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Lifelong Detroiter cautiously optimistic about Belle Isle

Editor’s note: This week the Detroit Free Press ran a story and an editorial providing a checkup on Belle Isle six months after the state assumed control of the park.

As it happened, Sandra Turner-Handy—MEC’s community outreach director and a lifelong Detroiter—visited the island over the weekend for the first time since management by the Department of Natural Resources began. Here is her own assessment of Michigan’s newest state park.

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Having grown up literally across the street, Belle Isle was my neighborhood playground as a child. My brothers and sisters and I walked across Jefferson Avenue and enjoyed the two-seat bikes, canoes, pony rides and zoo.

As I grew older and moved to a different part of Detroit, Belle Isle became the spot for family picnics on Saturdays. We stayed late into the evening to see the lights on the Scott Fountain change colors. Belle Isle was also the after-church spot, where we enjoyed ice cream treats from an island vendor. And as a teenager it was the dating spot with its beach, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, canoe rides and forest.

That slowly changed as the park lost its amenities and became overrun with trash, loud music and fights. For years I only went to the park for special events, and only in the daytime.

Last Saturday I went back to Belle Isle for the first time since the state took over in February. Because my family settled near the island after coming north from Tennessee in the early 1900s, it made sense to hold our family reunion picnic there. Read more

Friday linkaround: Algae, transit, birds and fly-fishing

Welcome to the weekend!

Whatever you have planned, it looks like the weather will be fantastic. Plus, meteors! Before you ask the boss if you can leave early, take a minute to review a few of the environmental stories that caught our eye this week.

Algae. The biggest environmental story in a while, of course, was Toledo’s drinking water crisis. The week began with Mayor D. Michael Collins toasting the half-million people—including some southeast Michigan residents—who endured a weekend without usable tap water after the city’s water supply was contaminated with toxic blue-green algae.

The algae blooms are nothing new, and by now most of us know the story:  Fed by excess phosphorus, they plagued Lake Erie in the 1960s and ‘70s but largely disappeared after public outcry led to sewage treatment upgrades and restrictions on phosphorus in detergents. In recent years, though, the blooms have again become an unwelcome annual visitor. Read more

True leaders needed to make new Michigan Dream a reality

John Austin and the Michigan Economic Center at Prima Civitas (a new and exciting player in Lansing policy discussions that we jokingly refer to around here as the “other MEC”) recently launched the new “Michigan Dream At Risk” project that’s worth a look. In short, it showcases in images, words and numbers the uncomfortable but unsurprising reality of Michigan’s perpetually beleaguered economy.

Using Michigan’s historic and current state and local budget allocations as proxies for priorities, the Michigan Dream at Risk project’s narrative and four-minute video intro highlight our shared shame—potholed roads and shuttered storefronts, struggling families and failing schools—and prescribe a healthy dose of investment in a few critical areas: education, infrastructure and community services, a clean environment, etc.

Coupled with the new “State Policies Matter” report and accompanying “Tale of Two States” blog series from the team at Michigan Future, Inc., a clear case is made for increasing investment in public goods, rather than cutting our way to prosperity.

The problem is that Michigan voters rarely face that kind of clear-cut choice, and our elected leaders seem unwilling to raise revenue themselves. Instead, we get convoluted ballot initiatives like Proposal 1, in which funding is provided for our communities but only if businesses get (more) tax breaks and the actual revenue burden gets shifted (again) into an unknown future. Or for an even more frustrating example, look at the failure of transportation funding initiatives; despite polling with broad support, the issue of raising the basic revenues needed to fix our existing roads gets tied up in knots in the Legislature and goes nowhere – not even to the ballot. The roads stay the same: bad.

Anyone who watches the news—here or anywhere in the country—knows some version of Michigan’s economic and social struggles. Our decades-long fall from grace is a narrative with easy and all-too memorable icons: Big 3 bailouts, bankrupt Detroit, etc., etc.

But Michigan residents are ready to move out of the past. And we need to put some new icons on the map to do it. Read more

5 reasons Michigan utilities should give us solar

The Michigan Public Service Commission recently issued a report summarizing the work of a group assembled to find ways to deploy more solar power in Michigan. The report offers possibilities for expanding the small programs offered by Michigan’s two biggest utilities for customers who want to generate solar power at home, but it doesn’t compel the utilities to take any action.

However, the commission any day will issue an order on Consumers Energy’s plans for renewable power – one that could have some legal teeth. MEC and other allies are urging the commission to use the opportunity to order Consumers and DTE Energy to expand their solar offerings.

If you support clean solar power for Michigan, we urge you to share your thoughts with the commission and the utilities. It’s quick and easy – just fill out this very brief form.

And if you need some convincing, below are the top five reasons—and there are many others not listed here—why it’s so important that Michigan’s two biggest utilities expand their solar power programs.

  1. We’ve already paid for it. DTE and Consumers together are sitting on about $26 million in surcharges they’ve already collected from Michigan customers. That’s because they overestimated the cost of developing renewable energy projects. Read more

Tell the DEQ: proposed fracking rules fall short

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality hits the road this week to gather public input on proposed rules on fracking for oil and gas.

Tonight the department will hold a meeting at Treetops Resort, 3962 Wilkinson Road in Gaylord. Wednesday evening there will be a second meeting at the Lansing Center, 333 East Michigan Avenue, down the road from the Capitol. Both meetings begin at 6:30 p.m.

