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AnnArbor.com's News section covers government, crime, education, health and the environment across Washtenaw County.

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    polo_fields_country_club_golf.jpg

    Members play a round of golf at the Polo Fields Golf and Country Club.

    Courtney Sacco | AnnArbor.com

    In its heyday, the Ann Arbor Country Club had about 350 members utilizing its pool and golf facilities in the Loch Alpine neighborhood of Webster Township.

    Faced with a declining membership and worsening economic conditions, the club struggled to make mortgage payments and faced a bank-ordered sale of its facility in 2010 as membership dipped below the 120 required by the bank.

    Since ownership of the semi-private club shifted to a West Virginia investment group in 2011, the new owners have made a number of capital improvements and lowered membership fees. The club now has about 230 members, with more than 50 percent of those swim-only memberships. The restaurant and golf course are now open to the public.

    “Maintenance had been deferred 10 years,” explained Michael Weikle, a representative of the club’s new owners, A2C2 LLC. “We spent a lot of money fixing things and then putting money to keep it open. We felt it could be turned around.”

    050213_ann_arbor_country_club_max_and_bellas.jpg

    The new Max & Bella's On The Green restaurant at Ann Arbor Country Club in Webster Township.

    Courtney Sacco | AnnArbor.com

    aacountry.jpg

    The patio at the Ann Arbor Country Club's clubhouse in Webster Township.

    Courtney Sacco | AnnArbor.com

    Ann Arbor Country Club isn’t alone in its struggle to boost membership. Nationwide, hundreds of golf courses and country clubs closed during the recession while others changed membership structures and fees.

    A National Golf Foundation report says 160 private and public golf courses closed in 2011. At the same time, about 40 percent of the nation’s 4,415 private clubs experienced a membership decline.

    In the Ann Arbor area, a number of country clubs had to respond to the recession in order to remain viable.

    In 2010, Ypsilanti Township’s Washtenaw Country Club, one of the oldest country clubs in Michigan, moved from being member-owned into private corporate ownership as a part of the Polo Fields Golf and Country Clubs. Washtenaw Country Club faced $1.9 million in debt when the Berger family, which developed the Polo Fields Golf and Country Club and the subdivision in Scio Township, took ownership.

    “It has been a phenomenal learning experience,” said Diana Kuenzli, director of membership and marketing for Polo Fields. “Where most clubs are closing or scaling back, our ownership had a unique vision and said, ‘Let's expand.’ ”

    The Berger family renovated the clubhouse and reopened the pool at the newly named The Polo Fields - Washtenaw, which is at 2955 Packard Road. Then they told members they could utilize both clubs while membership fees remained steady. Polo Fields also lowered its guest fees so members can bring more people to the club.

    The member-owned and operated Georgetown Country Club on King George Boulevard in Ann Arbor changed its membership structure for a few years in an attempt to bring more people into the club. It offered pool-only and golf-only memberships, but has since reverted back to full memberships.

    “We did try diversified marketing,” said Georgetown board member Don Kline.

    “(There were) a good five, six years where it was a little dicey and the club wasn’t sure how to best proceed and best serve its members at the same time…(they) looked into possibly selling the golf course to a private party. Luckily, we didn’t have to do that,” he continued.

    A 2013 family membership at Georgetown costs $1,425, according to marketing materials. Kline said that was the standard rate for years, until it dropped to $1,395 in 2011 and 2012.

    Kline said the club starting experiencing a drop in membership in 2006, but started seeing gains in 2010. It’s poised to surpass its 2006 membership levels this summer.

    Meanwhile, membership fees at the Ann Arbor Country Club have dropped 47 percent since 2008, when a full family membership cost $3,800 annually.

    Aside from changing membership structures and dropping fees, country clubs made capital improvements and looked to other sources of revenue to try to remain sustainable.

    Ann Arbor's private Barton Hills Country Club at 730 Country Club Road completed eco-friendly renovations in 2010, which involved installing a geothermal heating system and LED lighting. It also completed a $1 million renovation of its golf course in late 2012.

    The Ann Arbor Country Club debuted a new public restaurant in January and it’s growing its events business. The club plans to host luaus, movie nights by the pool and a lobster boil this summer, which will be open to the public by reservation. (Read more)

    Weikle said the new owners made efficiency upgrades at the club, such as updating its heating and cooling systems. The group also made golf course improvements and replaced the equipment.

