Above: East Lansing's City Council, from left, Mayor Mark Meadows, Ruth Beier, Aaron Stephens, Shanna Draheim, and Mayor Pro Tem Erik Altmann.
East Lansing is looking at a high probability of a lot of news in 2018. This afternoon, ELi’s Managing Editor Ann Nichols and I met for our weekly planning meeting and, when we made the list of what we can expect in terms of ongoing and coming big stories for 2018, the list quickly turned substantial. Here’s a quick run-down:
City budget problems: In the words of a press release issued hours ago by City Manager George Lahanas’s office, “The City of East Lansing has and continues to face significant financial challenges.” That means that, this year, “Council will be looking at a range of options moving forward. These options could include a reduction in services, the addition of new revenue or a combination of both.”
ELi’s Chris Root has been steadily reporting for our readers on discussions at City Council of possible budget cuts and new revenue options, including potentially new taxes, following failure of the income tax to pass this past November. Some of the big financial decisions will be required by law to be put to East Lansing voters, but in other cases, Council will be making the decisions.
City Council has just announced it’s going to be holding “community engagement meetings to gather public input on the City of East Lansing’s budget priorities.” Two meetings will be held at the Hannah Community Center, the first on Wednesday, January 10, from 6-8 p.m., the second on Thursday, January 18 from 7-9 p.m.
Marijuana regulation: Next Tuesday, Council may decide where (if anywhere) patients can purchase medical marijuana within the City limits. New rules about this are being considered in response to changes in Michigan state law with regard to medical marijuana growing, processing, testing, transporting, and distribution. As part of our ongoing nonpartisan coverage of this and other issues, Ann Nichols has been tracking the local controversies over proposed marijuana ordinances.
Significant changes coming in East Lansing Public Schools: Important decisions will be made this year by the East Lansing School Board with regard to the rebuild/revamping of the district’s six elementary schools following passage of a dedicated millage for the purpose. ELi’s lead Schools reporter, Karessa Wheeler, has been covering this along with other big changes that may be coming in terms of school start-time scheduling.
The School Board starts 2018 with a newly-appointed member, Tereh Chambers, and a new President, Kate Powers. Besides other issues with which the Board will have to deal comes the discovery of a perceived gap in mental health services at the High School, of particular concern following two ELHS student suicides in early 2016.
Big redevelopment projects: The Center City District redevelopment project is now underway and is expected to continue in the construction phase throughout 2018. The City will continue to try to support existing downtown businesses while the area undergoes major transformations, including rebuild of Albert Avenue, construction of a new parking garage with senior housing on top, and construction of a new twelve-story building along Grand River Avenue, including an “urban” Target store. (To read the plan for that project, see ELi’s comprehensive guide.)
Meanwhile, in the coming months, expect a new plan from the owners/developers of the now vacant Park District properties, on the west side of Abbot Road north of Grand River Avenue. (For a history of the plans and failures of this site, see ELi’s comprehensive guide.) The new proposal is likely to include plans for a Graduate Hotel, retail space, and more downtown student housing.
This year will also see the construction of East Lansing’s first building over eight stories. As ELi’s Jessy Gregg reported, in December, Council approved The Hub, a ten-story project set for the southeast corner of Bogue Street and Grand River Avenue (shown above). That project has led to a lot of discussion about the “right” ratio of parking-to-residents for East Lansing’s downtown, including at the Downtown Development Authority and the Planning Commission. Expect more discussion of that controversial issue this year, along with more discussion of overnight street parking.
MSU's Vice President Vennie Gore tells ELi today that MSU will soon be kicking off planning for redevelopment along Crescent Road, the location of Spartan Village. Rumor has it that the plans may include a retirement community. Says Gore, "We are a long way to shovel in the ground" on any project at this location, but 2018 will see the start of the planning process.
Finally, the newly renovated Bailey Community Center is expected to open this year, providing affordable senior housing, a new day care, and community performance and activity space.
