Sarah Cwiek

Sarah Cwiek - Detroit Reporter/Producer

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October, 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit. Before her arrival at Michigan Radio, Sarah worked at WDET-FM as a reporter and producer.

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Governor Snyder was on hand in Detroit to wrap up his two-day Governor's Economic Summit Tuesday.

One of the summit's main goals was to start matching workforce talent and job skills with employers’ needs. There was a lot of talk about the need for better-trained employees in some sectors, particularly the skilled trades.

But Snyder says employers have to do their part, too—and treat potential employees like customers.

Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

A Detroit-based technology firm says it has an elegant solution to the city's property tax-collection woes.

Loveland Technologies has been mapping the city’s tax-foreclosed properties online. And Loveland founder Jerry Paffendorf says they’ve come across some remarkable data along the way, like this: “The city of Detroit is nearly half a billion dollars behind on property tax collection, when you add in penalties and interest.”

Large piles of petroleum coke along the Detroit River have sparked concern from citizens and environmental groups.

The “petcoke” is a byproduct of the crude oil refinement process. This petcoke comes from the nearby Marathon oil refinery.

It’s really started piling up on two sites along the Detroit River only recently, as the nearby Marathon oil refinery has expanded to process more crude oil from the Alberta tar sands.

Kevyn Orr
Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

It’s official: Detroit has an emergency manager.

His name is Kevyn Orr. And it’s fair to say that he charmed even some skeptical observers when he was introduced to Detroit Thursday.

Orr isn’t exactly a household name. He was—until he quit his job Friday—a partner at the Jones Day law firm in Washington, DC. He’s a bankruptcy lawyer and turnaround expert who helped Chrysler through a successful managed bankruptcy.

Governor Snyder will name an emergency financial manager for Detroit today and groups that oppose the move are gearing up.

Some Detroiters fiercely believe that an emergency manager would be an illegal action that deprives them of local control.

Tom Barrow is a former Detroit mayoral candidate with the group Citizens for Detroit’s Future.

He says some people have vowed what sounds like an insurrection.

In a weird twist of fate, two remarkable events in Detroit’s recent history are happening at virtually the same time.

Former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was convicted of multiple federal corruption charges Monday. And Governor Snyder is expected to appoint an emergency financial manager within days.

The timing is a coincidence, but there’s some connection between the two events—and a lot of symbolism.

The Detroit City Council will press a challenge to Governor Snyder’s decision appointing an emergency financial manager—but they’ll do so without Mayor Dave Bing’s support.

The Council voted to approve that challenge Wednesday afternoon. Bing then held a late afternoon press conference declaring his opposition to the Council's tactics.

“I tried to figure out a way to support the Council in their efforts to appeal the Governor’s decision and to challenge the Financial Review Team’s assertion that we did not have a plan in place to fiscally stabilize the City,” Bing told reporters.

City of Detroit

Detroit city officials are struggling to come up with a unified response to Governor Snyder’s decision to appoint an emergency financial manager.

They now have less than a week to decide if they want to challenge that. If they do, Governor Snyder has said a hearing will be held March 12.

Most members of the City Council want to at least pursue a public hearing challenging Snyder’s decision. But several say that’s difficult because Detroit mayor Dave Bing hasn’t publicly declared his position.

Governor Snyder announced last week that he’ll appoint an emergency manager for the city of Detroit.

That means an unelected person will have sweeping powers to try and stop Detroit’s financial hemorrhaging.

Of course, emergency managers are controversial. And though they don’t have a choice in the matter, Detroiters are very much divided about whether this is a good thing.

“Both are going to hurt, which will hurt the less?”

A Detroit mayoral candidate says a state financial review team vastly overstates the city’s debt burden—and their motives are political.

Lisa Howze, a former state representative and an accountant, says her own calculations show the city’s debt load is just a little over $2 billion.

In its report outlining Detroit’s financial emergency, the state review team put the number at closer to $15 billion. Their report is now in Governor Snyder’s hands as he decides whether to appoint an emergency manager for the city.

Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

It’s not a surprise, but it is official: Mike Duggan wants to be Detroit’s next mayor.

Duggan was CEO of the Detroit Medical Center until recently. He’s spent the last few months laying the groundwork for a mayoral run.

