Tuesday, December 16, 2014

In Detroit, a city is somewhat abuzz

The following is from today's edition of The Morning Sun.

Sunday’s vibrant atmosphere with the Lions winning, a concert by the acclaimed Andrea Bocelli and Christmas festivities in Campus Martius Park here in downtown Detroit wasn’t planned, but it certainly felt that way.
In a way, it was kind of fitting for Detroit, which days earlier had emerged from the uncertainty of bankruptcy. 
Down Woodward Avenue from Grand Circus Park through Campus Martius Park and all along Jefferson Avenue, the Christmas lights illuminated the city’s streets and cast a lovely glow on the grand architecture of Detroit.
There were the Lions fans going to restaurants and bars, the boondoggle People Mover taking concert-goers to Joe Louis Arena and the young families with children skating on the outdoor rink in Campus Martius Park beneath the city Christmas tree and the Civil War-era Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.
For a moment, one might have thought they were in another city, perhaps Toronto or even Chicago, but then you noticed few of the people were carrying shopping bags.
This isn’t the scene along Chicago’s Magnificent Mile or in Toronto on Bloor Street, especially a week plus several days out from Christmas. 
In those cities, hordes of shoppers would be going in and out of the iconic Marshall Field-turned-Macy’s on State Street or the flagship Hudson’s Bay at the intersection of Yonge and Queen Street West.
Sadly, Detroit has none of this.
For everything good happening or on the verge of happening in Detroit the city lacks the type of significant retail businesses that would keep visitors downtown instead of driving out to the suburbs to do their shopping at Oakland County malls.
Imagine being the couple I sat next to at the Bocelli concert.
They drove four hours from Barrie, a Canadian city on the shores of Lake Simcoe about an hour north of Toronto, to spend $700 on tickets and another $16 on drinks. Then there were hotel and other expenses, though they probably didn’t spend as much as they might have if Detroit had somewhere for them to spend their converted loonies. 
While the Canadian dollar was on par with the U.S. dollar — it’s taken a fall of late — it is still considerably more expensive to buy the exact same item on the other side of the Detroit River. This would explain why Ontario license plates are hardly an uncommon sight at Somerset Collection or Ikea.
Detroit is uniquely positioned with the 177,000 or so Canadians just across the river being closer to downtown than those Michiganders living in far-flung suburbs.
However, little can be done to target this vast market when downtown Detroit has only sports, gambling and entertainment. 
A wise idea would be to either suspend the sales tax in border areas from Black Friday to Christmas or, better yet, rebate the sales tax on purchases throughout the year by non-resident visitors.
The trickle-down impact of increased economic activity would more than make up for not only the costs of retail development, but any immediate drop in the state treasury’s revenue coffers as a result of sales tax rebates.
— Dennis Lennox

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Seven history lessons, experienced firsthand in England

The following is from today's The Morning Sun.

