The three wise locals
|By Neal McNamara|
A look back at the decade with MSU President Lou Anna Simon, former Lansing Mayor David Hollister and developer Joel FergusonCity Pulse had only published two issues by the time the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 happened. In the Sept. 26, 2001 issue, we interviewed several local residents about where they were during the attacks and their reaction to them. One of those people was David Hollister, then the mayor of Lansing.
“My hope is that our response will be multi-national, in order to minimize the unforeseen consequences. That means keeping the European, Arabic and Asian communities with us. That then isolates the terrorists and treats them for what they are — extremists — and allows for military retribution and allows for sanctions that can isolate them and starve them rather than bomb them out of existence,” Hollister said of what the U.S.’s response should be. “To me, that’s the best-case scenario.”
It was a strange and awful way to begin a decade that had already hosted the most jarring political controversy — the dubious election of George W. Bush — in recent history, which set a tone of division between blue and red, right and left, and a lot of people lost in the middle. Though 2001 brought terrorism and extreme destruction like we’ve never known, we also got the iPod, the collapse of Enron, this newspaper (August 2001), and the opening of the General Motors Lansing Grand River assembly plant.
All of those things shaped this decade in some fashion. The iPod, now 8 years old, was arguably the most revolutionary advancement in personal technology ever. Enron gave us a hint of just how awfully corporate America behaves; years later our banking system would virtually collapse under evil loan practices, the results of which you can see in foreclosed homes all around Lansing. And who would have guessed that three years after GM opened one if its most advanced auto plants here, it and Chrysler would file for bankruptcy?
And, of course, eight years later, Hollister’s hopes for a reasonable response to Sept. 11 would be completely dashed, with a country still involved in two wars — one of which, Afghanistan, has been going on since shortly after Sept. 11 and was recently expanded.
“It’ s been a terrible blunder. The invasion of Iraq without international support eroded the unity that was there after attack,” he said last week during a radio forum discussing the last decade, the “naughty aughts” (though, that’s probably too sedate — “awful aughts” is more like it).
We interviewed Hollister, Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon and developer/ MSU Trustee Joel Ferguson. (A podcast is available at www.lansingcitypulse.com.) These three luminaries, we thought, were the best locals to guide us through the events of the decade. All are masters of their respective fields. Hollister was mayor of Lansing for more than a decade (the more prosperous and less globally tumultuous 1990s, but also for a few years in the new millennium), and now the head of the MSU-funded Prima Civitas, a community and economic development nonprofit; Ferguson was the first black Lansing City Councilman (1967); he’s an MSU trustee, and a powerful developer. Simon has been at the helm of MSU since 2004 after taking over for Peter McPherson (a neo-con who helped reconstruct Iraq after we invaded it), and has seen the university through accomplishments like the Zaha Hadid-designed Eli Broad art museum, which she says is going to break ground in March, and the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams that will one day allow researchers to look inside the tiniest bits of the universe from a building on campus.
The verdict from the three was that this decade has been a tough one. The events of the last 10 years might have even signaled the decline of the United States as a superpower. In Michigan, our economy has continued downward, especially in the arena of investment in education.
"We’ve lost a little bit of our swagger, and I think it’s been for our ill," Simon said, referring to the terrorist attacks and the vulnerability it exposed in our national security, and our psyche.
Ferguson, Hollister and Simon were asked to put a stamp on the decade. All three just said "the economy." Though not quite a headline, that phrase has become common over the past few years as a euphemism for all the economic horror we’ve endured, from Ponzi schemes, to mass foreclosures, to government bailouts. Michigan has had an awful decade from an economic standpoint. Our unemployment rate has been the highest in the country since 2003, and remains that way at the end of the decade: 14.7 percent in November, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, and speculated as high as 50 percent in Detroit. Since 2002, Gov. Jennifer Granholm has been liege of this recession-stricken land. Granholm’s leadership has brought jobs to the state, but not enough to turn the tide of a declining auto industry. Plus, she’s had to deal with a polarized Legislature.
"She is a strong person who tries to get along with everyone," Ferguson said.
"There’s no way that a governor could’ve prevented the bleeding of the auto industry as a matter of state policy," Simon said.
"The wheels came off the buggy the day she walked in. She inherited the worst economic storm to impact a state," Hollister said.
Hollister and Simon wished that Granholm had been quicker to embrace the "green" economy. Ferguson said that Granholm never played hardball with her opponents, Republican legislators, by, say, taking money away from their districts because it would not have been for the good of the state.
"History is going to be good to her," he said. "She has a vision."
On a local level, Lansing saw a change in its CEO — that is, mayor — twice following Hollister, who shepherded in the new millennium. In 2003 Tony Benavides, Lansing’s first Hispanic mayor, took over. Benavides was defeated in 2005 by Virg Bernero. Hollister focused much of his attention on economic development; his leadership saw the construction of the new GM plant and Oldsmobile Stadium and its team, the Lansing Lugnuts, among other developments.
Benavides continued this, though some say tepidly, with developments like the Stadium District, which was completed in 2008. Bernero continued a focus on economic development, though critics say he has focused too much on downtown. Bernero and his staff scored a huge victory
The answer, Ferguson said, isn’t totally just to hire new police officers, but to talk more about education and job creation.
Concerning the possible decline of America, and China’s rise, there are things China is doing that America and Michigan are not.
"They’re investing in higher education," Hollister said. "They’re leaving us in the dust."
"It really isn’t a new playbook," Simon said. "(China) is willing to pay for it and they’re willing to expect it.”
The three agreed that of all the elections over the past decade, the 2008 presidential election was the most important.
Looking forward, Michigan’s most important priority may be to raise taxes to support higher education and K-12 public schools.
"We have to deal with the front side of life more effectively. We’re still in this backside mentality," Ferguson said.