At an official campaign kickoff Tuesday evening, Duggan touted his credentials as a turnaround artist in both the public and private sectors.

He told the crowd Governor Snyder shouldn’t appoint an emergency manager for Detroit, because that won't solve the city's financial problems.

And he says even if the Governor does appoint one, he'll be ready to challenge the appointment if he's elected mayor.

"We’re going to bring the talents of this community together," Duggan said. "And we’re going to put together such a powerful turnaround team, that we'll go to the Governor in a positive way and say, ‘We don’t need an emergency manager.'"

Duggan has been a longtime player in Detroit politics, though he only moved to the city recently. He’s lined up some influential supporters, including ministers, two former Detroit police chiefs, and business leaders.

Duggan’s run has drawn a lot of attention, in part because he’s the first white candidate for Detroit mayor in decades.

Duggan didn’t address that directly, though he--and some of his African-American supporters--said his candidacy "shouldn't be about color."

Duggan did say that Detroit should be open to anyone who wants to help rebuild the city: “Whether you were born in this city or you were born in another country, if you want to come to Detroit to be part of our future, you are just as welcome as anybody else.”

Despite the likely appointment of an emergency manager--and a very uncertain future for Detroit's elected officials--the mayor's race has gotten rather crowded.

In addition to Duggan, former State Representatives Lisa Howze and Fred Durhal are running, as is former Detroit corporation counsel Krystal Crittendon. Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon is also widely expected to jump in the race.

And Detroit mayor Dave Bing has so far refused to say whether he'll seek re-election.

Mercedes Mejia / Michigan Radio

A study by researchers at the University of Michigan links lead exposure in children to lower achievement on standardized tests.

It's published in the March issue of the American Journal of Public Health.  Click here to read the study

From the study:

Detroit has an extensive lead poisoning problem. Although only 20% of Michigan’s children younger than 5 years lived in Detroit in 2010, childhood lead poisoning in Detroit has consistently accounted for more than 50 percent of the state’s total lead burden.

Detroit Free Press reporter Keith Matheny's article explores the research further and the schools affected.

The greater the lead poisoning in a Detroit Public Schools student's blood, the higher the likelihood he or she will do poorly on achievement tests -- even after accounting for contributing factors such as poverty. That's the finding of a collaborative study that provides one of the most detailed assessments yet of the impact of lead poisoning on students' learning ability.

Paul Hitzelberger / United Photo Works

It appears that officials might be laying the groundwork for a so-called “managed bankruptcy” in Detroit—though it’s something they hope won’t actually happen.

A process for going through Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy is laid out in the state’s new emergency manager law that kicks in next month. And it could happen even if Governor Snyder appoints an emergency manager for Detroit.

Both state and city officials used to say that bankruptcy was completely off the table for Detroit.

The Education Achievement Authority says new data show students in that school district are making progress.

The EAA is a state-run district for the lowest-performing schools. It launched just this school year with 15 former Detroit public schools.

The district gave all students a Scantron Performance Series benchmark test at the start of the year, to establish baseline skill levels. Students in grades 2-9 were just tested again in late January and early February.

Results show that 27% of students have made what the district counts as one year’s worth of progress in just a few months. 22% have made the same level of progress in math.

Overall, the district says 48% of students are “on track” to achieve at least that much progress in reading, and 43% in math, by the end of the school year.

EAA Chancellor John Covington says in the district’s eyes, those numbers equal success.

“It takes time for all of us to learn this new way of doing things,” Covington said. “And so with that being true, we were thinking at least 50% [making grade-level progress] in the first year. And we’re getting pretty close to that.”

Covington says these results show the EAA computer-based curriculum of “student-centered learning”-- based on “meeting students where they are" at “instructional levels” rather than typical grades--can help even the lowest-performing students improve.

This is the first real batch of data to come out of the EAA.

MEAP tests for grades K-9, administered last fall, showed “minimal proficiency levels,” Covington said. High school students won’t be tested until March.

The state’s attempt to create a “recovery district” for Michigan’s lowest-performing has been controversial for various reasons.

Many are leery of the idea of the state seizing locally-controlled schools—especially Detroit Public Schools, which have a troubled history of state intervention.