    The Polo Fields is boosting its banquet and events business, and it offers Sunday brunch to the public. It also has golf outings for non-members.

    “Rather than passing on the costs of doing business to our membership, we look to alternative revenue streams,” Kuenzli said. “We believe that reinvesting into the club by constantly improving it and doing updates pays off in the end because you still can attract new members.”

    Many country clubs across the country are also looking at a new target demographic: families with young children.

    Corey Gerhart, general manager and chief operating officer at Barton Hills, said the club is trying to ensure it offers something for every member of the family. The club now has 150 kids in its junior programs and is encouraging kids and young adults to play golf and tennis.

    "We are definitely attracting young families," he said.

    "We're still in the same business, we've just had to bring a couple aspects in it to stay viable and interesting for our members," he added.

    The member-owned private Travis Pointe Country Club, at 2829 Travis Pointe Road between Ann Arbor and Saline, markets a number of social activities targeted at children, including its summer day camp for kids. It hosts social events like movie nights, arts and crafts, teen dances, and a family carnival, according to its website.

    Kline said the majority of members at Georgetown Country Club are families and it’s a big selling point for the club. There are barbecues during the summer, a playset near the pool, beach volleyball and tether-ball. The club is preparing to launch a new website and is getting involved on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram.

    Weikle said there were 39 pool memberships at the Ann Arbor Country Club when the new owners took over, and that’s now up to 130. Ann Arbor Country Club is targeting young families with its renovated pool area.

    “Golf has at least stopped declining, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said. “A lot of courses have gone out and this club survived. I really feel it’s all in place, we just have to get people in to show them.”

    Lizzy Alfs is a business reporter for AnnArbor.com. Reach her at 734-623-2584 or email her at lizzyalfs@annarbor.com. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lizzyalfs.


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    Demolition crews worked on Ann Arbor’s North Main Street again last week, targeting six vacant houses.

    The properties were an eyesore, creating an image of blight for visitors and residents entering the city from M-14.

    As those properties come down, we’re reminded of another blighted building on North Main: The former Greek church, which was demolished in September 2012.

    Both properties were targeted for ambitious redevelopment by private developers. The church property, where developers planned a mixed-use condominium project called The Gallery, was eventually listed for sale. An affordable housing partnership was created for the development of the other property, with the resulting plans - called Near North - envisioned to replace the six homes and two more, which remain intact.

    Those efforts failed too, leaving the community to watch the buildings deteriorate and local government to step in to remove them.

    There are other parallels: Neighbors rallied against the original plans. The properties entered foreclosure. And, with the deterioration, both provided examples of why the city and county have to stay focused on blight prevention.

    We saw some missteps along the way, like a missed grant for the Near North demolition.

    But the result with both properties is positive for the community.

    Last week, as heavy equipment moved onto the Near North property, Ann Arbor’s Planning Commission gave unanimous approval to the Kerrytown Place condominium project planned for the Gallery property. It’s a project by a local developer who worked with neighbors to generate plans that they would welcome.

    We hope that the newly vacant land a few blocks north of that property finds the same fate: a productive use that neighbors and city officials agree fits on the site.


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    Jamill_Passmore.jpg

    Jamill Devon Passmore

    Courtesy of Washtenaw County Jail

    A 23-year-old Detroit man facing nine various robbery charges for his alleged involvement in a holdup on Eastern Michigan University’s campus in January is scheduled to appear Thursday in the Washtenaw County Trial Court, according to the docket.

    Police say Jamill Devon Passmore helped set up a group of four men who were robbed of Rolex watches, Gucci belts and cellphones outside the university’s Westview Apartments near Rynearson Stadium on Jan. 18.

    Passmore and the four men - Charles Bell, William Gholston, Reggie James and Michael Jefferson -- watched a L.A. Lakers-Miami Heat basketball game at Bell’s apartment, according to testimony at the preliminary examination held in March. It was not clear how Passmore knew the men.

    All of the men were listed as EMU students on the university’s website except James. Gholston and Jefferson began comparing their Rolex watches while the game was on, according to testimony.

    Bell and the other men testified that Passmore kept leaving the apartment to walk to talk on his cellphone. Passmore was speaking with two men he’d driven to Ypsilanti with from Detroit, according to police.

