Lansing voters consider economic development in Mayoral vote

LANSING, MI – As Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero shoots for re-election, many voters consider whether his record on jobs and development is worthy of their vote. Many say the administration's economic agenda is just what the city needs. Others, including challenger Carol Wood, say the Mayor's attention-grabbing style shows there's less there than meets the eye.

Watching construction equipment at the site of downtown Lansing's new city market next to the Grand River, it's hard to resist imagining the future. Alan Tubbs was a Lansing city planner starting in the 60's.

"It's just great that it's happened," he says.

Now retired from public service, Tubbs and I stand a stone's throw from downtown's most anticipated project---the Accident Fund's $182-million new headquarters.

"I think it shows that Lansing is starting to diversify," he adds. "We've got insurance, we've got medical, we've got education. And this is very important to the future well-being of the city of Lansing."

He's supporting Virg Bernero on November 3.

"He's what we need right now," he says. " I think the voters got somebody we need right for these times, that's what I think."

Lansing's Economic Development Corporation claims 77 different projects in various stages of development. Many economic development professionals applaud that level of activity. John Austin is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who's studied economic development across the Midwest. He says the city's efforts in two areas are paying off: one--diversifying its economy, and two--creating a stronger sense of place by using the Grand River.

"I think Lansing has seen some success at that, more than other communities that haven't, you know, organized around that as aggressively," he says.

Even Mayoral challenger Carol Wood acknowledges her support for a number of Bernero initiatives including the Accident Fund project. But she claims the Mayor's style is misleading. Perception, she says, is not reality.

I think there has been the sale of a personality and a person than on the city of Lansing," she says.

Wood blames Bernero for poor communication with the city council. She says the mayor holds back important information from council members, creating divisions and thwarting progress. Bernero denies the accusation and calls it typical of the pre-election "silly season."

"As soon as we could put something together to present, we did," he counters. "We like to know what we're talking about. I mean, do we go to the council instantly when we just learn about something? No, we actually try to understand what it is. There's a bit of a learning curve on some of this stuff ourselves."

Patty Cook was the Manager of Lansing's Economic Development Corporation under Mayors David Hollister and Tony Benavides. During her tenure, the city brokered the tax sharing and development agreements that built GM's Grand River Assembly plant and the Delta Township facilities. She's now working on Wood's campaign. Cook says council has to be involved in the negotiations from the start.

"There was usually council leadership that would learn very early on in the discussion stage of a project .we were just in the initial stage of development but this is what we thought may happen," she says. "So that if somehow the word was out on the street or if they learned about it from some other source, they wouldn't feel as if they'd been blind-sided."

Wood says the administration is preoccupied with control. Wood supporter Michael Morofsky airs another gripe: that Bernero pays more attention to downtown at the expense of neighborhoods.

"All I ever hear about is Old Town up there, that they're doing things for and trying to resurrect the downtown," he says. " I think it's a dead horse. It's just not going to happen in this economic climate."

Still, recent economic data show Lansing has been growing. Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics reported the area's Gross Domestic Product increased 9.2% between 2005 and 2008----much of it due to expanding financial and IT sectors while manufacturing was limping. The incumbent can also point to close to $600 million in new private investment in the city during the Mayor's tenure.

Virg Bernero's first term as Lansing Mayor coincided with a powerful economic downturn. But the city can also look back at the Accident Fund project and the survival of both General Motors facilities. Many voters attribute some or a lot of credit to him. Given the current state of the economy, who ever wins in November will have their work cut out for them as they adjust to new economic realities.