At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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In Detroit, Scales of Finance and Fairness Have Tipped Over

Shuttered homes, empty lots, and acres of open space are common features of Detroit's geography. Since 1954, when the city's population peaked at nearly 2 million, Detroit has lost an average of 20,000 people annually. Less than 700,000 people currently call Detroit home. Photo/Keith Schneider

Shuttered homes, empty lots, and acres of open space are common features of Detroit’s geography. Since 1954, when the city’s population peaked at nearly 2 million, Detroit has lost an average of 20,000 people annually. Less than 700,000 people currently call Detroit home. Photo/Keith Schneider

On July 18, 2013 Kevyn Orr, Detroit’s emergency manager, acted on the remarkably broad authorities afforded him by an eight-month-old state law and filed a petition to launch the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. Orr’s intent, he said, was to reduce the beleaguered city’s operating costs, reduce the cost of servicing the city’s debt, and set Detroit on a fresh course to redevelopment and prosperity.

During a news conference that evening, Detroit’s elected one-term Mayor Dave Bing stood meekly by Orr’s side and offered his reluctant support: “This is very difficult for all of us,” Bing said. “But if it’s going to make services better off, then this is a new start for us.”

In the more than 13 months since the bankruptcy petition was filed it’s become steadily clearer who’s better off in Detroit and who is not. The owners of small and medium-sized businesses that have invoices still to be paid by Detroit are not. They could receive 30 cents on the dollar or less on the outstanding balances.

The city’s 22,500 retired employees are not. They will experience pension cuts. About half the city’s general employees agreed to cut their pensions almost 5 percent, slash their health benefits 90 percent, and receive no cost of living adjustments. The other half – retired police and firefighters – will receive full pensions, but accepted a 55 percent reduction in cost of living adjustments and will receive only a small cash stipend to offset the cost of their new private health insurance plans.

Thousands of residents, many of them jobless and impoverished, also are not better off. They face losing their water again as a 37-day moratorium is lifted today and Detroit’s water department resumes cutting off water to property owners who are either $150 in arrears or 60 days late in paying their utility bills. Some 83,000 residences and businesses are said by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to owe $90 million to the utility.

“There’s lots of reasons why people have fallen behind,” said Baxter Jones, a city resident. “Some of my friends have had their water turned off. Some people that I know that have had to take their kids different places to wash up. It’s very, very sad when you think about it because there’s so many different reasons why you need water.”

But there’s another group, largely composed of professionals from outside Detroit and outside Michigan, who’ve benefitted enormously from the Detroit bankruptcy, pocketing tens of millions in city payments  from the circumstances that led to the pension reductions and water shutoffs.

A Shrinking City Under Emergency Rule
Detroit’s bankruptcy trial is scheduled to start Tuesday, September 2, in U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes’ courtroom at the U.S. District Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Over the next eight weeks or so, the trial proceedings are expected to reveal just how much “better off” the big banks financing the city’s new debt and financial obligations — as well the lawyers, bankers, accountants, and consultants involved in the deal-making — will be from rearranging Detroit’s fiscal operations.

Alice Jennings led a team of eight civil rights and human rights attorneys in filing a class action lawsuit in U.S. Bankruptcy Court to halt the water shutoffs. A hearing on the case is scheduled for September 2, the same day that the Detroit bankruptcy trial starts. Photo/Keith Schneider

Alice Jennings led a team of eight civil rights and human rights attorneys in filing a class action lawsuit in U.S. Bankruptcy Court to halt the water shutoffs. A hearing on the case is scheduled for September 2, the same day that the Detroit bankruptcy trial starts. Photo/Keith Schneider

An examination by Circle of Blue of the reports, exhibits, studies, and court orders filed with the federal bankruptcy court yields a disturbing and unassailable conclusion:  While unionized employees lost jobs and substantial portions of their pensions and benefits, and thousands of Detroit’s poorest residents are severed from water supplies and sewer services the nation’s biggest banks are making $6 billion to $7 billion in new bonds available to refinance city debts, a move that should reduce interest payments.

Meanwhile, tens of millions of dollars in transaction fees will be collected by bank officers. Traders selling the bonds could collect hundreds of millions of dollars more. And the regiment of lawyers and accountants handling the deals and managing the bankruptcy, at fees that range from $500 to $1,000 an hour, are collecting over $8 million a month for their services and expenses. Read More

Circle of Blue Honored by Society of Environmental Journalists

Kettleman City resident Maria Salcedo's ten-month-old daughter, Ashley Alvarez, died from complications stemming from multiple birth defects during a rash of such occurrences between 2007 and 2008 in this small farmworker town in the Central Valley. Contaminated drinking water is viewed as one of the potential causes.