    Investigators believe the two men Passmore spoke with approached Passmore and the four other men as they left the apartment and were walking to the parking lot around 1:30 a.m. The men testified they were on their way to meet up with some girls at a party.

    Gholston said they were only ten seconds out of the door when two men came up from behind them indicating they had a gun.

    They said, “Get on the ground. We’re not playing,” according to Gholston.

    “I … froze. I was kind of scared,” Gholston said. “I thought he was (going to) shoot me if I didn’t give him my watch.”

    Gholston, Bell and James got down on the ground while Passmore and Jefferson ran, testimony indicated.

    The suspects stole Gholston’s Rolex and Gucci belt, James’ belt and Bell’s cellphone.

    Meanwhile, Jefferson testified that Passmore attempted to rob him while they ran.

    “I slow down,” he testified. “I thought he was running with me.”

    When Passmore caught up with Jefferson, however, he assaulted him and demanded his belongings, according to testimony.

    “He grabbed the back of my head and slammed me down,” Jefferson said.

    Passmore was unable to take his Rolex and fled the scene. Police say he went and met up with the two suspects, one of whom has been identified as Martell Briscoe. Two other men only known as “Dirty” and “Little D” may also have been involved, records indicate.

    Police eventually linked the stolen Rolex to Briscoe, who posted a picture of it that same day on his Facebook page. Phone records show Passmore called Briscoe 12 times that night, according to court records.

    EMU police Sgt. Charles Mosher testified that Passmore admitted to selling the Rolex at a Hamtramck pawn shop for $1,500.

    Authorities also have a recording of a phone conversation Passmore made to an unknown person from jail when he was arrested in Detroit in the middle of February on an unrelated incident.

    “Everything … they know everything,” Passmore said to the person on the other end of the phone.

    Passmore is charged with four counts of armed robbery, four counts of conspiracy to commit armed robbery and assault with intent to rob while unarmed, court records indicate.

    He remains in the Washtenaw County Jail on a $75,000 cash bond, according to jail records. He will appear before Judge David Swartz for a pretrial hearing.

    John Counts covers cops and courts for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at johncounts@annarbor.com or you can follow him on Twitter.


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    Cassie Mann stars in Redbud's production of Adam Bock's play, "A Small Fire."

    Photo provided by Redbud Productions

    Redbud Productions - a community theater troupe composed of Redbud acting teachers and students - will present Adam Bock's Off-Broadway play, "A Small Fire," at Ann Arbor's Kerrytown Concert House at 8 p.m. on Thursday-Saturday, May 30-June 1. Tickets cost $20 ($15 for students/seniors); for reservations, call 734-769-2999 or visit kerrytownconcerthouse.com.

    More details about the show are contained in Redbud's press release:

    Do not miss the Midwest premiere of this acclaimed family drama by the author of "The Receptionist." The New York Times raved that "A Small Fire" is “about the complex, ever-evolving nature of enduring relationships … funny and unexpectedly touching"; and Variety praised the play as an “unforgettable banquet.”

    Emily Bridges (Cassie Mann) loves her job as the owner of a high profile construction firm. She is confident, assured and runs a tight and successful organization. She is successfully married to an HR manager (Tim Grimes) and her daughter (Dana Denha) is about to be wed.

    But, as she describes to her close employee (Brad Sharp), she does not approve of her daughter’s fiance, is extremely uneasy at home, and is determined to stop her daughter’s wedding!

    When something shocking and unexpected happens, however, Emily is called to re-examine what she cherishes most - and her family and friends must also closely reexamine their relationship to her. The result is, according to New York 1, “a play about … love (both parental and marital), health and friendship … beautifully conceived.”

    Playwright Adam Bock’s plays include "The Receptionist" (Outer Critics Nomination); "The Thugs" (OBIE Award); "Swimming in the Shallows" (3 BATCC Awards, Clauder Award); "Five Flights" (Glickman Award); "The Typographer’s Dream"; "Three Guys and a Brenda" (Heideman Award); "The Shaker Chair"; and "The Drunken City."

