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Is "community solar" next frontier in alternative energy?

Research into ways of opening up opportunities to ordinary citizens and businesses interested in building solar energy generators is underway, thanks to a grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

Think of it as the community garden of alternative energy. It lets shareholders or investors participate in a shared generation or renewable energy site in exchange for some benefit based on their investment, possibly savings on utility costs or profit. The concept is not a new one in cities such as Seattle and other parts of the Northwest.

“Renewable energy resources, such as community solar, offer many potential community, economic, environmental, national security, and societal benefits for the state,” MEDC President and CEO Michael A. Finney says in an announcement of the grant. “Through this study, we can identify ways to make community solar a growing solution for locally-owned clean energy.”

The $33,304 grant to the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association will be used to perform a Community Solar PV Garden Feasibility Study that will help the MEDC's Renewable Energy Demonstration Program determine what the barriers are to forming community solar projects.

Barriers include high up-front costs and lack of optimal places to install solar gardens.

Writer: Kim North Shine
Source: Kathy Fagan, spokesperson, Michigan Economic Development Corporation

Car Condo proposal in Pontiac could restart vacant GM property

A vacant brownfield in Pontiac where General Motors once operated could be the site of an auto-related business trend -- car condos. Basically storage sites and gathering places for car lovers, car condos not only provide a place to safely keep a car but also to service it.

The proposal for M1 Concourse calls for a complex of four to six buildings, each one with 14-16 garages that can be tricked out by owners. Other possibilities for the 89.5-acre property include entertainment aspects such as an amphitheater and restaurants for visitors who bring may come for car shows or special events.

The initial part of the plan to re-use the site at Woodward Avenue and South Boulevard has been OK'd by city officials but still has other approvals to clear as developers work to re-use the property.

At an announcement of the project Wednesday, city and county officials expressed support for the M1 Concourse and RACER Trust.

RACER, Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust, was created by a U.S. Bankruptcy Court settlement to help clean up and redevelop former General Motors properties in 14 states.

The car condo concept has taken off in other cities around the country, especially developments known for high-priced cars kept by deep-pocketed owners who want a club of like-minded car lovers.

Woodward Warehouse, a much smaller version of what the M1 Concourse could be, opened last summer in Royal Oak not far from the avenue that carries the Woodward Dream Cruise. It is finding a market in storage, detailing, rebuilding, event hosting and member socializing.

Writer: Kim North Shine
Source: Bill Callen, RACER Trust

Grove Street to get $1.1M makeover in downtown Farmington

Construction started this week on a project to turn a beat up, outdated main street in downtown Farmington into a boulevard streetscape of greenery, decorative lighting and stamped walkways.

The $1.1-million Grove Street Reconstruction Project will also add parking to downtown and make over a tired strip retail center as well as connect it to a major pedestrian crosswalk that will lead to another shopping center.

Water mains will also be replaced and a plaza space with seating will be part of the new downtown layout.

The goal of city officials and the Downtown Development Authority is to make downtown more attractive, walkable, and busy as well as match it to a streetscape already redone. The plans call for turning a swath of pavement into a boulevard separated by a center island with angled parking along parts of it.

Mayor Tom Buck says the project is as much about attracting families to downtown as it is attracting small businesses and boosting the local economy.

The project will completely remove and replace Grove Street from Grand River to Main Street. The work was delayed in 2009 due to the costs. It is expected to be completed in two phases over a 10-week period and ready to use sometime in July.

Writer: Kim North  Shine
Source: Annette Knowles, executive director, Farmington Downtown Development Authority

Oakland County opens business center for entrepreneurs

Oakland County is trying to make starting a business or taking it to the next level easier for entrepreneurs by offering free, walk-in business counseling.

The One Stop Shop Business Center at the Oakland County Executive Office building, 2100 Pontiac Lake Road, in Waterford will open May 9 and offer regular walk-in hours after that. The hours for May 9 are 9:30-noon and 1:30-4:30. The business center is on the first floor of Building 41W.

“We usually operate on an appointment-only basis but many entrepreneurs walk into our One Stop Shop with questions on how to get started with their business idea,” says Greg Doyle, supervisor of the One Stop Shop Business Center. “By designating special walk-in days, we hope to reach more entrepreneurs and help them understand their next steps as well as present the resources we can make available to them. Our aim is to get them started quickly in a way that makes the most sense to their unique situation.”

