Kate Davidson

Changing Gears - Michigan Reporter

Ann Arbor reporter Kate Davidson comes to Changing Gears after five years as a producer with NPR. Davidson has produced a variety of news and feature pieces including coverage of the Gulf oil spill as well as the Three Minute Fiction short story competition.

Prior to joining NPR, Davidson was an independent producer and reporter in Flagstaff, Arizona.  Her radio documentary "Saints and Indians," which aired on NPR, won the Edward R. Murrow Award for best national news documentary in 2006.

Davidson has a master's degree in journalism from the University of California Berkeley, where she studied documentary filmmaking.  Her film "Take It and Like It," played in film festivals and on PBS stations around the country.

Davidson is also a graduate of Yale University.

Forty square miles.  That’s how much of Detroit lies vacant, nearly a third of the city.  You could fit Miami or San Francisco inside all that emptiness.  At least, that’s what we’ve heard for years.  The thing is, it might not be true.

This is a story about a number – an estimate, really — and how it became a fact illustrating Detroit’s decline. I’ve read about 40 square miles in the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News, ForbesThe Wall Street JournalThe Guardian and The Washington Times. I’ve heard it on Fox and I’ve said it on the radio.

That’s when Margaret Dewar called me out.

“Wait, this can’t be true.”

Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

Measuring the success of retraining programs used to be straightforward. You just looked at how many people got better paying jobs. Now the emphasis is shifting from how job seekers benefit to how taxpayers benefit too. That’s because some federal funds for workforce development are shrinking, and local agencies have to do more to make their case.

In the Midwest, we hear a lot about retraining. A lot of the money for retraining and other job services comes from the federal government, through the states, to local programs like this one in Jackson, Michigan.

Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

Apparently, the phone has been ringing off the hook over at Detroit’s planning department.

It’s all because of a few lines uttered by Mayor Dave Bing in his State of the City address last week. (You’ll find them about 30 minutes in.)

“This week we sent out over 500 letters to property owners in Hubbard Farms, Springwells Village and Southwest Detroit,” he announced, “telling them if they own a home adjacent to a vacant city-owned lot, they can purchase this lot for a mere $200.”

“No coming downtown,” the mayor said.  “No added bureaucracy. The city will mail back the deed.”

Bing’s initiative is a response to the overwhelming problem of abandoned property in Detroit.

It’s a problem we explored in our stories about Detroit “blotters” — which you can see here and here.

Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

Americans owe close to a trillion dollars in student loan debt.

Changing Gears has been reporting on that debt, a lot of which comes from attending private, for-profit schools.  They’re the fastest growing part of higher education, popular for non-degree technical training. Call them career colleges, technical schools or trade schools - just don’t call them cheap.

So I’m at Cobra’s the Grind, eyes-avoiding-buttocks, walking up dimly lit stairs to meet the manager.

Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

America’s student loan debt is now bigger than its credit card debt. It’s about a trillion dollars. Student loan default rates are rising. While many families struggle to afford traditional colleges, a lot of student debt comes from attending private, for-profit schools that focus on vocational training. These students default on their loans twice as often as students from public colleges.

Cliffs Natural Resources

If you’ve been following our coverage of iron mining in the region, this might interest you.  Cliffs Natural Resources, North America’s biggest iron ore supplier, is scrapping plans to build an iron nugget plant in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

A nugget is just a little clump of very pure iron.  Big deal?  Well, here’s why the new nugget technology matters … and why Cliffs spent years studying it in cooperation with Kobe Steel of Japan.

Remember, the iron-rich regions of Michigan and Minnesota:

  1. provided the iron ore
  2. that made the steel
  3. that helped the industrial Midwest become the industrial Midwest.
SeeMidTN.com / Flickr

Yesterday, we brought you the story of Buy Here-Pay Here dealerships in the Midwest. These are places where the dealer finances car loans himself (BHPH is sometimes called in-house financing.).

Basically, he is the bank and he takes on all the risk. That’s especially true because BHPH dealers cater to people with bad credit – deep subprime customers who typically have credit scores less than 550.