    Several cast members in this production are current Redbud students. Director Loretta Grimes trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and has been teaching acting to area youth and adults for years, based on the methods of Sanford Meisner. She most recently directed "Proof" and "One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest" and has also won acclaim for her performances in Redbud Productions’ "August: Osage County," "Rabbit Hole" and as Vivian Bearing, the cancer patient in "Wit." She has directed and performed in many other Redbud plays and has won several awards from The Ann Arbor News and Current Entertainment Monthly for her efforts as both actress and director.

    Redbud Productions, named 2011’s Best Stage Production Group by AnnArbor.com readers, was created by Tim & Loretta Grimes. For fourteen years, Redbud Productions has offered acting classes for both adults and teens based on the acting techniques of Sanford Meisner, and has presented several productions and staged readings each year.

    "A Small Fire" is presented by special arrangement with Samuel French, Inc.

    Kerrytown Concert House is located at 415 North Fourth Avenue in Ann Arbor. For more information on this performance, contact the concert house by calling 734-769-2999. For information on other upcoming Redbud Productions activities, including the September 2013 Meisner acting classes, call Redbud at 734-663-7167 or visit us online at redbudproductions.com.

    Jenn McKee is an entertainment reporter for AnnArbor.com. Reach her at jennmckee@annarbor.com or 734-623-2546, and follow her on Twitter @jennmckee.


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    Yellow ribbons are scattered across Eastern Michigan University’s campus in honor of every Michigan soldier who died post-9/11.

    A ribbon, a photo, and an obituary of each of 227 soldiers being honored were pinned last week to the same number of trees around campus in honor of Memorial Day.

    emu_ribbons.jpg

    One of the 227 ribbons found on EMU's campus this Memorial Day weekend, honoring fallen Michigan soldiers.

    Daniel Brenner | AnnArbor.com

    EMU’s Student Veterans Association members organized the honor for the fallen soldiers this Memorial Day weekend and educate fellow students about the true meaning of the holiday: Paying respect to those who died defending our country.

    Josh Curtis, president of the Student Veterans Association and a US Army veteran, said in an email that hearing students talk about Memorial Day weekend plans made him wonder if they understood the reason for the vacation day.

    “After talking with many of my fellow SVA members, we decided that we should really do something this Memorial Day to not only honor our fallen brothers and sisters, but to remind the student body of the costs of war and freedom,” Curtis said.

    SVA members, with the help of the Military and Veterans Resource Center, put together the 227 ribbons. On Thursday, they posted the assembled ribbons throughout campus in the cold and rain.

    “It was very humbling for us and we were proud to be able to honor our fallen,” Curtis said.

    SVA members decided to honor Michigan heroes because honoring all of the 6,000 plus nationwide lost in Iraq and Afghanistan wars with individual markers on campus trees would not be physically possible, Curtis said.


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    Arborcrest Memorial Park held its 32nd annual Memorial Day Observance on Sunday, providing the Ann Arbor area a reminder of the reason for the holiday weekend.

    The ceremony began as three Boy Scout troops marched up to the podium to raise the flag while the estimated 100 people at the event stood for the Pledge of Allegiance.

    A barbershop quartet sang the national anthem as the flag was lowered to half-mast in recognition of the lives lost defending our country.

    Brian Marl, mayor of Saline, hosted the event. Congressman John D. Dingell, state Rep. David Rutledge, and Miss Washtenaw County Marissa Cowans spoke at the event.

    Marl told the story of an Eastern Michigan University graduate who died while serving his country. His story is not unlike that of many other brave soldiers, but that doesn’t make his story any less special, Marl said. Marl spoke of the freedom that so many have died fighting for.

    “There has never been in the history of the world a soldier more willing to sacrifice for the freedoms and liberties of complete strangers than that of the American soldier,” Marl said. “On this Memorial Day weekend and every day we should have the courage to stand with them.”

    Each speaker emphasized Americans' freedom, which is owed to those who fought to defend it. Dingell expressed the importance in understanding why lives were lost.

    “They did it for our freedom and for our liberty,” Dingell said. “They went also to protect the most wonderful democracy of mankind. Be proud of what they did.”

    Rutledge echoed similar sentiments saying that Memorial Day is about freedom and hope. Keep the memories of those lost alive, he said.

    The quartet performed renditions of ‘America the Beautiful’ and ‘My Country Tis of Thee’ as honor guards dressed in uniform marched out and stood at attention.