The district isn’t currently operating under state law, but rather an interlocal agreement between the Detroit Public Schools and Eastern Michigan University.

Governor Snyder says codifying the district into state law—and expanding its reach statewide—is one of his priorities for this legislative term. An effort to do so in last year’s lame duck session failed.

Most Detroit residents and Detroit-watchers are resigned to the fact that it's likely a matter of when, not if, Governor Snyder will appoint an emergency manager for the city.

Nobody was surprised when a state financial review team found Detroit is in a “local government financial emergency” and that the city’s current leadership “lacks a plan” to deal with it.

via Detroit Board of Education

Detroit’s elected school board will have short-lived authority over some key decisions.

A Wayne County judge ruled Wednesday that the district’s emergency financial manager had exceeded his authority on some issues.

Judge Annette Berry said Roy Roberts must consult with the school board on school closings, security, and some other issues.

Roberts is supposed to share authority with the school board. He oversees finances, while the board supervises academics.

But the two are hard to separate, and both sides have brought court cases over how that should work in practice

Detroit school board President Lamar Lemmons says the ruling granting board members a partial injunction proves Roberts overstepped his authority.

"He’s used the fact that he’s had financial authority to, if you will, bully the staff into cooperating with him,” Lemmons said.  “And for all intents and purposes, ignoring the board and its designated superintendent.”

The arrangement will be short-lived, though. A new emergency manager law kicks into effect on March 28th, once again giving Roberts broad powers over the whole district.

Lemmons says the board plans a court challenge to the new law.

We should know more about Detroit’s grim financial situation on Tuesday.

That’s when Governor Snyder is expected to receive a long-awaited report on the city’s finances.

A state-appointed review team began the process in December. Governor Snyder gave the group an extension because he wanted them to take a deep dive into Detroit’s long-term debt--estimated at more than $12 billion.

Snyder's office declined comment on Monday. But speaking to reporters a couple of weeks ago, the Governor said he’ll move quickly after he gets the report.

“It will probably take a week or two for me to make a full analysis of the report, and then decisions will be made,” Snyder said. “My reputation is not one to be sitting on things rather than making decisions.”

It’s widely expected that the report will depict a city on the brink of insolvency, a mayor and City Council unable to handle it—and suggest further state intervention.

Detroit has had a “financial stability agreement” with Lansing for nearly a year, but the city’s financial picture has only worsened since then.

Snyder has acknowledged interviewing candidates to potentially serve as the city’s emergency manager.

Warriors on Wheels of Metropolitan Detroit

An advocate for the disabled will represent Detroit on a new regional transit authority board.

Mayor Dave Bing announced his selection of Lisa Franklin during his state of the city address last week.

Franklin is the President of Warriors on Wheels. That group has built expertise and credibility as they’ve fought to draw attention to systemic dysfunction in Detroit’s transit system, particularly for the disabled.

Franklin said she’s genuinely excited about her appointment. She believes the authority’s first overarching task is to outline a unified vision for mass transit in Metro Detroit.

“Personally, I would like for us to all sit down and figure out what we want. The best possible service that we can have,” Franklin said. “And then from that point we need to figure out how to connect all of the dots, and then figure out how much it will cost and how we can pay for it.”

Franklin also brings her perspective as a Detroiter who relies on transit. She said one of her main concerns will be how to build a functional and unified public transit system overburdening the low-income people who rely on transit the most.

“I’m hoping that we can connect all of the counties, so that people can go to work, go to doctor’s appointments, without any limitations,” Franklin said.

Governor Snyder just signed Regional Transit Authority was signed into law just last December, and likely won’t start meeting for several more months.

It joins representatives from Wayne, Washtenaw, Oakland and Macomb counties and the city of Detroit to coordinate Metro Detroit’s historically fragmented public transit systems.

The authority likely won’t get rolling until later this year. Besides Detroit, only Washtenaw county has appointed representatives. Once the full board is seated, they’ll need to pick a director.

The U.S. Department of Transportation had withheld millions to build up Detroit area transit--including a proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) line--until an RTA was formed.

If you’ve driven on any Metro Detroit’s major highways recently, you may have spent some time in the dark.

