On Monday, Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero portrayed, in his words, a city “powered up” for the year ahead. For his annual State of the City address, Bernero chose a refurbished railroad depot in the shadow of the city’s rising co-generation power plant which will come online this summer.
But while Bernero acknowledged Lansing’s financial challenges, he steered clear of details.
“Lansing Powered Up” was the theme of Virg Bernero’s eighth State of the City address, and the symbolism was unmistakable. Speaking in Lansing’s REO Town, the mayor addressed a packed house in a beautifully restored century-old train depot. He stood just yards away from the city’s newest showpiece: the Lansing Board of Water and Light’s $180 million co-generation power plant, still under construction.
Throughout his half hour address, Bernero fought off a lingering cold with characteristically buoyant salvos of civic pride. He said the state of the city is good and getting better. He cited the lowest unemployment rate in four years, growing personal income and rebounding home sales. And Bernero beamed as he clutched a glass plaque honoring a hometown product: the Cadillac ATS.
“Last week the ATS went to the Detroit Auto Show and brought home the biggest prize of all: the North American Car of the Year award," Bernero crowed. "As we like to say, move over Mercedes, beat it BMW…the new standard of the world is here and it’s made right here in Lansing, Michigan.”
Then, Bernero produced another prop to highlight another bit of recent automotive news.
“Now let me show you something else," he said, reaching below the podium. "See this model car? You know what kind it is? It’s a miniature Chevy Camaro. The Camaro is an American classic; one of the most iconic muscle cars in automotive history. And the next generation of this legendary vehicle is coming home. Home to America, and right here to Lansing, Michigan!”
Bernero mentioned a handful of development successes the city orchestrated in 2012. The repurposing of the former Fifth Third bank building as the new home of Davenport University. A $36 million renovation of the former Knapp’s department store, which will become a mix of retail and residential. A new casino project in partnership with the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians.
But the mayor’s spotlight shone brightest on the REO Town power plant.
“A thousand workers have been employed on this site, most of them members of the skilled building trades," he said. "Thank God for the estimated $50 million in wages that this project is pumping into households across our region.”
At times, undertones of economic belt-tightening echoed through the mayor’s words. Randy Talifarro serves as both the Lansing and East Lansing fire chief. Bernero praised his service, announcing his retention for another year. The mayor used the moment to champion his vision of regionalism.
“Why not celebrate our neighbors’ success? When they win, we win and vice versa," said Bernero. "Because we sink or swim together; that’s the truth. In a global economy, we can’t afford to waste precious time and resources competing against each other.”
Bernero ended by inviting city residents to join him in “building the next Lansing.” But any such civic engineering must first be balanced against a projected nine-million dollar budget deficit. By law, the mayor must present a balanced budget to the city council by May. He’ll need the council’s support to push his proposal…including that of his longtime critic and council president Carol Wood.
But Wood says she’s ready to cooperate with the mayor.
“So far things are going well on council," Wood said. "We spent an hour and a half and we walked out of it with no bloodshed and shook hands. So, we’re ready to move forward.”
And Bernero could face another challenge even sooner. A financial health team he appointed in October to review the city’s long term outlook is set to deliver its final recommendations in March. Team leader David Hollister, himself a former mayor, says despite its good management today, Lansing risks facing some of the same financial hardships that led to the economic decline of cities like Flint and Detroit.