    Boy Scouts performed the laying of the wreath ceremony and Marl made closing remarks, thanking veterans for their service and asking that the memory of those lost be honored this Memorial Day.

    The honor guard gave a 21-gun salute followed by "Taps" played by a single trumpet to close the ceremony.

    Chelsea Hoedl is an intern reporter for AnnArbor.com. She can be reached at choedl@mlive.com.


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    Friends, families, neighbors and strangers around Washtenaw County enjoyed the weather and each other's company on Memorial Day weekend.

    Grills were fired up Sunday as the sun was shining and birds were chirping. The temperature was in the high 60's as many people took advantage of the cooler-but-sunny weather and extended weekend.

    Also part of the three-day weekend: Reminders of the reason for the holiday to remember the sacrifices from U.S. soldiers, including an annual service at Arborcrest Memorial Park.

    Photos will be added to this gallery.


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    petermayer.jpg

    Peter Mayer

    When singer-songwriter Peter Mayer was a youngster, he wanted to be a priest. In college, he first earned a bachelors degree in theology—while also studying classical guitar and music theory—and then spent two years in the Jesuit Novitiate, the first phase of preparation for Jesuit priests.

    After those two years, he decided that the life of a priest wasn’t for him, and left his Jesuit studies, and, eventually, left the Catholic church he grew up in. But he remains fascinated by religion—and by nature and science as well.

    “It is the most miraculous of stories—the story of nature itself and our lives in it,” says Mayer, who performs at the Green Wood Coffee House on Friday. “These ideas are a great source of inspiration for my songwriting. Much of my material deals with this sort of blending of science and religion”—so, as a result, Mayer frequently performs at progressive churches as well as at folk-music venues.

    He also has a church-music background. After leaving the Jesuit seminary, he worked as a church music director for eight years, before quitting that job in 1995 and devoting himself full-time to performing and recording.

    Indeed, Mayer, now 50, has been a Unitarian-Universalist for about 15 years, and one of his songs, “Blue Boat Home,” is in the Unitarian-Universalist hymnal.

    PREVIEW

    Peter Mayer

    • Who: Singer-songwriter who as a young man started down the path toward becoming a priest before turning to music.
    • What: Many of Mayer’s songs are about the interrelationship between spirituality, science and nature, and he also likes to add a few humorous songs to his live-show mix.
    • Where: Green Wood Coffee House, at the First United Methodist Church Green Wood, 1001 Green Road.
    • When: Friday, May 31, 8 p.m.
    • How much: $17. Details: 734-665-8558 or www.fumc-a2.org/coffee_house.cfm.
    “I find it so amazing to read about science—National Geographic magazine is so often my companion when traveling,” says Mayer. “I’m often in a state of wonder about what we humans have discovered about the world we live in, and the cosmos.”

    One thing that alarms Mayer on this subject is the way humans have often disassociated themselves from nature. “So many of our religions have painted this picture of humans as being ‘imported’ to this planet from another realm, that we are souls created by God who are to be tested here on earth, but that this is not really our home, that we don’t come from this place.”

    Which eventually leads many to become very bad stewards of the planet, generally speaking, when one considers the havoc and destruction we have wreaked on the environment.

    “The more we divorce ourselves from the world, the greater jeopardy we’re in,” says Mayer by phone from his home in Stillwater, Minnesota. (He’s a St. Paul native.) “If we don’t see ourselves as part of everything, I think we’re doomed.”

    That mindset does seem to be more prevalent in America, says Mayer.

    “The conquest of nature, and the taming of the West—that’s become part of our mythology as Americans, and it’s a continuing story. But, I do think we’re getting better, and that there is now greater awareness of the effects of these actions, like the burning of fossil fuels, and the draining of the wetlands. I think science is now in a more robust position to argue against that kind of attitude toward nature.

    “And I do see my music as sort of sacred music, in that I write about how to find meaning in all of this, and what the nature of the world is, and how should we behave, and what constitutes a moral life, a good life and a just life."

    Mayer is interested to see what form religion will take in the next 100 years.

    “There is no doubt that terrible things have done in name of religion, especially by people who believe in an absolute truth that they feel like have access to, that others don’t. That kind of thinking has been awful force in the world, but I do think we are hard-wired for the religious impulse, that we are drawn to having a belief system that we live by, and want to share.”