That’s because the region’s highways have been plagued by some recurring power outages.

The outages have hit most major highways in and around the city, especially portions of I-94 and I-96.

In some cases, whole stretches of highway have repeatedly gone completely dark.

Michigan Department of Transportation spokesman Rob Morosi said MDOT has removed some streetlights because they were old and unsound, and lost others to accidents.

But Morosi says the bigger issue is thieves who target transformer cabinets beside the highways, particularly for their copper wire--which can be sold for scrap.

“And we’re seeing an increase in copper theft in and around the metro Detroit area, and most of these lighting outages can be attributed to that theft,” Morosi said.

Morosi says MDOT is trying to fix the problems, but funding is tight and repairs are expensive.

“At this point in time, funding is an issue for this department,” Morosi said. “Infrastructure investment is obviously something we’re keeping a close eye on, and we’re hoping something can be done in Lansing.”

MDOT officials also hope proposed legislation to crack down on scrapyards will help out.

Morosi says it’s difficult to put a price tag on fixing the problem because “it’s such a moving target.”

Nearly all major freeways have been affected, and Morosi estimates as many as 20 percent of the freeway lights around Metro Detroit aren’t working for one reason or another.


Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s state of the city speech last night didn’t focus a whole lot on the city’s financial problems.

Instead, Mayor Bing talked a lot about slow but steady progress on some of his administration’s big goals.

He started by briefly addressing the city’s grim finances, and laid some of the blame at Lansing's feet.

“The total amount of cutbacks in state revenue sharing to Detroit over the past 11 years is more than $700 million,” said Bing.

Bing says this has forced him to make some difficult and unpopular decisions, but he says the city has made progress cutting costs, combating blight and bringing in new development.

“While we can proudly point to all these successes, my job is not done. And neither is yours,” he said.

While he says there’s more to accomplish, Bing still won’t say whether he'll run for re-election in November.

During the speech, he focused on some of his big policy initiatives, and on his success in getting the private sector onboard with those ideas.

He announced a new initiative in the speech.

“Bill Pulte, of Pulte homes, one of this nation’s largest home-builders, has created a private, non-profit group called the Detroit Blight Authority. The group is working with my office to eliminate blight,” said Bing.

Bing says he’s also taken steps to address Detroit’s persistent crime problems.

He says the police chief will launch a new collaborative program this month to crack down on gun crimes.

You can watch the speech online here:

Detroit can just barely avoid running out of cash this fiscal year--if it implements some key measures.

That’s what the city’s finance officials told its financial advisory board on Monday.

The premise to avoid insolvency involves some immediate cuts, some deferred payments—and a few big “ifs.”

Some of those measures are so-called “structural changes,” like mandatory furlough days, layoffs, and possible pension and health care changes. Others defer payments or take one-time opportunities to grab

via Detroit Public Schools

There’s some good news for the Detroit Public Schools in newly-released Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) scores.

42% of the district’s 3rd-through-8th graders scored “proficient or advanced” in reading. That’s up more than 6% from the prior year.

Math scores jumped more than 4%, with fewer than 15% of students rated proficient.

In most subjects, Detroit students’ gains outpaced state averages. But the district’s scores still remain well below state averages.

Roy Roberts, the district’s emergency financial manager, says that’s exactly the sort of progress people should expect at this point.

“If I had walked in here and said we’ve improved every class by 25%, you oughta call the FBI,” Roberts said. “It doesn’t happen that way. It’s incremental improvement.”

The number of Detroit students tested did drop more than 20% this year, though, as the district’s enrollment shrunk significantly. 

The state-run Education Achievement Authority took over 15 of the district’s lowest-performing schools last fall, leaving fewer kids in DPS. The district also has a dramatic long-term enrollment decline.

But that’s not the case at Dixon Elementary-Middle school on thecity’s far west side. That school has actually increased
enrollment—and posted some of the biggest gains citywide on this
year’s MEAP scores.

Principal Ora Beard took over the school three years ago. She says boosting student achievement in a school takes time—and lots of reaching out to students and parents to build trust.

“Our first year was totally building relationships,” said Beard. “And trying to get them to understand that we’re not here to fight you…we’re here to help you. And that’s what school’s got to be about.”

