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Posted on Sun, Apr 10, 2011 : 6 a.m.

Bye, bye conference center; hello jobs and Ann Arbor Summer Festival

By Tony Dearing

Musings on the news of the past week:

REQUIEM FOR A CONFERENCE CENTER -- Some observers might have been surprised by how quickly Ann Arbor City Council moved last week to reject a proposed hotel and conference center project for downtown, but we wouldn’t call the action premature. More like preordained. As little support as there was among council members for the project, there was no reason to drag out the process, or enter into lengthy and complex discussions with the developer. This project had no prospect of eventual approval, and council was right to step in and cut the process short. Like many in the community, we had deep misgivings about the viability of the 150-room hotel and 26,000-square-foot conference center that New York-based Valiant Partners wanted to erect on top of the underground parking structure currently being built downtown. It was a tough sell to the community, and a tough sell to City Council -- too tough, in fact, to warrant further discussion. By a vote of 8-2, council members not only rejected a proposed letter of intent with Valiant, but ended the entire process of seeking any above-ground development of what is known as the Library Lot. That outcome leaves the city open to second-guessing about the decision to build the $50 million underground ramp in the first place, but that second-guessing has been going on anyway. Given that the feasibility of the proposed hotel and conference center in this difficult economy was never adequately demonstrated, we can’t fault the city for declining to gamble on this particular project. Instead, it will now wait for a better economy and a potentially more viable project at some undetermined time in the future. That sounds like the better bet to us.

OUT OF THE ABYSS -- A forecast is an educated guess, but if economists at the University of Michigan continue to sound more upbeat about job growth in the state, that’s an encouraging prospect -- particularly when coupled with other mildly reassuring indicators. In a revised forecast issued last week, the economists now are projecting that the Michigan economy will add 126,100 jobs this year and next. That’s almost 39,000 more jobs than they predicted when they first issued their forecast last fall. There are other signs as well that the state is slowly climbing out of the economic abyss. In February, the number of unemployed workers in Michigan fell below a half million for the first time since November 2008. And the state unemployment rate was 10.4 percent that month, compared to 13.5 percent a year ago in February. Every indication is that Michigan continues to face a long, slow recovery. But recovery has to begin somewhere, and any evidence that it’s underway and likely to continue is welcome indeed.

A SURE SIGN OF SUMMER -- Have you had spring on your mind recently? Go ahead and think summer, too. Especially now that the Ann Arbor Summer Festival has publicly announced its lineup of main-stage performances. Among the headliners are k.d. lang, Steve Martin playing bluegrass, Pink Martini and a traditional favorite of local audiences, the Capitol Steps. This year’s festival runs from June 17 through July 10, and as in past years, includes ticketed performances at the Power Center and other venues, along with the free outdoor music and movies that make up the Top of the Park portion of the event. At any time and particularly in these challenging times for the arts and non-profits, Ann Arbor should not take the Summer Festival for granted. It remains one of the most ambitious performing arts festivals that you’ll find anywhere in America. The Ann Arbor Summer Festival has faced significant challenges in recent years, and has navigated them remarkably well, maintaining the original concept that has proven so popular, while subtly making changes to keep its budget sound and its audience engaged in new ways. Ultimately, its existence depends on the continued support of the community. We encourage you to mark your calendar for this summer’s event and keep it strong by attending performances and giving financially to the festival, whether by purchasing tickets or making small donations.