    Mayer is presently at work on a new album, and he continues to explore those themes in his new songs. One new one, “Human You,” looks at how “the planet and universe have been evolving for 4.5 billion years, but we’ve only just been discovering that story in recent years. We’ve only recently been in a position to say, ‘Wow, look at this.’ And, of course, humans are the only species that, due to our consciousness and intelligence, have been able to discover that story.”

    But Mayer does have a lighter side as well. He likes to include a couple of humorous songs on each album, and sprinkle them through his live show. “I think a good laugh goes a long way, and breaks up the more serious stuff,” he notes. In fact, one of his albums was a collection of the lighter songs he’s written over the years.

    Mayer’s life has changed in recent years —he now has two children, who will turn 6 and 2 this summer, so his song-topic palette has expanded. The new album will also include a couple of songs about his children.

    “My schedule, and the demands on my time, are now very different than they used to be,” says Mayer with a laugh. “I’ve never been a really prolific songwriter, but the amount of time I can now devote to writing is so much less than it used to be, so I’ve gone longer between albums than usual.” (His last disc, his seventh, titled “Heaven Below,” was released in 2010).

    “But since it HAS been so long, I am now in an unusual position—I now have more songs that can fit on the album, so I am now in the process of sorting through them to decide which ones will make the cut.”


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    willow-run-ypsilanti-consolidation.jpg

    From left, WISD Superintendent Scott Menzel, Willow Run Superintendent Laura Lisiscki and Ypsilanti Superintendent Dedrick Martin on March 20, 2012, as they announced plans to consolidate the Willow Run and Ypsilanti school districts. The three were going to lead the new district together until June 2015, until Martin accepted a new job.

    Danielle Arndt | AnnArbor.com file photo

    Ypsilanti Community Schools will not hire another associate superintendent to help lead the consolidated district after receiving news of Dedrick Martin's departure. However, officials will be posting an opening for a chief financial officer.

    Ypsilanti Community Schools superintendent Scott Menzel is working to finalize a plan for how he will structure the consolidated district's central office come July 1, the official launch date of YCS.

    He was thrown a slight curve ball when current Ypsilanti Public Schools superintendent Martin decided to take a job leading St. Johns Public Schools.

    Martin was offered a spot in the new district alongside Willow Run Superintendent Laura Lisiscki as an associate superintendent, working under Menzel, who also is the superintendent of the Washtenaw Intermediate School District.

    Menzel was contracted to provide leadership services to the new district during the "transition period." His contract will expire on June 30, 2015.

    Under Menzel's organizational structure, Martin was going to oversee the non-instructional and business office aspects of the new district: finances, technology, facilities and maintenance, human resources, food service and transportation. Lisiscki will head up curriculum and instruction for YCS, including providing oversight of building principals, adult education, alternative education, co-curricular activities, early childhood education and state and federal grants.

    The new district would have been financially responsible for honoring the current contracts of Martin and Lisiscki whether or not they were rehired by the YCS district — a fact that made retaining both superintendents controversial.

    The contracts had to be upheld because — unlike teachers and other employee groups, the administrators were not affiliated with a collective bargaining unit — and there were no clauses in the contracts stating the employment arrangements could be severed due to economic conditions.

    Martin's contract was set to expire in June 2016. However, Menzel said because Martin is taking a new job, it's a voluntary separation and releases the unified district of its obligation to compensate him through the remainder of his contract.

    Lisiscki's current contract with Willow Run has an end date of June 30, 2014. Menzel said officials are in negotiations with Lisiscki regarding new contract language. The expectation is she will keep her current salary of $120,000 for the 2013-14 school year, Menzel said. He added this is in line with the promise made to teachers and other employees that they will be able to maintain their existing salary for the upcoming year.

    Menzel also said the $120,000 is about what an assistant superintendent in the Ypsilanti Public Schools district earns right now.

    Rather than hiring a second associate superintendent to fulfill the responsibilities Martin would have had in the unified Ypsilanti-Willow Run district, a chief financial officer position will be posted. If the district cannot find a high quality candidate, it may explore the possibility of having a retired school administrator fill the position on an interim or temporary basis, Menzel said.

    A salary has not been determined yet for the CFO position. Menzel said he expects it would be less than an associate superintendent position but more than a building principal position.

