Squishy numbers put state coffers in spotlight


    ‘New’ Air Alliance works under the radar to tap some Florida connections.

    Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell’s call to arms regarding area consolidation efforts (see story, page 1) appears even more urgent when discussion of the state’s fiscal woes begin to crystallize. Becky Bechler, the county’s lobbyist with Public Affairs Associates, told the Legislative Committee last week that the state’s 2011 general fund is facing a gaping deficit that ranges from $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion, and next year’s state’s education fund is $425 million short.

    County Commissioner Stan Ponstein took exception with those numbers. He said he hung around Lansing and was told the deficit was $1.6 billion and is tired of hearing different numbers from different sources. “We’ve got to start calling people out on these numbers. That’s got to come to an end,” he said.

    Ponstein added that state lawmakers don’t really balance the general fund by themselves. He said their balancing act consists of giving counties and municipalities unfunded mandates that total roughly $2.2 billion each year, and he called for all county commissioners to be active on state funding issues.

    Bechler said much of the same thing regarding spending changes state lawmakers are considering. “These could have some significant negative impacts on local governments.”

    No word on tannery

    Curious minds in Rockford will wait a little longer to find out what’s in store for the town’s old tannery site. City Manager Michael Young reported last week that Wolverine World Wide Inc., the Hush Puppies shoe maker that has operated at the location for a century, let him know that it isn’t ready yet to unveil plans for redevelopment. The company closed the tannery last year, laying off 90 union workers. Since then, Rockford denizens have been speculated on the fate of the prime 15 acres along the Rogue River and the White Pine Trail. Turns out they’ll have to sit and stay.

    A taxing seat

    Here’s a chance to make a difference: Grand Rapids Mayor Heartwell said there is an opening on the city’s Board of Review. The BOR meets in half-day sessions for three weeks in March and makes decisions on property-tax appeals. If interested, call Hizhonor at 456-3168 or the city clerk’s office at 456-3010.

    Fewer voter outlets

    Speaking of the clerk’s office, GR City Clerk Laurie Parks said her department has reduced the number of voting precincts from 100 to 83 by recently consolidating 34 into 17. Why? Her department’s budget is shrinking and fewer voting locations means less spending. “We anticipate that this will give us some cost savings,” said Parks. “All voters affected by the change will be sent a new voter ID card.”

    A suite arrangement

    It’s another sign of the economic times. For the first time in Van Andel Arena’s history, suites are available because leases weren’t renewed. SMG Regional General Manager Rich MacKeigan said up to six suites are in need of tenants, and he added that each could be rented on an event basis.

    Into wild blue ponder

    Last week, Dick DeVos said he and other movers and shakers in the region were launching a new organization that would try to find a new airline for Gerald R. Ford International Airport, hopefully making airfares here more competitive.

    Then a few hours later, he confirmed they’d already done it. AirTran Airways, a successful discount carrier, will start flying in and out of GR in May, with service to Baltimore, Orlando, Tampa and Fort Meyers.

    Actually, everything didn’t really happen that fast.

    When DeVos, president of The Windquest Group of private investors, announced Jan. 27 that he was launching a new private sector initiative called Regional Air Alliance of West Michigan, he showed a PowerPoint slide that said “We are … a ‘Private Sector,’ IRS 501(c)(3) organization, formed in November 2008 to …”

    That’s November 2008 — about 14 months ago, and it was not a typo. A spokesman for Windquest said the RAAWM had been “quietly working” since then.

    Turns out quite a few people have been talking about the problem of high air fares at GRFIA for months now, and AirTran has been seen for several years as a potential solution. The Business Journal reported back in early November that James Koslosky, executive director of GRFIA, told the Kent County Legislative Committee that AirTran was his “primary target” for a new low-fare carrier.

    At a meeting with the committee last fall, Koslosky agreed with a comment that fares at GFIA are too high, inducing many West Michigan travelers to drive to Chicago or Detroit for better fares. “It’s not acceptable,” said Koslosky.

    The Business Journal also reported at that time that GRFI average fares had been rated as the second-highest in the nation. Koslosky said then that those rates are driven by the legacy carriers at GRFIA, such as Delta and United, and without a low-cost airline providing competition, there isn’t much airport officials can do about it.

    DeVos has an “in” with AirTran. The airline, which is based in Orlando, announced back in September that it is the official airline of the Orlando Magic, an NBA franchise. DeVos’ father, Amway co-founder Rich DeVos, has been chairman of the group that owns the Magic for 18 years. The team plays in the Amway Arena, which will be replaced this fall by the new $380 million Amway Center now under construction. AirTran is also a “Champions of the Community” partner for the new Amway Center, according to an AirTran news release.

    Filtering some help

    The horrific earthquake that rocked Haiti Jan. 12 had a sudden impact on West Michigan, too.

    Just one day before the quake struck, news went out that Cascade Engineering was going to launch a new joint venture with Windquest Group, a West Michigan-based private investment fund. The new venture, called TripleQuest, would enable CE to eventually resume production of the HydrAid BioSand Water Filters it had made for two years for International Aid, the Spring Lake nonprofit organization that had to shut down last summer due to financial difficulties.

    Last week, TripleQuest was coordinating the delivery of the first of more than 400 of the water filters to Haiti. TripleQuest is working with Thirsting to Serve, a Michigan nonprofit group that is raising funds to cover the cost of making new filters ASAP.

    “Literally, within a two-week time frame, we went from hearing about” the Haitian earthquake to shipping newly made filters on trucks to Florida, said Jim Gingrich, general manager of CE’s Commercial Products Group. “It was really a remarkable thing to be part of.”

    An EPIC process

    The Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce is changing it up this year, combining three of its traditional events into one: the EPIC Awards. Slated for May 19, the new dinner and awards celebration replaces the Small Business Celebration, Minority Business Celebration and Salute to West Michigan Business. EPIC is an acronym for Entrepreneurial, Progressive, Innovative and Collaborative.

    The Chamber is now accepting nominations for the following five awards: Excellence in Business, Small Business of the Year, Young Entrepreneur of the Year, Minority-Owned Business of the Year and Woman-Owned Business of the Year.

    Learn more at www.grandrapids.org/epic-awards. Nominations close Feb. 18.

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