As tax season approaches, programs to assist low-income families with tax preparation are kicking into high gear.

That includes a program run by the Michigan Association of Certified Professional Accounts in Detroit.

Stewart Sakwa is an accountant and a volunteer with the program. He says many people don’t know that they qualify for certain federal and state tax credits if their incomes are below a certain level: $35,000 a year for individuals, and $50,000 a year for families.

“We provide tax preparation for low income individuals, to get them some tax credits and refunds they may not get otherwise,” said Sakwa. "It's extremely worthwhile."

The Tax Assistance has adopted the Detroit non-profit Focus: HOPE as the site where volunteers serve roughly 150 families over three weekends.

Sakwa says there are four main tax credits available to low-income people. On the federal level, there's the Earned Income Tax Credit and child tax credits for families. On the state level, homeowners qualify for the homestead tax credit and home heating credits.

The state of Michigan also offers an Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income working people. However, Governor Snyder and the legislature greatly reduced the amount of that tax credit in 2011--something critics say amounts to a 70% tax increase on the working poor.

Other volunteer groups, including the non-profit Accounting Aid Society, also assist low-income people in Detroit and southeast Michigan with tax preparation.

via oakgov.com

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson struck a lot of triumphant notes during a sometimes-emotional state of the county speech Thursday night.

Patterson has been at the helm in Oakland County for decades.

At least one Detroit City Council member thinks that a deal to make Belle Isle into a state park can be salvaged.

The state took the deal off the table last week, after a majority of Council members declined to vote on it. Lansing had set the end of January as the deadline to finalize a lease agreement.

But Council President Pro-Tem Gary Brown says he thinks a deal can still get done if both sides are serious about it.

Brown used Governor Snyder's catch phrase when he suggested the Governor “use some relentless positive
action” to push the issue.

Noting that he supported the deal last week along with two others,  says three of his colleagues who voted against considering it are persuadable.

“There’s certainly enough time to ask my colleagues," Brown said.

"I mean, ask them what they need in this deal to change their vote. And then give it to
them. And make sure that the deal gets done.”

Governor Snyder pulled the deal off the table after the failed vote last week, saying that was a hard deadline the Michigan Department of Natural Resources needed to include Belle Isle in this year's state parks programming.

State officials could not be reached for comment on whether the Belle Isle deal could be revived.

The Detroit City Council on Tuesday approved articles of incorporation for a public lighting authority in the city.

The state legislature passed bills in December enabling the lighting authority. Detroit has chronic problems keeping many of its streetlights on, though no one can say for sure how many aren't working at any given time.

It allows Detroit to retain ownership of its lighting system, but lets the authority run it. The city currently has about 33,000 lights on its grid; DTE Energy has the other 55,000.

Now that Council has approved its articles of incorporation, the next steps are to find five Detroit residents to act as board members.

Council President Pro-Tem wants to move as quickly as possible to get the authority up and running—and get some of Detroit’s chronically-dark streets lit.

“We need to be out of the business of public lighting,” Brown said.

The authority has the ability to issue bonds to upgrade Detroit’s lighting infrastructure. The legislation also carves out $12.5 million of the city’s utility

The resolution passed over the objections of some Council members.

They’re concerned that streetlights will be turned off forever in some targeted neighborhoods—and taxpayers living there will foot the bill anyway.

“The corporation will make all the revenue and profit, while the taxpayers pay off the debt,” Council member JoAnn Watson said. “The city of Detroit’s proposal would only provide designated neighborhoods
with streetlights, but every taxpayer in the city will pay for it.”

Council member Ken Cockrel Jr. says there are “a lot of perfectly legitimate concerns” with the plan.

"But they probably should’ve been raised six months ago before we approved a resolution, sent it to the legislature, and got the legislature to create the authority,” Cockrel said. “You can’t turn back the clock at this point.”

One of the authority’s biggest decisions will be to decide how many of Detroit’s estimated 88,000 streetlights should remain on. That number—and where service is concentrated—are likely to be major points of contention in coming months.

The legislation calls for taking about 40,000 lights offline.

The 313 Project / via facebook

Volunteer groups in Detroit are still absorbing news that the city will stop maintaining about 50 parks in the spring.