Credit: Photo © Matt Black / Circle of Blue
Kettleman City resident Maria Salcedo’s ten-month-old daughter, Ashley Alvarez, died from complications stemming from multiple birth defects during a rash of such occurrences between 2007 and 2008 in this small farmworker town in the Central Valley. Contaminated drinking water is viewed as one of the potential causes. Photo © Matt Black / Circle of Blue. Click image to enlarge.

 

Circle of Blue, where I’ve worked since 2007, and full-time since 2010, is steadily earning a reputation for best-in-class reporting, photography, and data design graphics on the global contest for clean water. This week, Circle of Blue’s trendsetting reporting on Western water issues in the United States and its scintillating photography on the contest for fresh water in India, California, and the Great Plains were honored with two awards from the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), the premiere professional trade organization representing 1,400 journalists and academics in 27 countries.

Brett Walton, Circle of Blue’s Seattle-based correspondent, won third place for “outstanding beat reporting” in a small market for five articles encompassing drug disposal in California, water scarcity in the Colorado River Basin, water pricing in 30 American cities, drought in Texas, and disinvestment in water infrastructure.

J. Carl Ganter, Circle of Blue’s Traverse City-based co-founder and managing director, joined Choke Point: Index photographers Matt Black and Brian Lehmann in winning second place honors in environmental photojournalism for five compelling photographs of the competition between water, food, and energy on two continents.

SEJ said that it considered 313 entries for the 2013-2014 awards and chose 21 winners in seven categories. Circle of Blue is the only news organization to win two awards in this year’s contest.

It is the second time in two years that Circle of Blue’s reporting and photography on the global contest for fresh water has been recognized for its excellence. In 2012, the Rockefeller Foundation honored Circle of Blue with its $US100,000 Centennial Innovation Award.

“It is with humility and gratitude that we thank our colleagues and peers at the Society of Environmental Journalists for these honors,” Ganter said. “The story we are telling about the shrinking global supply of clean fresh water is critical to the security of every nation, every economy, every community. It is an honor to work with our exceptional Circle of Blue team. With these awards, it’s very gratifying to know such an esteemed group of environmental journalists thinks we are on the right track.”

Circle of Blue joined a prominent list of mainstream and online news organizations that also won SEJ awards this year. They include: The Baltimore Sun, Climate Wire, High Country News, the Miami Herald, National Geographic, Natural History, The New York Times, Scientific American, and The Seattle Times.

The contest judges made these comments about Brett Walton’s work:

“Brett Walton’s stories on the timely topic of drought brought out the calculations and competing interests for water in three major Western states, and he spun the issue out to the international level. The judges liked his easy, digestible writing style.”

And the judges said this about Circle of Blue’s photographers:

“From India to the Midwest to California, J. Carl Ganter, Matt Black, and Brian Lehmann capture in both intimate portraiture and dramatic aerials the changes to lives and landscape brought and wrought by the world’s quest for water.”

Brett Walton’s Award-Winning Stories

Circle of Blue’s Award-Winning Photography

Kettleman City resident Maria Salcedo's ten-month-old daughter, Ashley Alvarez, died from complications stemming from multiple birth defects during a rash of such occurrences between 2007 and 2008 in this small farmworker town in the Central Valley. Contaminated drinking water is viewed as one of the potential causes.

Credit: Photo © Matt Black / Circle of Blue
Kettleman City resident Maria Salcedo’s ten-month-old daughter, Ashley Alvarez, died from complications stemming from multiple birth defects during a rash of such occurrences between 2007 and 2008 in this small farmworker town in the Central Valley. Contaminated drinking water is viewed as one of the potential causes. Photo © Matt Black / Circle of Blue. Click image to enlarge.
Punjab Green Revolution rice wheat aspen poplar flood irrigation grain harvest Choke Point India water food energy nexus Circle of Blue Wilson Center

Credit: Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
Desraj Khai, 57, has worked the Sekhon family’s land for nearly five decades, since the start of the Green Revolution, when Western crop scientists introduced Punjabi farmers to hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, and chlorine-based weed and insect killers. Click image to enlarge.
John Burchard, General Manager of the Alpaugh Community Services District, walks a ditch bank on the outskirts of town. The small farmworker community in California's Central Valley suffers from high levels of arsenic and other contaminates in its drinking water.

