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'Another rich financial corporation'

This is an article I tried to talk myself out of writing. I respect Berl Schwartz and think his weekly newspaper City Pulse adds significantly to the quality of life in the community. But as I thumbed through last week’s issue, an unrelieved paean to the opening of the Accident Fund headquarters in the newly renovated Ottawa Power Station building, I found myself frustrated that the entire project was treated so uncritically.

Yes, the building is pretty (though I think it actually looks better in my image above than it does in real life). [City Pulse has not reprinted the image.]

Yes, recycling the old power station has green appeal.

And, yes, it’s great that Lansing will still benefit from the reported 557 jobs kept in Lansing. But since the Accident Fund is a totally owned for-profit subsidiary of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, those jobs would not likely have gone out of state anyhow. (The legality of the purchase continues to wend its way through the courts).

What bothers me is that the Accident Fund is yet another rich financial corporation that specializes in shaking down taxpayers for givebacks rather than paying its fair share of the taxes we so desperately need in this era when police officers, firefighters, and teachers are at risk of losing their jobs.

The City Pulse article says that $26 million for the project came from a MEGA (Michigan Economic Growth Authority) grant, but that’s only part of the funding. When I tried to get a breakdown of all the federal, state and local funding involved, the Accident Fund directed me to the construction company Christman, and Vice President Angela Bailey responded:

“The Accident Fund National Headquarters project was only made feasible by a complex package of federal, state and local grants, including federal and state historic tax credits, state Brownfield tax credits, local and state Brownfield Tax Increment Financing, MEGA job growth credits over 12 years, Renaissance Zone business tax savings over 12 years, property tax abatements, Clean Michigan Initiative grants, and Environmental Protection Agency environmental remediation credits. Because some of these benefit the project only indirectly and over time, we can’t provide an exact dollar value, but it will ultimately total tens of millions of dollars to be applied toward the otherwise too-costly effort to adaptively reuse the Ottawa Street Station, a historic community landmark previously considered undevelopable.”

Tens of millions? The paragraph above makes it sound like they are proud of this legal larceny, but, if so, why not give a guesstimate?

The Accident Fund deal smells a lot like the sweetheart arrangement that corporate insurance giant Jackson National Life wrested from Lansing and Alaiedon Township years ago. But at least we are enjoying tax benefits from JNL now, right? Well, not so fast. After all those thrilling pep talks of yesteryear about how our local community would benefit from the spectacular new building and all of the jobs it would bring, JNL now claims that its building is “functionally obsolete” and a “white elephant.” According to an article in the Lansing State Journal on March 7, the Michigan Tax Tribunal agreed with JNL and has now ordered a tax rebate of $1 million. Cash-trapped Lansing alone has to pay back $200,000.

There are no big tax abatements available for the kind of small-bore development that gladdens my heart. No package of incentives for the recent college grad with a great idea. No tax givebacks for someone who wants to open a small shop or restaurant. Yet somehow we always find “tens of millions” for insurance companies.

Our corporate overlords show no shame when they ask for bigger and bigger givebacks while talking to us about shared sacrifice.

Sorry, but I expect more from the “watchdog” alternative press than puff pieces about how lucky we are to have the chance to give millions of tax dollars to a for-profit insurance company. I would have also appreciated a few words lamenting the fact the project buries even more of our lovely downtown riverbanks under concrete.

I don’t begrudge City Pulse the ad dollars it made with its special supplement. And I am completely sincere in saying that I do not think the publisher did it for the money. But the City Pulse tagline says: A newspaper for the rest of us. When it comes to development, perhaps it should be changed to: Just another corporate lackey.

— Bonnie Bucqueroux, Reprinted with permission from Lansing Online News


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