Jan. 28 2009 12:00 AM
The state of Lansing, Mayor Virg Bernero proclaimed in his State of the City address Monday night at the Holmes Street School, is "good."

Bernero has been repeating his mantra to take Lansing "from good to great" since he was elected in 2005. Now, three years in, the city is good but, he is arguing, positioned to be great.

In a speech that touted the successes of the past three years — not surprising given he’s up for reelection in November — Bernero accentuated the positive, touching vaguely upon the negative and subtly reminding the seated (and television) audience why he is the mayor, and why he should get their vote come Election Day.

Bernero proclaimed Monday night "that even in these times of economic uncertainty, we continue to make significant progress in positioning Lansing and the region for a more prosperous future." As evidence, he cited $650 million in private investments brought into the city — mostly downtown — over the past three years by the Lansing Economic Development Corp. and the 4,000 jobs that are projected to be created as a result.

But pressed for details, neither the mayor nor his spokesman, Randy Hannan, had answers as to what projects are included in that investment figure, or how many of those jobs are already filled, or when the rest are coming. Hannan did point to Demmer Corp. and its creation of 1,000 jobs as a success story and as part of that 4,000 job promise. But the rest, he said, were tracked in the EDC’s report issued last year.

Even if all 4,000 jobs were created and filled by now — by Lansing residents — that wouldn't outpace the job loss in the city, according to a report issued by the federal Department of Labor. In October 2007, the Lansing/East Lansing combined metropolitan statistical area had 12,000 unemployed workers. By October 2008, the number of unemployed grew to 17,000. And, no surprise, figures from the state Department of Labor show that in 2008 jobs in the Lansing area just continued to be lost.

The regional figure is important because, in addition to the development and dollars Bernero boasted of in his speech, he mentioned two big scores for East Lansing — the $500 million Facility for Rare Isotope Beams and a new IBM venture that will bring as many as 1,500 jobs, which Bernero included in one of the positives for “our community.”

Truth be told, the city didn't have any direct role in either big-ticket project outside its involvement with the Lansing Area Economic Partnership.

And as for all that job creation, it's mostly in the high-tech sector. When asked what the city is doing to provide jobs for the folks who lost (and are about to out in Delta Township) their jobs in the service and retail sector, the mayor gave a circuitous answer.

"We need to change our thinking. People have to stop thinking, ‘I need someone to give me a job,’ and start thinking about how they can make themselves more marketable to get that job. Job retraining, lifelong education, it's all a part of that. The idea that we take a job and keep it for 30 years is outmoded, and we have to realize that and make changes," he said.

Also in Bernero’s speech, he mentions the city's saving of “countless” families from losing their homes to foreclosure — but, literally, Bernero couldn’t count them because when asked to provide a number, he deferred to Department of Planning and Neighborhood Development Director Bob Johnson.

But even with the stretching of some numbers, the mayor delivered undeniable positives.
Fourth Ward Councilman Tim Kaltenbach expressed his excitement with two of the mayor's announcements. One was to make Lansing one of the 10 “Promise Zones” under recently-signed state legislation, which would offer two years of free college tuition to graduates of Lansing schools. The other was a program through Big Brothers, Big Sisters that the mayor indicated would mentor up to 400 at-risk Lansing students in the coming year. Kaltenbach, who is not seeking another term on Council, joked, "I'll be able to use my new free time to mentor and help raise funds (for the Promise Zone)," and added that he planned to sign up to mentor a youth on Tuesday.

The Promize Zone was the hit of the night, drawing a standing ovation from the crowd. Part of the money to fund the tuition would come from the state through a tax-capture device. The rest would be raised by the Lansing School District.

Proponents say the program would encourage more Lansing residents to send their children to school here, bolstering falling enrollment and funding for the district. Second, it would draw more residents to the city, as students would have to be Lansing residents to qualify.

After the speech, Carol Wood, At-large Councilwoman and potential mayoral candidate, Carol Wood said, "There was a lot of cheerleading for the community, which is good." However, she said she'd like to see "where the substance is" behind the numbers and the claims, and especially to see "if the projects come to fruition."

In the speech, Bernero pointed to some of those projects: The Capitol Club Tower along Grand Avenue, which is behind schedule on breaking ground, but, Bernero assured this reporter, is still moving forward. Then there’s developer Pat Gillespie's Market Place project. There are also smaller ventures, such as a NuUnion Credit Union branch set to open at the old Regent Inn on Cedar Street, CareerQuest’s move to a formerly vacant building on Pennsylvania Avenue and a medical arts center in the old Cedar Street School on the edge of Old Town.

Bernero also took time to boast about his involvement in the automobile industry bailout campaign, reiterating that automakers are struggling because of competition with foreign companies that get government subsidies and operate in areas with lax environmental standards. Asked Monday to give specifics on which countries were engaging in the “currency manipulation,” and letting auto companies operate under “lax environmental standards” and subsidies as he charged, Bernero said, "Oh, China, of course, and I heard Korea."

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