It’s not hard to find people who are out of luck, out of work, and grateful for the opportunity to finance a car at all. But that opportunity comes at a steep price, which is either folded in or added on in the form of interest rates up to 25 percent.

So here are six tips to consider if you’re thinking about Buy Here-Pay Here:

Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

 

In the Midwest, it’s hard to get around without a car.

These days, people are holding onto them longer. The average vehicle is almost 11 years old and used cars prices are on the rise.

All this adds to the pressure on the bottom rung of consumers: people with bad credit.

For many, the only way to finance a car is at a Buy Here-Pay Here lot.  Here, dealers loan to deep subprime customers at interest rates up to 25%. Buy Here-Pay Here makes up more than 15% of used vehicle financing in states like Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. 

That financing goes to people like Willie.  That’s her nickname.

We’re driving around Toledo in her ’99 Chevy Express.  It’s got 130,000 miles on it.

Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

Michigan’s Governor Rick Snyder gives his second State of the State address tonight.  He’s already signed more than 300 public acts.  That’s a new law for almost every day in office.

Over the next few weeks, Changing Gears is looking at how changes in state government are impacting lives and wallets across the region. Here in Michigan, people are riveted by some of Snyder’s big ticket changes, like giving emergency managers the power to strip control from elected officials in failing cities and school districts.

But this story is different.  It’s about one Mid-Michigan town and all the small, drowned-out changes that deeply affect people’s lives.  People like Janae Jodway.

The industrial Midwest might not be the industrial Midwest if it weren’t for the iron-rich regions of northern Minnesota and Michigan. These iron ranges have long supplied domestic steelmakers, depleting the highest quality ore along the way. Now, a plant in Minnesota is testing a process to dramatically upgrade the low-grade ore that remains.

To understand why this matters, keep in mind how steelmaking has changed.  The old recipe for steel calls for iron ore, coke and a blast furnace.  But now, more than half of American steel is made in electric arc furnaces, which use electricity to melt scrap steel into new steel.

You can find those ingredients in your own kitchen or garage.

Courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library / Wayne State University

There may be no better example of how the industrial Midwest is changing than the site of the old Fisher Body Plant No. 1 in Flint, Michigan. It’s one of the factories sit-down strikers occupied in the 1930s. The plant made tanks during World War II. It was later closed, gutted and reborn as a GM design center. But GM abandoned the site after bankruptcy and the new occupants don’t make cars. They sell very expensive prescription drugs.

There’s one group of experts who can always tell you the history and significance of an old factory. They’re the guys at the bar across the street.

Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

We’re looking at the challenges of the region’s empty places this month.

For many people, the most threatening emptiness isn’t a shuttered factory.  It’s the abandoned property next door.  But in Detroit, some residents are using that emptiness to quietly reshape their neighborhoods.

They’re annexing vacant lots around them, buying them when they can or just putting up a fence.

They’re not squatters … they’re blotters.

Kate Davidson

While we’re on the subject of magic bullets, please indulge this brief sidebar.

Schisms happen.  There was once a tremendous split between the (now) Roman Catholic Church and the (now) Eastern Orthodox Church.  Today there’s also a Great Schism in the bullet world.

Namely, between those who say magic bullet and those who say silver bullet — both parties referring to an economic quick fix.

On one side, you have President Obama, who may be the highest profile proponent of the term silver bullet. While pitching his jobs plan to a recent joint session of Congress he said, “It should not be nor will it be the last plan of action we propose. What’s guided us from the start of this crisis hasn’t been the search for a silver bullet. It’s been a commitment to stay at it, to be persistent, to keep trying every new idea that works.”

History is full of the search for magic bullets, those quick tickets to jobs and economic prosperity. Cities across our region have put great hopes and resources into magic bullets.

Some have soared; many have backfired.

This week, we’re bringing you stories of magic bullets past and present. We start with this look back.

Magic bullets are kind of like imaginary friends. We all have them in our past, but most people deny they exist.

Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

Here are four very bad words you hear a lot these days:

There.  Are.  No.  Jobs.

But it turns out, that’s not entirely true.

Yes, the manufacturing sector lost six million jobs last decade.  But now, staffing agencies that place temporary workers in manufacturing say business is booming.

Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

*Editors note - This story by Kate Davidson of Changing Gears was first broadcast last year (September 22, 2010). Now that GM and the UAW have agreed to a new contract that will allow GM to hire more "two-tier" workers (newly hired workers paid a lower wage than traditional workers), we thought we'd bring her story on "two-tier" workers back. As Micki Maynard of Changing Gears points out, only about 4 percent of GM's workforce is "two-tier" now - under the new contract, that number could go up to 25 percent.

The American Dream is that each generation will do better than the last.  But many families of auto workers no longer have that expectation.  As Detroit car makers sped towards financial ruin, their union agreed to a dual wage structure, plus deep cuts in benefits.

Now, new hires earn about half what traditional workers make.  This reversal of fortune has altered their lives.

Imagine going home out at night while your computer keeps doing your job. That’s the basic idea behind a trend in manufacturing called “lights-out machining.” You punch out. The machines keep working. It’s a way to make a lot more product with a lot fewer people … and fewer jobs. Here’s the story of two Michigan companies that are trying to boost productivity and stay competitive by turning out the lights and going home.

First, a little perspective. Man’s love/hate relationship with automation has been around a long time. Take the 1936 classic Modern Times.

Charlie Chaplin is in a frenzy. He’s tightening bolts on the factory line. The boss straps him into a person-feeding machine, so his hands can keep working while his mouth eats lunch. It’s a nightmare of productivity, where men are captive to machines. But manufacturers today have a different vision.

“At the end of the shift, my operators go home. Their machines continue running in the building with nobody in it,” says John Hill.

Hill owns a small business called Midwest Mold Services. The company designs and builds metal molds for plastic parts. These parts wind up in cars, medical devices, and even as the emblem on the back of a Cadillac. Hill says in the old days, shaping these metal molds was a job for one machine and one operator.

Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

Foreclosure activity dropped by more than a third this past year, according to the group RealtyTrac. But despite the national slowdown, regional companies that take care of foreclosed homes are still thriving. Their job is to keep empty houses clean and safe from the forces that depress local property values: squatters, thieves and decay.

Dawn Hammontree probably never expected to see their work firsthand.

The first part of Hammontree’s story is familiar in Michigan. Her unemployment ran out in December.

Photo courtesy of Cliffs Natural Resources

Our Changing Gears project is on the road, bringing you stories of towns where one company still affects everybody’s lives. Today we head north, to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. That’s where North America’s biggest supplier of iron ore has been blasting the earth, and creating jobs, for more than 160 years. 

Our destination is the city of Ishpeming. It’s small.  Basically, you can’t throw a rock here without hitting a miner.

Take Steve Carlson. After high school, he worked 37 years for the mines.

Photo courtesy of Geoff Horst

The clean economy is touted as a future economic driver of the region. But a new report shows that while Ohio and Illinois have added jobs to the clean economy, Michigan is the only state to have lost them. Changing Gears visited one scientist in Plymouth, Mich., who’s trying to nudge that number back up.

Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

We brought the story of the Great Lakes dredging backlog to your radio and computer screen.

But sometimes, you need more of a visual. (Even more than my 18 million ovens post.)

So click through to my slideshow to meet some of the people affected by sediment buildup in regional shipping channels.

Chart courtesy of the Great Lakes Maritime Task Force

Who knew an inch could make such a difference?

In our piece this week on the Great Lakes dredging backlog, we introduced you to Mark Barker, president of The Interlake Steamship Company.  I called him “a man who measures revenue with a ruler.”

To see what that really means, check out the nifty chart from the Great Lakes Maritime Task Force (above).

It shows how much cargo a ship can hold for every inch of water it occupies. For the biggest vessels – the “thousand- footers” – one inch of draft corresponds to 267 tons of cargo. That’s why every bit of clearance matters to shippers trying to get the most bang from every trip.

