Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Cliffs Coup, Duke's Dollars, Brown's Search, and Lorinsers' "Vacation"

That's the official word coming out of Cliffs Natural Resources following the apparent...and shocking...takeover of the Cliffs board by Casablanca Capital, the activist hedge fund, on Tuesday.
Final results of the voting won't be tabulated for a couple more days but Casablanca is declaring victory, and the current Cliffs leadership is remaining silent.
What does it all mean for Cliffs? Probably the ousting of the CEO and president Gary Halverson, along with the seating of six new board members, a new direction for the ailing company, a divesting of some of its operations, and maybe a rise in its stock price. It jumped more than two dollars a share after the voting results were first made public on Tuesday.
How about the Tilden and Empire mines? Hard to say if there'll be an impact here. What we do know is that Casablanca likes the Minnesota and Michigan mines and thinks they're profitable, unlike some of Cliffs' other operations. That's good news for Marquette County and Cliffs' 1500 or so employees here.
Any loss of jobs? Can't tell yet. You can be certain, though, that Casablanca is out to make money for its shareholders. Period.
If that means hard-working people lose their jobs, so be it. That's the way the system works, especially when a company's stock price has plummeted 85% in three years.
UPDATE ON THE relocation of Marquette General Hospital (aka "The $300 Million Guessing Game!"): The Marquette Golf Club has informed Duke LifePoint that the hospital needs to make a serious offer for the golf course.
To date, that has not happened.
The club is burdened with a stubborn four million dollar debt but it's not about to give away half of its treasured Heritage course for a song and a dance and a shiny set of golf clubs.
Next meeting for the club to discuss the issues is August 7th.
BOBBY GLENN BROWN, who was recently booted from his leadership role at St. Michaels Catholic Church after marrying his longtime partner, is searching for a new religious home.

In the past few weeks, he's attended services at Lutheran and Episcopalian churches as well as another local Catholic church.

He says he still considers himself a "member" of St. Michaels but he's had no correspondence with the priest or bishop.

He's pinning his hopes on a petition with more than 1000 signatures that's asking the Pope to review his case. Seems like a longshot.

At some point, you gotta believe Brown will settle in at a church that truly embraces gay marriage. He'll have a new, welcoming spiritual home, and the Catholic church will continue its struggles to adapt to the changing realities of the 21st century.

SOME OF US may not understand it but you've got to admire the courage of Bob and Peggy Lorinser.

They're headed to Afghanistan. It's supposed to be lovely in the fall.

Actually these foreign service employees had volunteered to go to Iraq--another delightful vacation spot--but that was overruled as being too dangerous given the recent military gains by ISIS, the Islamic group that's considered slightly more radical than Al Qaeda.

So the Lorinsers, after serving tours of duty in Pakistan and South Korea, are off to Washington DC where they'll get three weeks of training on the Afghan culture...and then it's straight to Kabul.

Bob, a doctor, will serve as regional medical director and travel throughout Afghanistan; Peggy will perform her work at the American embassy in Kabul.

And to think, just a few short years ago, this couple, after having raised their children, was enjoying a normal, comfortable life in Marquette. And then this. A midlife crisis? A second chapter? A thirst for adventure? A hunger for meaning?

Whatever it was, it was imbued with a strong sense of patriotism for which we should all be thankful.
YA GOTTA LOVE Dan Perkins.

He's the westside businessman who's dreaming about transforming Ishpeming, and is actually pursuing his dreams.

His pet project for the last year or so has been establishing the Partridge Creek Farm, a 20 acre tract at the intersection of Malton Road and Heritage Trail in Ishpeming.

Right now the land is suitable for growing weeds and not much else but Perkins, in conjunction with the Ishpeming City Council and some far-seeing volunteers, continues to push for permitting and financing of the tract as a non-profit community farm with a ten month growing season (in greenhouses) and an aquaponics operation.

Aquaponics? That's raising and harvesting fish who, at the same time, provide natural fertilizer for your crops. Brilliant. Synergistic. Symbiotic. It's working at farms in Milwaukee. Perkins is convinced it can happen here.