Counselors at the business center can answer specific questions, suggest planning tools and give direction on where to go to solve problems or achieve goals. All sessions are confidential. The counselors have expertise in business development, community planning, financing and market research.

Writer: Kim North Shine
Source: Greg Doyle, supervisor, One Stop Shop Business Center

Oakland County adds fresh foods market to downtown Pontiac

An effort to increase Pontiac residents' access to fresh, healthy foods is spreading in Oakland County with the opening of a third goverment-run market.

The newest market will operate one day a week on Tuesdays and sell fresh fruits and vegetables at a low cost.

The markets are a project of the Healthy Pontiac We Can! Coalition and the Oakland Livingston Human Service Agency.

Two other markets sell on Fridays and Saturdays, and all three share recipes for meals using fresh foods, lead cooking demonstrations and offer free samples.

"This market is a part of Oakland County's strategy to improve the quality of life of our residents through healthier lifestyles," says Kathy Forzley, Oakland County Health Division manager and health officer. "Consuming a diet high in fruits and vegetables decreases the risk of many chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes and some cancers."

Writer: Kim North Shine
Source: Kathy Forzley, Oakland County Health Division

Downtown Rochester seeks public input on parking improvements

Downtown Rochester is coming off a complete rebuild of Main Street, and now city planners see this as an ideal time to determine if parking options downtown also need updating.

To figure it out, the Rochester City Council and the Rochester Downtown Development Authority have gone the survey route, asking anyone with an opinion on what's needed and what's not when it comes to parking. The survey, which also includes an open-ended question, is getting high responses and also yielding useful information not necessarily related to parking, says Kristi Trevarrow, executive director of the Rochester Downtown Development Authority.

"We're getting an insane response, over 100 surveys in the first 40 minutes. We're at almost 800 now," she says.

The Main Street makeover, which was completed in November and included a re-do of downtown sidewalks and the addition of amenities to make being in downtown easier and more convenient, took out all parking meters.

Before deciding whether to replace those and make any other parking changes, say structures, kiosks, or re-arranged lots, the survey was sent out. The city council, planning commission and the DDA will review the findings April 10.

"It's fast. We don't want this to be a long, drawn-out thing…We want it to be a working document," says Trevarrow.

The changes will affect not only immediate parking needs, but attempt to plan for the future. The last parking study was done in 2003 and determined that the parking as it was was adequate.

"If a big development were to come in, maybe residential with retail or a large company, we want to be prepared," Trevarrow says. "The economy is snapping back. At some point there will be a development. We want to be prepared and have that answer when the time comes."

Want to share your thoughts? See the survey here.

Writer: Kim North Shine
Source: Kristi Trevarrow, executive director, Rochester Downtown Development Authority

Getting Michigan cities redevelopment ready

Just over 35 cities and townships in Michigan are joining a new state program that teaches them how to prepare their communities for redevelopment and attract the kind of development they want.

Of the cities accepted into the first round of training and certification in the Michigan Economic Development Corporation's Redevelopment Ready Communities program, eight are in metro Detroit. Ann Arbor is also on the list.

It, along with Lathrup Village and Novi, will receive a formal Redevelopment Ready Communities evaluation that could lead to certification as a Redevelopment Ready Community. This means they either have outlined or have plans to outline their redevelopment strategies and draw development to fit their community. This designation could also make them eligible for redevelopment grants.

Dearborn, Clawson, Farmington Hills, Hamtramck, Wixom, and White Lake Township will receive best practice training and assistance and could move onto the certification process later.

They all will learn how to creatively re-use space, support and attract economic innovation, and devise devise plans that bring in redevelopment investment and in turn rebuild thriving communities for employees, residents and recreation.

The program was originally launched by the Michigan Suburbs Alliance in 2003, and its success led to the state program.

Writer: Kim North Shine
Source: Kathy Fagan, spokesperson, Michigan Economic Development Corp.

Unearthing the Clinton River as economic development in Pontiac

The vision is to have a river running through downtown Pontiac, one with restaurants, offices and shops alongside and perhaps small boats bringing in people and, ideally, ripples of prosperity.

The Clinton River is currently covered up, piped underground beneath a parking lot and the Phoenix Center, a deteriorating city-owned structure that could come down if the vision to daylight the Clinton River is actually pursued. The river opens up on either side of downtown.