Credit: Photo © Matt Black / Circle of Blue
John Burchard, General Manager of the Alpaugh Community Services District, walks a ditch bank on the outskirts of town. The small farmworker community in California’s Central Valley suffers from high levels of arsenic and other contaminates in its drinking water.Click image to enlarge.
A golden circle, this one near Edson, Kansas, is the tell-tale sign of an irrigated corn field ready for harvest. Farmers in the Great Plains produce some of the highest corn yields in the world thanks in part to abundant water supplies from the Ogallala Aquifer. The aquifer, however, is draining away because more water is pumped out than filters back in.

Credit: Photo © Brian Lehman / Circle of Blue
A golden circle, this one near Edson, Kansas, is the tell-tale sign of an irrigated corn field ready for harvest. Farmers in the Great Plains produce some of the highest corn yields in the world thanks in part to abundant water supplies from the Ogallala Aquifer. The aquifer, however, is draining away because more water is pumped out than filters back in.Click image to enlarge.
©JGanter_India_G7_0095

Credit: Photo © J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue
Click image to enlarge.

View the complete list of winners at Society of Environmental Journalists.

– Keith Schneider

Louisville and Carmel in New York Times Articles That Confirm First Principle of U.S. Economic Development

Louisville's active downtown has been helped immeasurably by taxpayer investments that leveraged private investments. Photo/Keith Schneider

Louisville’s active downtown has been helped immeasurably by taxpayer investments that leveraged private investments. Photo/Keith Schneider

CARMEL, Ind. – James Brainard, the 60-year-old mayor of Carmel, Indiana, is not the kind of public official who deplores change. He’s just the opposite, in fact.

In 1994, this prosperous suburb just north of Indianapolis held a planning workshop, inviting its 31,000 residents to consider ideas to redevelop Carmel’s crossroads downtown, parts of which date to the city’s founding in 1830. The next year Mr. Brainard, a moderate Republican, was elected to the first of his five terms in office, running on a platform that included investing taxpayer dollars to put the development plan for the original downtown, now known as the Arts and Design District, into effect.

Two decades later Carmel is a city of 85,000 residents transformed by a construction strategy unique in Indiana and the Midwest. It stresses 1) high-wage job recruitment in a district of contemporary glass and steel buildings along Meridian Street that houses over 40 corporate headquarters, 2) construction of office, residential, and entertainment venues in two central city districts that invite sidewalk dining and strolling, and 3) replacing over 80 intersections with roundabouts to keep vehicles moving and reduce traffic congestion.

The Arts and Design District set the stage for much of Carmel’s development over the last decade. Since 2005 just over $70 million has been invested by the city and private developers in nearly 300 new residences and dozens of new businesses that encompass almost 900,000 square feet of renovations and new construction, according to city records.

In Louisville, just hours south of Carmel, William Weyland is the design and marketing spirit behind the ten-story baseball bat outside the 200,000-square foot Louisville Slugger factory and museum on West Main Street. Mr. Weyland’s company, CITY Properties Group, finished the project in 1996 and it now attracts over 250,000 visitors annually.

Mr. Weyland’s company is responsible for a string of other offbeat projects to recycle old buildings. They include a $17 million renovation, completed in 2011, of the 145-year-old, 120,000-square foot Whiskey Row warehouses on West Main Street. The project has first floor space for five restaurants, and 36 residential lofts on the upper floors.

Now, for the first time in his career Mr. Weyland, who was raised in this Ohio River city and spent much of his career as an architect and developer, is undertaking major new construction – a $20 million, 121,700-square foot Hilton Garden Inn. The 163-room hotel, which opens in October, is rising at the corner of Third and Chestnut.

It is one of three new hotels under construction in downtown Louisville, the result of a successful public-private partnership that turned several hundred million dollars in taxpayer investments into hundreds of millions of dollars more in private investments. Louisville’s downtown core is now alive with entertainment venues, restaurants, watering holes and new residences.