Call him Don Quixote tilting at windmills. He doesn't care. Scoff at all the delays and obstacles. So what. He sees Ishpeming in need of jobs and fresh produce (He calls the UP a "food desert") and he's convinced he may have a solution. He continues to push forward.

He's hoping, with a substantial grant, Cliffs and Lundin might give Partridge Creek Farm the boost it needs to start tilling the soil and building the greenhouses. Composting the soil should take place next year, crop production should start in 2016.

Let's wish them luck.

MORE NEWS FROM the westside.

The long delayed microbrewery, Cognition Brewing Company, is finally making substantial progress toward completion.

Anticipated opening? November.

It'll be located in the tap room of the historic Mather Inn so much of the structure and furnishing is already in place. It will have the feel of an old English pub, with eight to ten brews on tap. What's not to like?

And the name Cognition? Seems a bit strange for a brewing company. Well, the owner, Jay Clancey, and the brew master, Brian Richards, want you to "think" about what you're drinking, and truly appreciate the flavors, rather than simply drinking to get a buzz.

Whatever. Craft beer at a renovated historic pub sounds like a great idea, regardless of the name.

THE MARQUETTE COUNTRY Convention and Visitors Bureau isn't having much luck so far in finding a successor for director Pat Black who's leaving her post at the end of the year.

More than 20 people have applied for the post...but none of them has had tourism experience. That would seem to be a major deficiency in a region whose economic fortunes are increasingly tied to tourism.

Case in point: after a frigid winter that really didn't seem to end until May, Marquette is now poised for what may be the biggest summer season in its history. Yeah, a lot of out-of-towners actually enjoy blustery, 68 degree days where the sun plays peek-a-boo with the clouds.

And Ms. Black? She's heading down to Arizona for a long, sunny vacation early next year. Her successor--whoever he or she turns out to be--will have some big flip-flops to fill.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Hospital Anticipation, Truck Route Compromise and Hiawatha's Empty Seats

THE DECISION IS is getting close.

Duke LifePoint  has been dealing directly with the city of Marquette and Marquette Township for the last couple of weeks regarding the three possible sites for the new hospital.

The township says they've now supplied Duke LifePoint with everything they need on the site behind the Westwood Mall, and everything's in order. The township is just waiting.

The city is still negotiating on its two sites--the Roundhouse property and the golf course--but it's also filed the requested papers.

How much actual back-and-forth bargaining is going on? It's uncertain. Who knows? Maybe it's just starting, even though the original deadline for a decision was about a month ago.

What is certain is that Duke LifePoint is holding most of the cards in this high stakes game. Both the township and the city dearly want the hospital and are willing to accommodate the hospital's demands....up to a point. As one city official put it recently, "How much are we willing to give them to keep them in the city? If we have to spend too much--money we don't have--is it worth it?"

If they had their druthers, most Marquette officials and merchants would love Duke LifePoint to choose the Roundhouse site because it would amount to immediate urban renewal. The neighborhood would be transformed, money would pour in. But the golf course property would be just fine too.

And the township? They're just saying, with full-throated enthusiasm, "Come on down!" They've got their hands on their shovels and their eyes on the prize.

A COMPROMISE COULD be near on the truck route controversy that has had the city and township exchanging hostile words and glances.

Here's what the compromise would look like: Marquette would pass a truck ordinance that would send all westbound, eastbound and southbound trucks along Wright Street to US 41, but the ordinance wouldn't take effect for a couple of years.

In the meantime, all parties involved--the Road Commission, the city and the township--would work on getting a bypass built that would send truck traffic around the edges of the city and the township.

And once funding and permitting are secured for the bypass, the city would then designate McClellan (over likely vehement protests from residents) as the north-south route through the city.

Bottom line: for now, the big trucks could continue, as they do now, to use all roads in the city for the next couple of years.

With two major exceptions. (This is known in the news business as "burying the lead.") In this proposed compromise, truckers would no longer be able to drive on Lakeshore and Third Street except for local deliveries. That would be a major change that would take effect immediately (and would be cheered by local residents and merchants.)