To really understand the American experience one needs to know something about British history until the time of America’s independence.
And there is no better way to learn about this shared Anglo-American history than by experiencing it firsthand.
That’s precisely what I did this past May, when I spent five days in Wiltshire and Hampshire, two English counties with a rich history.
My trip started in Winchester, which today is the county seat of Hampshire but was once a medieval English capital. From there, it was off to Wiltshire, where I pondered mysterious ancient stone monuments, visited Cotswold villages, discovered the wealth and power of the aristocracy and last, but not least, saw the best preserved original copy of Magna Carta.
Here are seven of the historical lessons I experienced first hand:
1. History around every corner
Winchester is full of history best discovered on foot with a private tour from guide Mike Craze (bookable by sending an e-mail to mrcraze@aol.com). The 11th century Winchester Cathedral is particularly notable for being one of the longest cathedrals in Christendom, however, an astute eye studies the cathedral’s north and south transepts, where visually different architectural styles are not unlike the way tree rings can be used for dating.
2. Praising on high
Just outside the cathedral precincts is St. Swithun-upon-Kingsgate Church, which sits atop the remnants of Winchester’s medieval city walls. This is one of the most unusual churches you will ever see.
3. If these walls could talk
Dinner at the Chesil Rectory turns into a historical experience, as the gourmet restaurant is housed in a circa 1450 English half-timbered, twin-gabled building. 
4. Puzzling ancient wonders 
Stonehenge is one of the most recognizable British landmarks, though a similar grouping of standing stones in nearby Avebury is largely off the map. And in Avebury, unlike Stonehenge, you can even strike a pose with one of the mysterious stones for the perfect Instagram #selfie. 
5. Quintessentially English
Castle Combe and Lacock are among the prettiest villages in a country where so much of what it means to be English has been defined by the countryside with its villages, towns and hamlets. The lost-in-time peacefulness of these two Cotswold villages has been the backdrop for several movies, including “War Horse” in 2011.
6. It’s in the blood
Bowood House, the palatial 18th century seat of the Marquess of Lansdowne, is a fine example of the aristocracy’s historical role as a central pillar of the British state. Of particular interest is the fact that the first marquess, known then as earl of Shelburne, was prime minister when America’s independence was won with the end of the American Revolution in 1783. Bowood’s museum-quality collection even includes Napoleon Bonaparte’s death mask. It was also here where oxygen was first discovered in 1774. 
7. Enduring liberty
As architecturally significant as Salisbury Cathedral is what with it having Britain’s largest church spire, the main draw is Magna Carta. Issued by King John in 1215, the seminal document enshrined critical English legal doctrines — due process, the rule of law — and greatly influenced the political thoughts of America’s Founding Fathers. It celebrates its 800th birthday next year.
Where to stay
In Winchester, the Mercure Wessex Hotel has rooms from $120 with breakfast included. 
When staying at the Sarum College Bed & Breakfast you pretty much have the entire Salisbury Cathedral grounds to yourself before and after tourist sightseeing hours. Rooms from £65 (about $102) with breakfast included through June. 
Situated on the estate of Bowood House, Bowood Hotel is more than worth the £170 (about $267) nightly rate, which includes breakfast and access to Bowood House and its award-winning gardens.
How to get there
Out of Flint, flights to London’s Heathrow Airport are as low as $1,008 through May on American, according to searches on Google Flights. From Saginaw through May, airfares on United and Delta ranged between $1,000 and $1,400, also according to searches on Google Flights.
Upon landing at Heathrow, buy a one-way journey on London’s Underground (aka the Tube) to Waterloo Station via the Piccadilly and Jubilee lines. From there, a train to Winchester takes about an hour on South West Trains with tickets from £34.20 (about $54). Getting to Salisbury from Winchester also takes about an hour on South West with tickets from £15.70 (about $25).
Because a car is needed for travel beyond Winchester and Salisbury, a rental for the entire trip might be the best choice. Just be aware of the higher fuel costs. At Heathrow, Europcar has standard sized cars with a manual transmission renting for $32 per day ($42 for an automatic), according to Kayak.com. In Salisbury, the same size car is $38 per day for a manual and $44 for an automatic at Alamo, according to Kayak.com.
— Dennis Lennox

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Journalism's golden age is now

The following is from today's edition of The Morning Sun.

If you’re reading this then you’ve never had it better when it comes to consuming news, be it this columnist or the thousands of other voices seen, heard and read today in this truly golden age of journalism.
It used to be one read a newspaper, which contained, in the words of The New York Times’ famous motto, “all the news that’s fit to print.” There were also magazines that mixed long-form journalism with opinions and public policy like the venerable New Republic, which found itself in the news recently after editorial leadership and staff resigned over major overhauls to this pillar of the legacy media establishment. 
This worked for a long, long time, but not now.
Today, the journalism market is highly fragmented. While the legacy media continues to adjust sometimes successfully and other times quite poorly to this new reality, those who read, watch and listen to the news have access to an incredible amount of information. 
In fact, there is way too much information out there. 
It’s so bad that no normal person can actually consume all of the news reported on a daily basis and shared 24/7 across social media channels on Facebook and Twitter.
If someone wants just sports and nothing else — let alone individual sports, even the most obscure sports — they can get all the latest scores and news without being distracted from what they really care about. 
The same is true for just about every other consumer of journalism. If someone craves it, someone is publishing a fix. 
Then there is BuzzFeed and its numerous copycats, publishing a seemingly endless number of listicles (you know, articles such as “16 Doctors On The Dumbest Patients They Have Ever Treated”) or fluffy sensational crap (“Is the bum slip the new side boob? Kate Moss, Miley Cyrus and Rihanna are all fans of a cheeky bottom flash”) that is almost always accompanied by a tantalizing photo, to maximize both reader clicks and social media sharing. 
Yet, there is also an ironic twist of how everything in journalism has seemingly come full circle.
Hardcore news junkies may no longer rely on a single news outlet, but they are dependent on subject-matter curators to put together and distribute the best reportage from across the broadcast and print journalism platforms. 
While broad church journalism is a thing of the past for mass-market outlets, it doesn’t mean that this new model is the way forward for journalism.
Far from it, actually.
Local news still sells.
After all, it’s not as if BuzzFeed can ever replace this newspaper and its counterparts in towns, cities and regions across the country.
— Dennis Lennox

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Where to go, right now: Leicester

The following was published in The Morning Sun.

A nearly 530-year-old chapter in England’s rich history has put Leicester on the map for tourists.

The city of about 329,000 people, located 100 miles from London, became a major destination almost overnight when King Richard III was found under a parking lot in 2012.

