Really. Here's why.

It's exactly what would have happened right across the border in Ontario, as well as in many other countries, in the wake of Proposal 1's epic defeat in May's statewide referendum.

This is because the parliamentary system generally requires a snap election when the governing majority is defeated on a key measure.

With zero chance of this scenario playing out in Michigan, we're faced with a political stalemate until next year's regularly scheduled general election.

Blame term limits. Blame ideologues on the right and the left. Blame the special interests, including public sector lobbyists funded by taxpayers to lobby against the best interests of taxpayers. Blame Democrats. Blame Republicans. The real culprit, however, is us.

For too long we have allowed lawmakers to avoid a substantive discussion on infrastructure and, to be honest, a litany of other issues.

Think about it. When was the last time someone seeking our votes said anything more than oversimplified sound bites?

Republicans talk of being pro-life, pro-gun rights and against tax increases. Democrats say they're pro-choice, anti-gun and for a bigger, more active government. Yet what does any of that actually mean once those who get our votes take office?

With the House on summer vacation, now is the time to ask tough questions and demand real answers when you see lawmakers around town.

How should infrastructure be funded as the third decade of the 21st century approaches? Does sharing the responsibility for governing roads, bridges and public works between the state, 83 counties, 1,242 townships and 533 cities and villages actually work? Are there too many roads and highways (a discussion Iowa is having)? Would toll roads help funding shortfalls? Should major rest areas be privatized?

Everything must be on the table.

If your lawmaker can't answer or isn't willing to engage in this long overdue discussion, then do your bounden duty and elect someone willing to do the job.

— Dennis Lennox

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Downsizing the Michigan Legislature won’t help

The following is from today's edition of The Detroit News.

You couldn’t make this up if you tried.

A group of special interests in the state capital is so frustrated with the Legislature that it’s floating a constitutional amendment to eliminate 43 seats from the 110-member House of Representatives and 38-member Senate, according to reports from the insider news service MIRS.

By all accounts this effort is in its earliest stages, though it could get very serious very quickly. That’s because Lansing’s well-funded special interests on both the political right and left are masters at circumventing the normal process and buying petition signatures to implement their agenda via highly orchestrated ballot questions.

It’s safe to assume the proposal would be tied to a so-called part-time Legislature, which in reality is nothing more than a cap on the number of days the people’s voice can be heard in the halls of state government. (The executive and judicial branches would remain full time.)

Reforming the machinery of state government isn’t a bad thing. Far from it, actually.

However, the proper venue for reform of this magnitude is a constitutional convention — not a ballot question, as we saw in 2008 when the Michigan Democratic Party and its union allies tried and failed a rewrite of the state constitution that would’ve been nothing more than a partisan and ideological hijacking of state government.

This will hopefully spark a long overdue discussion on the structure of Michigan government.
And it isn’t just the Legislature that’s dysfunctional.

State government in Michigan is in desperate need of modernization as the third decade of the 21st century approaches.

The governor, regardless of who it is or their political party, needs greater control over departments and agencies. Too many in positions of authority are career civil servants, many of whom are able to obstruct, if not outright block, the priorities of the governor and Legislature.

Moreover, there are too many boards and commissions — the natural resources commission, agriculture commission, transportation commission, board of education and civil rights commission come to mind — that operate with little direct accountability. Each one of these entities should be abolished and replaced with a cabinet-level secretary, appointed by the governor on the advice and consent of the state Senate.

Other reforms could solve the longstanding constitutional crisis involving the purported autonomy of Michigan’s 15 public universities, which routinely flout transparency and open records laws that were duly passed and enacted into law.

Then there’s the issue at hand. Even if the motives of those floating a downsizing of the Legislature are pure, removing seats is hardly the right prescription.

A better solution would be to lengthen the House’s present two-year terms to a more reasonable three years. This would also minimize the impact of largely irrelevant national issues on a state election.

This would allow representatives to roll up their sleeves and get to work, as opposed to the endless campaigning and fundraising that takes place when there is an election every other year.