Earlier this summer, in articles in The New York Times, I reported on redevelopment activities in Carmel and Louisville. See:

Mayor Drives the Remaking of an Indiana City


Waking Up Louisville’s Downtown

Both articles underscored the value of the first principle in American economic development — investing public dollars in public goods to leverage even larger private investments. The United States developed as a result of this basic principle of economic well-being. Transport canals were constructed in the 19th century along with the transcontinental railroad and America’s land grant research universities. The Interstate highway system was built along with dams, power stations, irrigation networks, parks, public buildings, and universities in the 20th century.
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ROMP Bluegrass Festival Honors The Masters and Advances Compelling New Artists

Owenboro's ROMP bluegrass music festival is a venue for top young talent, including (l to r) Sarah Jarosz, Rachel Baiman, Phoebe Hunt, and Lily Henley, with Maggie Gray, Gabrielle Gray, and Donna Acquilano. Photo/Keith Schneider

Owenboro’s ROMP bluegrass music festival is a venue for top young talent, including (l to r) Sarah Jarosz, Rachel Baiman, Phoebe Hunt, and Lily Henley, with Maggie Gray, Gabrielle Gray, and Donna Acquilano. Two of the Boston Boys standing in rear (l to r) are Nicholas Falk and Duncan Wickel. Photo/Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY — Bill Monroe, a virtuoso mandolin player and the father of bluegrass music, was born in 1911 and raised on a ridgetop near Rosine, Kentucky about 40 miles south of the bluff on the Ohio River where Owensboro is located.

With every passing year the connection between Monroe, his birthplace, and this river city gets closer. That’s never more true than during the last weekend in June when Owensboro hosts ROMP, the River of Music Party, now a fixture in global consideration as the one of the best celebrations of bluegrass music in the world. This year’s ROMP festival, held from June 25 to June 28, added to that reputation and for very good reasons.

ROMP’s organizer, the Owensboro-based International Bluegrass Music Museum, treats the festival as a showcase of 1) the traditional hard-driving bluegrass sound that honors Bill Monroe’s legacy, 2) a salute to the musicians and artists that expanded bluegrass music’s embrace of more rhythm and vocals toward the end of the 20th century, and 3) a coronation of the intricate, almost concerto-like complexity that the top young artists are incorporating into bluegrass today. Taken together over four days, ROMP builds a historical narrative of a quintessential American musical form told by superb musicians and vocalists from all over the United States and overseas.

Doyle Lawson and Del McCoury, both members of the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame, are fixtures at ROMP representing the historic roots of the music. McCoury, a guitarist and lead vocalist, performed with Bill Monroe in the early 1960s. Lawson, a mandolin player, composed “Rosine,” one of his great recordings, to honor Monroe’s birthplace.

This year the places reserved for the next generation artists who advanced the bluegrass sound were held down by Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, his six-man band, and the Sam Bush Band. Skaggs and Bush are mandolin players and their big bands have repertoires that incorporate aspects of blues, country, rock and soul played with the traditional bluegrass instruments – standup bass, fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and dobro – Ricky Skaggs was particularly impressive, especially during a song that featured the band’s bass player, Scott Mulvahill.

Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder perform at ROMP. Photo/Keith Schneider

Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder perform at ROMP. Photo/Keith Schneider

Still, the ROMP feature that I find most intriguing is the festival’s focus on the top young artists in American bluegrass music. Read More

LeBron James’ Letter Is Celebration of Superb Writing

LeBron James, one of the eminent figures of his generation, announced his return to Cleveland in an eloquent piece of writing.

LeBron James, one of the eminent figures of his generation, announced his return to Cleveland in an eloquent piece of writing.

Four years ago, when he violated the self-effacing values of his Midwestern roots, LeBron James announced his departure from Cleveland in a torturous and ego-driven nationally televised broadcast. On Friday James explained his return to Northeast Ohio, his intent to finish his surpassing career as a Cleveland Cavalier, in a beautifully constructed and elegantly crafted letter.

Long live the written word. All writers should honor LeBron’s choice of platforms, the energy of a narrative that covers two decades of his young life, and revere the respect and gravity of his prose. From the first to the last of 11 paragraphs, in every one of the letter’s 952 words, LeBron masters the essential elements of a great piece of communications.

He anchors his story with time elements that carry the piece — “I was a kid from Northeast Ohio.” — and characters that drive his sense of loyalty — “D-Wade and CB. We made sacrifices to keep UD. I loved becoming a big bro to Rio.” LeBron forgives a lingering grudge — “I’ve met with Dan, face-to-face, man-to-man.” — and acknowledges his own mistakes — “Who am I to hold a grudge?”
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