The township's not exactly embracing the proposal because it still feels, with some justification, that the city is trying to dump its big, lumbering, noisy, polluting truck traffic into the township. But the two municipalities seem to be getting closer.

The long term solution to the problem--the bypass--is, at best, three years away from construction.

ANOTHER HIAWATHA MUSIC festival is in the books.

Great weather, great crowds, great fun, great music.

Well, about the music. For aficionados, it was wonderful and artistic and eclectic. But did you take a look around during the daylight hours at the seats in front of the main stage?

Most were empty. Performers were playing to a sea of empty seats. Some of the performers even mentioned it. It's got to be dismaying to them. Hiawatha attracts more than 3000 festival-goers, but for some daytime acts, only about 100 people, sometimes fewer, seemed to be actively listening. That's three percent.

The other 97% were elsewhere, at campsites, workshops, at the beach, on the streets, at the food booths. Anywhere but at the main stage where the supposed attractions of this traditional music festival were performing.

Maybe it's just time for us to acknowledge that Hiawatha is more about communalism--the joy of being together with friends and family--than it is about traditional music.

Which is fine. You just feel kinda sad for the performers who were up on stage playing their music for a mute and static crowd of empty chairs and blankets.

Maybe "traditional" music is something that we all respect...but we don't necessarily love.

Maybe we should look into Justin Bieber's availability next July.

NEXT TUESDAY'S CLIFFS Natural Resources shareholder meeting and election has directors, officials, employees and shareholders sipping their coffee nervously.

Casablanca Capital is attempting a takeover that could affect jobs, salaries, bonuses and share prices, as well as the future direction of the mining company. The impact could be felt here at both the Tilden and Empire mines.

One positive sign in all this, amid the corporate conflict, the declining steel prices and the seemingly imminent closure of the Empire mine (yeah, we've heard that before), is that ArcelorMittal, one of Cliffs' partners, is spending big money to partially reline a huge blast furnace in Indiana.

That's where iron ore pellets from Empire and Tilden are melted into pig iron.

Does that mean ArcelorMittal is anticipating extending the Empire contract beyond 2016? Not necessarily, says one Cliffs official.

But hey, we'll take any good news we can get our hands on.

ALL'S WELL THAT ends well.

Remember the nasty little spat between the Marquette Farmers Market and Farmer Q's last year and early this year? It ended with Farmer Q's and their downstate produce noisily pulling out of the Farmers Market, telling their friends and customers they were moving downstate, then suddenly reversing course and moving into a new shop in south Marquette.

Some of us were concerned the Farmers Market might suffer because Farmer Q's had offered a wide variety of fruits that simply weren't grown in the UP.

Good news. The Farmers Market crowds have not diminished since last year. They still average about 700 customers every Saturday, the same as 2013, according to the DDA. No serious growth either, but every year, the UP farmers are growing more local produce, and the crowds will likely increase.

And Farmer Q's? Business is great, according to owner Susan Brian. Revenue's up 50% over its old location on Washington Street. More walk-in traffic, more visibility and more parking at its location on US 41.

So everybody wins here--the Farmers Marquette, Farmer Q's, and the customers.

YOU MAY NOTICE some vaguely familiar young faces on the streets and  beaches and in the bars and restaurants of Marquette the weekend after next.

Nearly a dozen alumni from TV6 and Fox UP are returning to the UP for a reunion.

Among them: Phil DeCastro, Aaron Martin, Nikki Junewicz, Natalie Jovonovich, Mike Bedard, Nikki Davidson, Noel McLaren, Beth Jones, Eric Kane, and Andrew Lacombe.

What's ironic is that many of them, if not most, probably dreaded coming up to the remote, primitive, frozen tundra of the UP when they first got their broadcasting jobs here...Yet, now, a few years later, having thoroughly enjoyed their stay here and the relationships they built, they're returning.

Welcome back.