—  Dennis Lennox

Saturday, July 25, 2015

How American Samoa – Not Iowa or New Hampshire – Could End Up Deciding the 2016 Republican Nomination

The following was published yesterday by Independent Journal Review (IJReview).

American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands — not Iowa and New Hampshire — are poised to decide who becomes the Republican Party’s presidential nominee.

This may sound crazy. It isn’t.

Blame it on a new provision of a little known GOP rule governing the nomination process. Specifically, it’s known as rule 40.

Previously, a candidate only had to win a plurality of delegates from five states in order to even be eligible for the nomination. Now those vying to be the party’s standard-bearer against presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, the erstwhile secretary of state, must win a majority in eight separate states to be eligible for nomination from the floor of the Republican National Convention. (For purposes of nomination the territories are considered states.)

Even the new threshold of eight states wouldn’t be terribly high in most election cycles, but with 17 candidates this is hardly a normal year.

In fact, this is the largest field of would-be Republican presidents since the party was founded way back in 1854 literally right under the oak trees of Jackson, Michigan.

Even if several of the candidates drop out after failing to make the stage for the first television debate on Fox News, it’s highly unlikely that the majority of primary voters will rally around any one of the remaining candidates. The field may stay crowded right up to Iowa and New Hampshire — and possibly even after. If the candidates continue polling in single or low double-digits, that will make winning 50-plus percent in the caucuses and primaries — and thus securing a potential claim at the nomination — difficult.

Right now, the strategy for getting ahead of the herd seems to be finding the closest Fox News studio, at least judging by the number of on-camera appearances Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Rick Santorum, the ex-senator from Pennsylvania and unsuccessful 2012 candidate, have made in recent days.

At some point, however, their strategy will have to out of sheer necessity move beyond not just Fox News, but also beyond Iowa, New Hampshire and even the continental United States.

If a candidate can run the table in the territories, where the electorate in 2012 was as small as 70 voters in American Samoa, then they only need three wins somewhere on the mainland to become eligible for the Republican nomination.

There are, of course, paths a candidate could take to secure the nomination by winning a majority of the convention’s delegates.

One such route is through blue-state primaries. New York, for example, may be safely Democratic come the general election — George Pataki, the state’s thrice-elected former governor, could make it interesting for the GOP — but it’s one helluva of a prize with 95 delegates awarded to the primary’s winner. California has a whopping delegation of 172.

If multiple candidates win the eight states required under rule 40, but there is still no clear winner, then get ready for a War of the Elephants at the Republican National Convention, and everything is up for grabs. It seems quite plausible, with 15 of the 17 candidates polling at or below 12 percent, according to Public Policy Polling’s national poll released late Wednesday.

It would be the first meaningful convention since 1976, when pretender Ronald Reagan nearly toppled President Gerald Ford. (The Reaganites succeeded in 1980 and since then every GOP nominee has claimed to be the House of Reagan’s rightful heir.)

Even in a brokered convention, the territories would still matter, because the campaign would then, and only then, become about amassing the most delegates in Cleveland. And the territories’ relatively small number of delegates could be enough to push someone over the finish line.


— Dennis Lennox

Friday, July 24, 2015

Plan a visit to the Keweenaw Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula

The following was published Wednesday by Traverse magazine.

If you’re scratching your head trying to come up with the perfect Northern Michigan vacation — where hashtag-perfect photo opportunities await a “like” or “favorite” from friends and followers on social media — then look to the Keweenaw Peninsula in the Upper Peninsula.
As this remote corner of the Upper Peninsula is actually farther from Detroit than the White House in the nation’s capital it’s pretty much off-the-beaten-path except for those travelers who are in the know.