The Great Lakes form a sprawling ecosystem of nature and industry.  In a strong economy, ships can transport up to 200 million tons of cargo across these waters each year.  But now the shipping industry has declared a state of emergency.  The cause is a region-wide dredging backlog.  Shippers worry sediment buildup threatens to choke some navigation channels.

Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

DETROIT — Nonprofits are a vibrant part of the Midwest economy. They employ a lot of people and the need for their services has grown. But charities that contract with governments to provide social services also depend on those governments for payments. When promised payments are late, the results can be crippling.

Here’s the story of two non-profits — one old and one new — and their fight to survive the effects of late payments in hard times.

Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

Imagine trying to prove that thousands of people exist, when you have no idea who they are.

That’s the dilemma facing officials who think their communities were undercounted in the 2010 Census.  But for Midwest cities preparing to challenge those numbers: How do you find people the Census Bureau missed?  We went looking for answers in Detroit.

When Detroit’s numbers came out in March, Mayor Dave Bing quickly summoned the press.  The tone was crisis — as if a natural disaster had struck.  And in a way, it had.  Detroit had lost a quarter of its people over the last ten years.

As cameras whirred, the mayor explained that Detroit’s population now stood at 713,777. 

"Personally I don’t believe the number is accurate,” he said.  “And I don’t believe it will stand up as we go through with our challenge."

Cleveland, Akron and Cincinnati are also considering challenges. 

Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

Property values have plummeted across the region.

That means cities and towns have watched their tax revenue plunge as well. But many homeowners and businesses think their property taxes are still too high.

The result is a double hit.

Local governments are in fiscal crisis, and the tax courts of Michigan, Ohio and Illinois are clogged with people who want refunds.

People like Donald Betlem.

Getty Images

The labor battle seizing the Midwest right now is focused on the collective bargaining rights of public sector employees. But the fight over breaking these unions may have cracked open another door: the one labeled “right-to-work.”

So, let’s recap some of the big labor news that’s unfolded in recent weeks. Thousands of protestors flooded the capitals of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and, of course, Wisconsin.

Also – and this didn’t make headlines — In Grand Rapids, Jared Rodriguez began moving into a new office.

“In fact, I was unpacking boxes when you called,” he said.

Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

The country is facing a nursing shortage, but schools in our region can’t keep up with the demand for nursing education.

As we reported in our first story, that’s partly because there are a limited number of clinical settings where student nurses can work with patients.

Now, to augment the clinical experience, some nursing programs are enlisting the help of a newfangled dummy, wired with smart technology.

Actually, calling these high tech mannequins “dummies” might be a bit insulting.

Forget those passive plastic torsos you’ve seen in CPR demonstrations. We’re talking about high fidelity mannequins, remotely operated by IT guys with headsets and laptops.

Larissa Miller runs the nursing simulation program at Lansing Community College. She can wax poetic about the virtues of the school’s simulated man.

“Our mannequin can shake,” she said, “which is great, we make him have a seizure right in the bed. He can sweat and it starts pouring down his face. He blinks, he breathes, he has pulses…”

He talks. And his female counterpart can even give birth. Miller has been a nurse for 19 years and she says the technology is exploding, "simulation is absolutely one of the fastest paced things I’ve ever watched in education," she said.

Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

Nursing is a hot career.

The federal government says the field will create more new jobs than any other profession this decade — almost 600,000 jobs by 2018.

But there’s a bottleneck.

Schools in our region can’t keep up with all the people who want to become nurses or other health care workers.

In the first of two stories, Changing Gears is examining some of the high tech tools schools are using to help ease the training crunch.

Kate Davidson / Changing Gears

How important is the quality of leadership to the economic vitality of a city? And what role can leaders play in the transformation of our region? Changing Gears is exploring these questions in a three-part series on leadership.

We start with the man who may have the toughest job of any big city mayor: Dave Bing of Detroit.

He has to keep his economically depressed city running, while convincing residents that Detroit must shrink to survive.

One of those residents is David Dudley.

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