Last call is at 2 am.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Cliffs Shake-up, Schneider Break-up, and a Surprising Website Breakdown

CLIFFS NATURAL RESOURCES is preparing for a potentially nasty and climactic shareholders meeting and vote on July 29th.

Casablanca Capital, the activist hedge fund which owns about 5% of Cliffs, is essentially attempting a coup of the company. It's putting up its own, hostile slate of candidates for the Cliffs board of directors.

If it wins the board vote, Casablanca would likely fire the CEO, radically change the company strategy and divest some of Cliffs international operations.

Cliffs, for its part, calls the Casablanca candidates inexperienced. It's attempted to appease Casablanca by offering the hedge fund a few slots on the board of directors, but Casablanca has rejected the compromise. It wants control of the company. It blames current Cliffs management for failed strategies, excessive salaries and plummeting stock prices.

How much of a plummet? How about a share price of $99.86 on July 22, 2011...and a share price of, oh, about $15 or so today. Quick math tells you that's an 85% slide in three years.

Worse news: there's nothing to indicate that iron ore prices worldwide are going up anytime soon. If anything, they may continue to decline.

Worse, worse news: a law firm has just filed a class action suit against Cliffs for allegedly misrepresenting itself to investors and misleading them about the company's financial condition.

IF JASON SCHNEIDER, the former City Commissioner and current County Commission candidate,  had intended to botch his exit from his job at Accelerate UP and to sully his otherwise sterling reputation, he succeeded in admirable fashion.

For the last fifteen months, Schneider, with funding from the Lundin Foundation (yeah, the mining company), has been helping young businesses get on their feet with the aid of other established businesses in the community. By all accounts, he's done a wonderful job, and he, himself, has nothing but praise for Lundin and its role in supporting him.

Problem is, the Accelerate UP board of directors told him back in May it didn't like the idea of him running for county commission because it didn't like to mix politics with business. You can disagree with that logic--and many of us do--but the fact is, he was told back then that if and when he won the commission seat, he'd have to resign from Accelerate UP.

If he'd been so upset about the ultimatum, he should have resigned right then and there. That would have been the principled thing to do.

But Schneider chose not to resign then. Instead, he decided to wait for a couple of months before suddenly announcing his resignation last week. He informed his board of his decision by email...and then one hour later, notified the media. Soon thereafter, he then told all his friends on Facebook about his decision.

At worst, it sounds like a publicity stunt designed to gain sympathy and votes a few weeks before the election. At best, it was an unfortunate, ill-timed move by a novice politician.

Oh well. But what's more baffling is why he didn't continue working his  job helping entrepreneurs until the election came around. If he were to lose the election (he's up against incumbent Bruce Heikkila), Lundin had told him he would keep the job and continue his good work.

You also have to ask yourself: Which is more valuable? A fulltime job helping struggling, young businesses? Or a parttime job as a county commissioner?

Yeah, we'll hear all about "principles" and the big, bad mining company and the backroom conspiracies, etc but the fact is, a good man doing a good job took a messy way out when he didn't have to. And Marquette County is the worse for it.

NUMBERS CAN LIE, and frequently do.

But here are some numbers that might force the local television industry to sit up and take notice:

TV6 in May reported 2.5 million page views on its website (impressive, a tenfold increase over just ten years ago).

But ABC 10 in June reported...(drum roll, please)...2.7 million page views.


Okay, time for caveats. First, it is two different months but that shouldn't have made that much of a difference. And second, it's two different companies calculating the monthly analytics reports so maybe it's not quite apples to apples.

But still.

TV6 has long been the overwhelmingly dominant station here--its newscast numbers dwarf those of ABC 10 and TV 3 (the newcomer to the game). But online, ABC 10 apparently has been making huge strides. It does have a remarkably active social media presence.

It still seems hard to believe, because the TV6 website remains robust and ever-alert to breaking news and it's got many more reporter-contributors than ABC 10 does.

Let's see what shakes out in the months ahead. Maybe these latest numbers are just an anomaly. And yes, sometimes numbers do lie.

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