It’s especially upsetting for the many neighborhood and volunteer groups that already work hard to help maintain those parks throughout the year.

A group of former Wayne State University law students make up the 313 Project. They semi-adopted Romanowski Park in southwest Detroit last summer for a “Motion to Makeover” last summer.

Director Aisa Berg says the group marshaled volunteers and nearly $30,000 to invest in upgrading the park. They installed trash cans, bike racks, picnic tables, and helped board and clean up houses surrounding the park

Since the makeover, Berg says she’s heard lots of positive feedback about improvements in the area. “It’s been great just driving around the park, seeing the park being used, whole families coming to the park to barbecue,” Berg says.

Romanowski is one of the parks the city plans to stop maintaining in the spring. But Berg says the group will stick with the park because they’ve “come too far to go back.” But she calls the planned closure “a shame.”

“In a lot of ways, it seems that the city has turned its back on these efforts,” Berg says. She says it would be “wonderful” if the group could develop a more formal relationship with the city to maintain the park.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing announced the park closures last week, after the Detroit City Council effectively rejected a deal that would have made Belle Isle into a state park.

Bing says that deal would have saved the city $6 million that they had counted on to invest in other parks and rec centers. But since that’s no longer possible, they’re being forced to close parks, and maintain others less frequently.

That includes parts of Rouge Park, Detroit’s largest park at nearly 1200 acres on its far west side. Part of the park will be closed, while another portion will be maintained regularly as a so-called “premier” city park.

That’s upsetting news to the Friends of Rouge Park, a group that’s worked to protect and restore the park since 2002.

Sally Petrella is the group’s President. She says they’ve been working on a master plan for the park—and have been trying to leverage that to get additional money.

“Which is part of what makes us really disappointed to hear that the mayor wants to shut down the park,” Petrella said. “It really puts a damper on efforts like that, where we’re actually working to bring more money to the park.”

Petrella says the park is too large for a volunteer group to maintain on their own—there needs to be at least some small budget allocation just to cut the grass.

Still, Petrella is hopeful they can reach some kind of deal to keep the whole park open.

“We need to come together and say these parks are important,” Petrella said. Like we did with the zoo, like we did with the DIA.

“These are resources, assets that we all benefit from, but we need to find a way to foot the bill.”

via US Postal Service

Monday would have been civil rights’ icon Rosa Parks’ 100th birthday.

Her legacy was honored with a National Day of Courage—and a day-long program at Dearborn’s Henry Ford museum.

Parks’ was remembered as a “social innovator”—someone whose commitment to civil rights and democracy continues to inspire countless people.

The US Senate unanimously passed a resolution last month honoring Parks, and Michigan Senator Carl Levin was on hand at the Henry Ford to read it.

Levin also helped unveil a new US Postal Service stamp bearing Parks’ profile, and the word “forever.” “Because Rosa Parks’ values, and her courage, will inspire us and this world forever,” Levin said.

Parks migrated to Detroit in the late 1950s, and lived the rest of her life there. The Henry Ford houses the Montgomery, Alabama bus where Parks famously refused to give up her seat

Former Henry Ford President Steven Hamp says that’s just one reason why it’s an appropriate home for that piece of history.

“Detroit has had such a fascinating part to play in the civil rights story,” Hamp said. “And because it really was the endpoint of so much of the great migration, the bus really kind of rounds that story out in a really powerful way.”


Detroit firefighters have won the right to subpoena and depose top members of Mayor Dave Bing’s administration.

The firefighters union is suing the city. They say that decisions to close firehouses have jeopardized public safety in violation of the city charter and national fire protection standards—and have left targeted areas of the city virtually without adequate service.

Detroit Firefighters Association President Dan McNamara says they’re “looking for the decision-makers,” and they want them under oath.

City of Detroit

The city of Detroit will close 50 parks in the spring because of the City Council’s inaction on a proposal to make Belle Isle into a state park.

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing says that would have freed up about $6 million for the city to invest in other parks and recreation centers—and that effectively means $6 million they’d counted on to bolster other park services have disappeared.

So the city is responding by making cuts: closing 50 parks, limiting maintenance at another 38, and canceling plans to extend rec center hours and add 50 employees.