What to do

Spend your first day exploring the Keweenaw National Historical Park, which encompasses most of present-day Calumet and gives one a fascinating glimpse into life during Copper Country’s gilded age.
In Calumet, you’ll also come across incredible architecture, including brick and red sandstone buildings from when this village was known as Red Jacket and nearby Laurium was Calumet. Particularly striking is the Richardsonian Romanesque-style old fire station-turned-Upper Peninsula Firefighters Memorial Museum. Be sure to also take the nearly two-hour tour of nearby Quincy Mine, which was operational from 1846 until 1945.
The ghost towns — Cliff, Gay, Delaware, Mohawk, Phoenix — that faded away as mining came and went make for a great driving tour. Just pay attention to the wooden signs erected along both U.S. Route 41 and M-26 for points of interest.
One of your stops should be the circa 1869 former Methodist church in Central that’s hidden away on Old Stage Road. The notable carpenter Gothic-style architecture was inspired by the countryside churches of the Cornish immigrants who came here in the mid-19th century.
Between the Keweenaw County courthouse, jail and sheriff’s house and old lighthouse, Eagle River looks and feels a lot like one of those quaint little New England villages. The same is true for Eagle Harbor, located about 8 miles north on M-26 along the Lake Superior shoreline.
From Eagle Harbor, take the seasonal Brockway Mountain Drive, which climbs 1,320 feet above sea level. In particular, the scenic overlook at the summit offers glorious Lake Superior sunrises and sunsets.
At the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula is Copper Harbor, which today serves as the main gateway for visitors to the even more remote Isle Royale.
Here the big attraction is Fort Wilkins State Historic Park, which contains a very well preserved fort that was built to keep the peace and protect U.S. interests during the 1840s copper rush.
There’s also a new mountain biking trail with picturesque views of Lake Fanny Hooe, Fort Wilkins and Lake Superior. Another good ride is out to the 1,261-acre preserve at Horseshoe Harbor that’s protected by the Nature Conservancy. A rental bike from the Keweenaw Adventure Company, located right in town, is a must.

Where to stay

Perhaps the biggest thing holding tourism in the Keweenaw back is a major lack of accommodation options. Most of your options are bed-and-breakfast inns or roadside motels.
In Laurium, about a 10-minute walk from the historic downtown of Calumet, is the aptly named Laurium Manor Inn. The Greek Revival, Edwardian-era home, built for a copper baron, has been a 10-room inn since the late 1980s. Rooms start at $99 and include a good breakfast and friendly staff.
The Eagle Harbor Inn is located as its name suggests in Eagle Harbor. A small roadside motel with clean rooms and newly renovated bathrooms, it’s attached to a restaurant also of the same name (see below). Neither breakfast nor dinner are included with rooms, which are $82.

Where to eat

This part of the Upper Peninsula may be the land of pasties, but it’s actually possible to dine out and not consume a pasty. For coffee or a quick lunch, Calumet’s Café Rosetta is a big city-style coffeehouse with somewhat limited hours (closed Sundays, even in the summer).
Michigan House Café, also in Calumet, has craft brews, gastro pub fare and an eclectic interior that has been assembled since the original building was rebuilt in 1905.
Eagle Harbor Inn is a local favorite, which is always a good sign for restaurants. The fresh, locally sourced lake trout is phenomenal. Consider trying the homemade cheesecake, which changes daily.
The rustic-inspired, Adirondack-style Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, just outside Copper Harbor, is practically an institution around here. The whitefish is a smart choice on an otherwise uninspired menu.

Getting there

Driving here is actually really easy. It just takes a long time.
Expect about a 9-hour drive from both Detroit and Grand Rapids, though those in West Michigan can cut about 50 miles off the trip by taking the Lake Express high-speed ferry from Muskegon to Milwaukee and driving up through Wisconsin.
Flying out of Lansing or Flint via a connection in Chicago on United Airlines to Houghton County Memorial Airport (about 10 minutes from Calumet) costs about $376, according to a search on Google Flights.
Alternatively, airfares into Marquette on American Airlines out of Flint and also connecting through Chicago are as low as $260 through fall, also according to Google Flights.
— Dennis Lennox