A court fight for control over the royal remains ensued, but Leicester prevailed over the descendants of the last king of England to die in battle, who wanted him reinterred in York. The city quickly went about retrofitting a Victorian era school building, only yards from where he was buried in the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, into a modern museum.

Where to go

While the £4 million (approximately $6.2 million) King Richard III Visitor’s Centre opened over the summer, the grand unveiling of Leicester as the home of all things Richard III is set for March 26 of next year.

That’s when the Plantagenet king, made famous in Shakespeare’s play, will receive a long overdue state funeral presided over by the archbishop of Canterbury of the state-established Church of England. While the service at Leicester Cathedral is invitation-only, an entire week of events are planned, as Leicester relishes in its newfound fame.

The interest has only increased in recent days with genetic testing raising questions over not only the legitimacy of Richard III, but also all British monarchs since his reign.

A 20-minute drive out of Leicester is the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre, an interpretive museum and park built around what is thought to be the battlefield — the exact site has been disputed. The historical experience here is somewhat disappointing, as the recreational aspect of the park’s trails seem to be the major draw for locals.

Also worth visiting is very charming hamlet of Dadlington, where one finds the 13th century St. James the Greater Church. It was here where many of the fallen from Bosworth were buried. Be sure to also have a meal at the Dog & Hedgehog pub right across the street.

Where to stay

Consider the three-star Hinckley Island Hotel, which is an easy drive from both Leicester and the Bosworth battlefield. Rooms in March begin at £58 (approximately $91).

How to get there

From Detroit, Air Canada has fares of $920 to London’s Heathrow with a connection in Toronto, according to searches on Google Flights.

Out of Saginaw, Delta is the lowest to Heathrow at $1,034 with connecting flights in Detroit and Boston (the latter being on partner Virgin Atlantic), according to Google Flights. For Manchester from Saginaw via a single stop in Atlanta, Delta comes in at $1,123, again according to Google Flights.

While fuel costs are higher, the best way to get to Leicester from the major airports is by renting a car. Sure, it can be odd driving on the opposite side of the road — do watch out for the hedges and the curbs! —but this is truly the best way to explore, as it gives you much greater flexibility. Also, a standalone navigation device is a must.

Alamo and Enterprise have standard size rental cars with manual transmissions for about $32 per day from Manchester and Heathrow, according to Kayak.com. (Add $10 per day for automatic rentals.)

— Dennis Lennox

Monday, December 1, 2014

Taxpayers lose during lame duck session

The following is from Tuesday's edition of The Morning Sun.

It’s that time of the year again.
While most of us have just recovered from an endless flow of food over the long Thanksgiving holiday and are just now getting into a Christmas mindset, state legislators are back in the halls of government for one last time this year.
And if history holds true they will pass several pieces of legislation that have been stalled for various political considerations over the last two years.
The problem with the so-called lame duck session is two-fold.
First, it’s the simple fact that many of the legislators have had their political career ended either by Michigan’s 1992 term limits — members of the House serve a maximum of three, two-year terms while senators are limited to two, four-year terms — or by losing an election.
This creates a very troubling situation in which a significant number of the 148 legislators can willfully ignore the views of the constituents they are supposed to represent because they will most likely never face these voters again at the ballot box.
The other issue with lame duck is the fact that many of the bills traditionally passed by the Legislature during its final sitting have little democratic legitimacy. By that I mean few of these bills were in the campaign manifestos of legislators.
Take the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which the special interests want amended to extend anti-discrimination provisions to homosexuals in much the same way as local non-discrimination ordinances have across the state.
While this may be a cause célèbre with those in the chattering class, few legislators in the Republican majority actually campaigned on this issue. Those who did were overwhelmingly against expansion.
Another bill (House Bill 5560) that could pass before the end of the year would enable local governments to avoid taxpayer scrutiny by doing away with the current requirement for important governmental notices to be published in the local newspaper.
This legislation does nothing but benefit the thousands of counties, cities, villages, townships, school districts and special authorities who spend taxpayer money lobbying against the interests of the taxpayers whose money is spent.
The Legislature’s primary constitutional duty is to pass a budget for state government. The hundreds of other bills it passes are more or less optional.
The only thing this Legislature can do that the politicians in the incoming Legislature can’t do is avoid retribution from angry voters.
A sensible reform would involve a constitutional amendment dissolving the Legislature at most a couple of weeks after the election and thereby ending the term of legislators.
But don’t expect Lansing to do this.
This is the sort good government reform that would have to come from petitions, as it’s inconceivable the Legislature would vote to reform itself.
It just doesn’t make sense to have lame duck legislators sitting around for two months with nothing to do but pass more laws — a no-win situation for the taxpayers, who have to live with the consequences.
— Dennis Lennox