As it is now, the Phoenix Center is used only occasionally.

"By daylighting the Clinton River, if it winds up with a river walk along it, it's going to be something that can be used everyday," says Bill Watch, chairman of the Urban Land Institute Michigan.

The idea of daylighting the river, something done in other cities, including Kalamazoo, is being explored with a feasibility study in a partnership between the Urban Land Institute, Oakland County and the city of Pontiac.

In June, students from the institute's Larson Center for Leadership, 34 of them considered business leaders, will come up with a document that outlines what it would take as far as a process, expenses and time to uncover the river.

The student leaders work in real estate, development, planning and other areas and will complete the "Daylighting the Clinton River" feasibility study in order to graduate from Larson.

In part they will determine if the benefits of uncovering the river outweigh the costs. One cost barrier is out of the way as the county has agreed to pay for the demolition of the Phoenix Center, which has seen better days.

"Oakland County had come to us in the fall and they wanted ULI's help to study this," Watch says. "This is something they've been thinking about.The county wants to do something for downtown Pontiac. It's a sort of legacy project."

Uncovering the river, if approved, wouldn't take all that long, he says. It's bringing the investors and companies and residents in to build there, work, and live there.

"It's not going to happen tomorrow. It will be years or even decades," he says. "But this is going to be something that could provide an attraction. It will give Pontiac a feature to bring people in."

The Clinton River was once a scenic gathering place for downtown Pontiac, but it also came with flood issues. It was paved over, built on and covered with drainage projects in an era when the economic draw of having a town on a river -- if well designed -- was less appreciated.

San Antonio's Riverwalk was a flood control project turned top tourist attraction for the Texas city.

"On a smaller scale this is what the Clinton River could become," Watch says. "Kalamazoo daylighted the river there and we'll be looking to them to learn about their experience."

Oakland County  Executive L. Brooks Patterson has called for daylighting the river for several months now, telling the Oakland Press in June, "Every city would love to have a river running through it, and the ones that do use it very well. The river becomes a focal point....I think that's in Pontiac's future."

Writer: Kim North Shine
Source: Bill Watch, Michigan chairman, Urban Land Institute

Ferndale's Park + adds up to easier parking

Crowded downtown parking is both a curse and a blessing.

What is a blessing for businesses busy with customers can be a curse to those customers circling, searching for coins or winding up with expired meter tickets. Parking can be also be a deterrent at times for businesses working to keep good employees.

The city of Ferndale and the Ferndale Downtown Development Authority are trying to make the whole process of parking easier with the new Ferndale Park + system. The new system will include multi-space pay stations, rather than individual meters, and will take cash, coins, credit cards or ParkMobile, a pay by phone or online parking service.

The pay stations, called Luke II's, will be solar-powered and cover about 900 spaces in 13 parking lots. The parking design has changed too, into a concentric layout that makes the most convenient spaces available to consumers.

The system is expected to go into service by mid-February, after signage and such is complete. Improvements such as increasing the number of available spaces will be ongoing. Some individual meters will remain.

The concentric system will prioritize parking spaces and set rates according to the users. More affordable parking spaces on the edges of parking lots will cost less (ideal for employees), and closer-in spots will go at new, higher rates. Employees can also buy parking passes.

"Instituting all of the components of Ferndale Park+ is a very big step to improving the parking experience in downtown Ferndale," says Ferndale City Manager April Lynch. "Park+ allows us, as managers of the system, to get more use out of every space we have, while planning for future upgrades and the addition of more spaces."

Writer: Kim North Shine
Source: Chris Hughes, Ferndale Downtown Development Authority

New homes, lofts, less blight in downtown Pontiac

A $13.7-million government program meant to stabilize struggling cities by targeting crumbling neighborhoods and re-building their decaying urban centers is complete in Pontiac. And, while still in the early stages, it appears to be achieving its mission.

The two-year-old Neighborhood Stabilization Program targeted Pontiac and about 10 other Michigan cities. It has led to the removal of dozens of blighted properties and building of new homes in Pontiac's Unity Park neighborhood, as well as two residential loft developments including the $20 million Lafayette Place Lofts, which sit atop the Lafayette Market and an Anytime Fitness, and the 10 West Lofts. Lafayette Place Lofts, a project of West Construction Services, is the city's largest development in 30 years or more.

The federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program was administered by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority in partnership with the Michigan Land Bank, Oakland County, and the city of Pontiac.