Strain on emergency services expected to continue: In September, ELi sent two of its Summer Youth Journalism Program-trained reporters, ELHS seniors Evan Dempsey and Kepler Domurat-Sousa, to ride-along with ELPD officers to document what emergency responders see on days when the number of people in our City doubles. This year, the City’s budget woes will likely mean shrinking of the ranks of East Lansing police, fire, and paramedic personnel through attrition, continuing the trend of straining local emergency services, particularly on big MSU game days. MSU and the City are likely to have intensive discussions of how to manage this problem.
Meanwhile, the new ELPD administration, led by Chief Larry Sparkes and Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez, has brought an explicitly community-policing approach to East Lansing, working with community organizers from the ACLU and Black Lives Matters to institute a new policy for dealing with immigrants and impartial policing. This year, expect more community discussions of transparency and accountability with regard to our police force, including discussions of surveillance technologies and complaints made against officers.
Parks, Recs, and Arts to see changes: Given the City’s financial problems, we can anticipate significant attention being paid to the question of where to cut in terms of taxpayer support of Parks & Recreation and the Arts. Council has been talking about potentially closing and selling the Aquatic Center and other City-owned facilities, and whether to cut back funding for the Arts, including local festivals. While the summer festivals (Art, Jazz, and Folk) are expected to go on as usual, the Center City District construction will result in the relocation of these festivals.
Lawsuits: The City remains embroiled in a number of lawsuits, including the one involving the East Lansing Farmer’s Market and the City’s Civil Rights ordinance, which has gained national attention. This year, East Lansing will be joining a multi-state lawsuit against opioid makers and distributers in an effort to recoup costs of emergency services spent on dealing with the opioid crisis. In the coming weeks, we’ll be bringing you news on developments and costs related to legal actions involving the City.
New Comprehensive Plan: East Lansing’s new Comprehensive Plan—years in the making—is expected to be finalized in 2018. That plan sets out what the community’s expectations will be for various segments of the City, and so includes proposals for changing various areas, particularly from lower-density use to higher-density as the City grows in population and focuses more housing downtown.
Community connections: Public Service can be expected to continue to be a major component of East Lansing community life, including through such projects as the Empathy and Equity Box and the Hartwig Foundation for pet care, as reported for ELi by Ann Kammerer; the Marble School Carton Construction Contest, as reported by Rosalind Arch; and the annual Big Book Sale hosted by Friends of the East Lansing Public Library, reported for our readers by Sheila Taylor.
Fun stuff: East Lansing will also continue to be home to many arts, sports, and entertainment opportunities, a beat shared by many of our reporters, including: Christopher Wardell, who recently reported on Ten Pound Fiddle; Amy Davis, who gave us the background on Turn Up the Bricks; Mark Meyer, who brought us up to speed on Trojan football’s winning streak; John Paul Roboski, who told us about this year’s Collage Concert and the annual visit by the grown-up kids of the marching band to the little kids of the elementary schools; and Sarah Spohn who in 2017 reported for ELi on the Whiffenpoofs, on Summer Solstice Jazz Festival founders Beth and Al Cafagna, and on Heartland Klezmorin, among other topics.
What about ELi? As ELi’s Publisher, I’m happy to report we finished the year having reached half-way to our 2018 Sustainability Campaign goal of $100,000, which is great! Right now, we are at $50,580 in lump-sum donations and monthly commitments for our work in 2018, with about a month to go. (Our fundraiser ends January 31, 2018.)
If you are like me, without ELi, you’d know a lot less about what is going on in this City than you do. Local is where you live. That’s why I support ELi, supporting my neighbors who help us all stay informed and educated, who help us prepare to hit the ballot box, and who get our questions answered.
Contribute today by making a lump-sum donation or a monthly commitment. Don’t just expect someone else to make sure a reliable, trustworthy, nonpartisan local news organization will be here for you throughout 2018. Pitch in today.