If you’ve got the time, this is a great chance to have your say on a very important issue. And if you can’t make it to a meeting, you can submit written comments to DEQ-FrackingRules@michigan.gov until July 31.

You can review the proposed rules here.

Our take: The rules don’t go nearly far enough to protect Michigan’s streams, wetlands and groundwater. Here are the main shortcomings.

They don’t require chemical disclosure before drilling. We believe local residents have a right to know what chemicals are in the fracking fluid pumped underground to release oil and gas trapped in shale formations. Read more

Visiting a state park this weekend? We need your help!

Many Michigan families and visitors from other states will enjoy fireworks and festivities this holiday weekend at one of Michigan’s 102 state parks.

Those campers will eat a lot of junk food. And that’s fine – part of the fun of camping is indulging in plenty of chips, pop, hot dogs and s’mores.

But many people also visit the state parks to enjoy healthy physical activity and outdoor adventures like biking, swimming and kayaking. And those folks often want to refuel with more nutritious food choices.

That’s why MEC and our partners in the Healthy Kids, Healthy Michigan coalition recently commissioned a study of the food offerings from vendors at state parks. Michigan State University researchers visited a sampling of parks to see what items were available from camp stores, concession stands and vending machines. They also surveyed park visitors to find out what they think about the available food options. Read more

Friday linkaround: Rail line creates buzz, pesticide wipes out bees

Oh, man. It’s Friday and it’s summertime. Does it get any better?

We hope this weekend’s a classic for you: family and friends, time outdoors, maybe a Michigan-made beer or two, if that’s your thing.

Meanwhile, why not wrap up the week with a look at some environmental news and events? Here’s your linkaround:

Energy fair: If you’re interested in renewable power and our energy future—and of course you are—see if you can carve out a few hours to attend the 10th Annual Michigan Energy Fair this weekend at the Ingham County Fairgrounds. Our friends at the Michigan Land Use Institute have a nice backgrounder on why the popularity of this event just keeps growing. By the way, the event’s keynote event is a talk and book signing by big-tree champion David Milarch, whose work we explored in a recent issue of MEC’s newsletter. He’s a fascinating guy and you’re going to want to hear what he has to say. Read more

Detroit students pave the way to city’s rebirth

Springtime in a high school student’s senior year is full of exciting rituals: the last day of school, the graduation ceremony, the open house.

Students at Denby High School on Detroit’s northeast side started a new tradition this year: the Pathway to Transformation.

On a late May day under clear blue skies, each senior laid a brick they’d decorated, forming a short walkway on the school lawn. When they were finished, a representative of the junior class added a brick marked “2015.” The path will grow with each graduating class.

The pathway symbolizes changes happening in the neighborhood, in Detroit and in the students themselves, who faced a challenging path of their own to get to the brick-laying ceremony.

“Future classes will be laying bricks until this community has the quality of life you’ve deserved all along,” Denby Principal Tracie McKissic told the seniors. “We are never going to forget you.”

Their work began with a partnership between the school and the team charged with implementing the Detroit Future City (DFC) strategic plan, which aims to stabilize neighborhoods, repurpose vacant land and put more Detroiters to work, among other goals. Read more

A clean power plan for Michigan

Many of us working on energy and climate policy looked forward to June 2 like it was Christmas morning. That was the date set for the EPA to announce a new draft rule to cut carbon pollution from power plants, building on the Clean Power Plan President Obama drafted last summer.

Now that we’ve had a couple of weeks to dig into the rule, does it match the hype leading up to it? On one hand, yes: It is undoubtedly the most significant action the U.S. government has taken to address climate change, and it should yield economic benefits and job creation.

On the other hand, the reality of the rule’s impact—at least in Michigan—does not match the sky-is-falling rhetoric opponents to carbon regulation have used to describe it. The rule reaffirms the action Michigan took in 2008 by passing Public Act 295, and meshes well with the clean-energy discussion started by Governor Snyder in 2013.

Still, Michigan will not achieve the required carbon reductions with a business-as-usual approach. We will need to be more aggressive in our transition to renewable energy and in reducing energy waste. Fortunately, MEC is already taking part in discussions in Lansing to outline the next steps for Michigan’s clean energy programs. Read more

Good budget news overshadowed by road funding dead end

Michigan lawmakers are in for a bumpy ride home.

They are in the unenviable position—but one they put themselves in—of explaining to constituents why they couldn’t work out a solution to a maddening problem we all face every day and that the majority of Michiganders say is the most urgent issue facing the state.

Their inability to pass a transportation funding package means our roads will only get worse, doing more damage to our vehicles, driving away businesses that might otherwise invest in Michigan and likely even costing more Michiganders their lives.

It also means the rest of Michigan’s transportation system will lose out. As we wrote here recently, public transit, passenger and freight rail, cargo shipping infrastructure and public boating facilities all will suffer because the Legislature couldn’t get the job done before breaking for summer recess.

But! It’s Friday and the forecast looks gorgeous. Summer in Michigan is too brief and too lovely to spend much time grumbling. Let’s keep on the sunny side.

In the Legislature’s mad dash toward summer break, they passed a budget that actually will do great things for Michigan’s people and environment. Here are a few examples to cheer you up for the weekend. Read more