Funds from the program covered the demolition of 50 blighted homes in the Unity Park Neighborhood and the construction of 18 new single family homes there. All have been sold. Local members of the Michigan Association of Home Builders, Michigan Association of Realtors, lenders and developers marketed the homes.

Downtown, the 46 units at Lafayette Place Lofts in the former Sears & Roebuck Store, which opened to residents in December, are expected to be fully occupied within weeks and the Lafayette Market, a speciality grocer and coffee house, is filling the void of a fresh food source and take-out prepared meals for the city. The market and neighbor 24-hour Anytime Fitness, both on the ground floor of Lafayette Place Lofts, are generating traffic downtown.

Also downtown there is 10 West Lofts, another multi-use development in the downtown that has a skyline of historic buildings and a history of struggles.

Altogether, at least 300 construction jobs and 75 full-time jobshave been created.

Several other projects, though not a part of the stabilization program, are ongoing and more development is expected as a number of other initiatives roll out. One, the reconstruction of the main road leading into downtown, will direct motorists into the city instead of around it. Another, the opening of a new transit station, is for now a stop for Amtrak and local buses, but could function as a stop on a commuter light rail line between Detroit and Pontiac -- a proposal that is very preliminary and probably years away.

It all adds up to what may be an economic tide-turner for a city that has gone into bankruptcy, been taken over by an emergency financial manager and held back by the crime, hardship, and poor educational system that come with poverty.
Writer: Kim North Shine
Source: Michigan State Housing Development Authority

Construction on Troy's multi-modal transportation station begins

An old Amtrak station in Troy is coming down, and in its place will be a modern transportation station that will be a hub - if all goes as planned - for regional high speed rail and bus service between Michigan and Illinois.

The $6.3 million, 28,000-square-foot project will include a 2,000-square-foot building connected to a pedestrian bridge to the train platform, a docking station for as many as four buses and parking lot to accomodate regular commuters and travelers.

Ground was broken last week at the 2.4-acre site off Maple Road and Coolidge Highway and construction is expected to be completed

Congressman Gary Peters secured the funding for the Troy Multi Modal Transit Facilty, which is one of several projects in metro Detroit, the state and the region. They are part of a reinvestment plan by the federal government to create jobs and also promote public transportation as an economic development tool.
The goal is to offer a modern, safe ADA compliant facillty that is easy to use and promotes greater mobility options through a centralized facility that provides access to intercity passenger rail service, regional bus routes, taxi services and the Troy-Oakland Airport. Dearborn and Pontiac are building a similar stations, and the cities are along a rail line that is eyed for high speed travel between Michigan and Chicago.
The project will create dozens of construction related jobs, and possibly economic stimulus in surrounding neighborhood but no full-time jobs once it is opened as the station will be unmanned, says Cindy Stewart, Troy's director of community affairs.

Writer: Kim North Shine
Source: Cindy Stewart, director of community affairs, City of Troy

Oxford is first Oakland Co. downtown offering free wireless

Oxford has become Oakland County's first community to offer free wireless service across its downtown.

The Wireless Oakland initiative, which sought to set up wireless service in all of Oakland County downtowns as an economic stimulus, has been revived and scaled back after the original plan developed in 2005 "fell victim to recession when private investors backed out," Bill Mullan, a spokesman for the county, says in a news release announcing Oakland Township's going wireless.

Internet Provider Air Advantage is providing the wireless coverage in exchange for access to some of the county's strategically placed communications towers. Air Advantage will also offer competitively priced, wireless broadband services to northern and western parts of the county where there is no such service.

Writer: Kim North Shine
Source: Bill Mullan, spokesman, Oakland County

Changes to Pontiac-Detroit-Chicago rail line topic of state DOT meetings

As plans to improve a 304-mile stretch of passenger rail line that runs through Michigan, Illinois and Indiana move forward, the public is invited to participate in the process that determines what the local impact will be.

For metro Detroiters, the Chicago-Detroit/Pontiac Passenger Rail Corridor could offer connections to places that improve economic situations or quality of life, but it could also affect neighborhoods.

A series of meetings will be held this month and hosted by the three states' Departments of Transportation. The meetings will explain more about the proposal to make changes to the line and also take comments from the public. They will also offer possible route alternatives and identify potential issues that should be considered in the planning. They are required as part of the plan formation and environmental impact assessment to be done before construction can begin.

The rail improvements come as several metro Detroit communities, including Detroit, Pontiac, Troy, Dearborn, and the federal government have invested in new transportation stations that have brought economic benefit to cities around the
country by opening up access to jobs, education and affordable transportation.

According to GreatLakesRail, "the purpose of the program is to improve intercity mobility by providing an improved passenger rail service that would be a competitive transportation alternative to automobile, bus and air service between Chicago and Detroit/Pontiac…The program will provide sufficient information for the FRA (Federal Railroad Administration) to potentially support future decisions to fund and implement a major investment in the passenger rail corridor."

The local meeting will be held Wednesday, Sept. 26 at 7 pm. at the Double Tree Hilton Hotel, 5801 Southfield Expressway, Detroit.

Comments about the changes can also be shared online at GreatLakesRail.org or by telephone, 877-351-0853.

Source: Janet Foran, communications, Michigan Department of Transportation
Writer: Kim North Shine

Alternative energy at Oakland County Airport brightens bottom line

All the eco-conscious bells and whistles that earned Oakland County International Airport a LEED Gold certification are also saving the county money by running at about half the utility costs prior to energy-focused rebuild.

According to Oakland County the new airport operates at 44 percent greater efficiency. From October 2011 through March 2012 the average cost of utilities dropped from 49 cents per square foot to 27.5 cents per square foot.

Features such as wind and solar electricity generators, a solar hot water heater, geothermal heating and cooling, fluorescent and LED lighting and, one of the more obvious for passengers, a living wall of tropical plants that clean the indoor air.

“These are real savings,” Oakland County executive L. Brooks Patterson says in a statement announcing the utility cost analysis. “The energy efficient technology is part of the wow factor business and general aviation travelers encounter when they use the new terminal as their gateway to the region.”

“The airport has a great impact on southeast Michigan,” says Oakland County Director of Central Services J. David VanderVeen. He oversees the airport - the second busiest in Michigan. The airport, which is located in Waterford, underwent a $7.5 million update last August. Airport user fees and federal and state grants covered the cost.

“Nearly every Fortune 500 company flies through here in the course of a year and it has a $175 million impact on the region,” he says.

Source: Bill Mullan, media and communications officer, Oakland County
Writer: Kim North Shine

Corned beef and fill-ups now available at Canton Marathon

A longtime chef and caterer is selling his recipes from a Marathon gas station in Canton, an endeavor that's proving to be a winning example of entrepreneurship aided by a quick-moving city government.

Robert Grant's business plan to set up a restaurant in one corner of a gas station was unusual and, he was warned, could be problematic under city code.

"They were amazing," says Grant, who worked in food services at Metro Airport, for Pan Am Airlines and in catering on the campaigns of several Detroit and Michigan politicians. "

The K&L Marathon Deli featuring Fussy Gussie's Corned Beef is located at the corner of Lilley and Warren roads in Canton. It opened three months ago and is attracting nearby residents, office workers and walk-ins. The restaurant, a $1,200 investment, is basically two stainless steel tables as a front counter and prep space with a home refrigerator, hot plate and meat carver behind. In the back of the store, unseen, is the corned beef that so many people come for.

Grant, a culinary arts graduate, proudly displays his certificate of occupancy, food service license and a big poster with the first dollars he made here.

The restaurant name honors Grant's mother, who died in 2006. She left behind a winning corned beef recipe she learned from a Jewish woman she worked for. The ribs, green beans and Coneys "that are as good or better than Lafayette" are also on the menu, along with sandwiches, peach cobbler and other changing specials.

The name also recognizes the owners of the station, 42438 Warren. Owner Ken Merril urged Grant to bring some of his catering favorites into a retail setting. He's done it before in Detroit, but is still hoping to get a restaurant to stick. He's hoping to bring a food truck to Canton, something  he'll go see those previously helpful city officials about, and one day package the corned beef sandwiches.

"He guess he probably smelled the cooking on my clothes one day and he said you could open up something here," says Grant, who was reluctant initially. "I prayed about it and took a chance. I'm so thankful for him and for everyone at the city who made sure I could get my business up and going in 48 hours. Can you believe that? They've given me the opportunity of a lifetime."

Source: Robert Grant, caterer and owner of K&L Deli Featuring Fussy Gussie's Corned Beef
Writer: Kim North Shine
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