    In addition to a CFO and Associate Superintendent Lisiscki, YCS' central office likely will be comprised of:

    • A tech director
    • Facilities/maintenance director
    • Human resources/benefits specialist

    "We would like to have a communications specialist, but we are not posting the position yet given current budget constraints," Menzel said.

    There is a request for proposals out for a food service provider, he added. Willow Run most recently contracted with a private company, while, as of last fall, Ypsilanti contracted with Saline Area Schools for food service. The transportation arrangement through the WISD consortium will remain in place, Menzel said.

    "Individuals who are currently employed by YPS or WRCS who have an interest in posted positions are encouraged to apply for any position for which they are qualified and have an interest," Menzel said in an email. "We have small teams conducting interviews (with questions that are designed to ensure the individuals who are hired embrace the mission, vision and guiding principles adopted by the YCS board).

    We have posted the office professional positions (numbers are still being finalized) but, as with everything else, we are streamlining as much as possible in order to ensure that the new district is able to meet its financial obligations, including beginning to pay down the accumulated operating deficit from the former districts."

    Combined, Ypsilanti and Willow Run have a deficit of about $12 million. It is still not known how long the unified district will have to pay off this debt or what the new district's operating budget for 2013-14 will be.

    Menzel said a number of the central office positions are still subject to change based on available resources and qualified applicants.

    Danielle Arndt covers K-12 education for AnnArbor.com. Follow her on Twitter @DanielleArndt or email her at daniellearndt@annarbor.com.


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    Four artists from across the country are coming to town June 7 to present their proposals for a new public artwork at the site of the Stadium bridges in Ann Arbor.

    The artist finalists for the project will be presenting in person inside the council chambers at city hall, 301 E. Huron St., from 2 to 6 p.m.

    The public is welcome to attend.

    Stadium_bridges_051413_RJS_001.jpg

    Local, state and federal officials, as well as representatives of the business community and others, gathered on May 14 to officially dedicate the new East Stadium Boulevard bridges that span State Street and the nearby railroad tracks.

    Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com

    The contract the artists are competing for is worth potentially $360,000, based on the budget for the project established by the city's Public Art Commission.

    The schedule for the artist presentations is as follows:

    2 p.m. Presenting Artist: Sheila Klein

    Sheila Klein, a Pacific Northwest artist who in 2000 designed Underground Girl, a subway station in Hollywood that continues to be recognized as an award-winning artwork.

    3 p.m. Presenting Artist: Matt Passmore with Rebar Group

    Rebar Group / Matt Passmore, a California firm, recognized as inventing PARK(ing) Day, a temporary event that transforms metered parking spaces into a park.

    4 p.m. Presenting Artist: Volkan Alkanoglu

    Volkan Alkanoglu, nominated in 2006 for the Young Architect of the Year Award in the U.K. and is a faculty member at Southern California Institute of Architecture.

    5 p.m. Presenting Artist: Catherine Widgery

    Catherine Widgery, an award-winning artist who has created more than 30 site-specific artworks in the U.S. and Canada; her work has been featured on the cover of World Sculpture News magazine.

    Each artist presentation is expected to last about 30 minutes and there will be additional time for questions. Feedback from the audience will be collected.

    For two weeks following the artist presentations, the design proposals will be displayed at the project site and at city hall. The Public Art Commission selected the Stadium bridges reconstruction site and the adjacent Rose White Park as a location for public art.

    The commission believes the location of the site and its diversity, in terms of traffic patterns and usage, makes it an ideal backdrop for a highly visible public art project with the potential to become a landmark for the city and its residents. A selection panel, with membership that included residents of the neighborhood, reviewed more than 35 submissions from artists around the country.

    Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at ryanstanton@annarbor.com or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.


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    City of Ypsilanti resident Jen Whaley is in the process of buying a home and moving her family to Ypsilanti Township.

    But there’s one issue - her family includes backyard chickens.

    As of now, township residents aren’t allowed to have chickens or other livestock on parcels less than 5 acres.

    At a public input session for the revision of Ypsilanti Township’s master plan Whaley attended on May 20, she said she was seeking a change to those rules.

    Whaley said people in the city love her chickens and, contrary to the argument against them, they don’t attract rodents or make a lot of noise.

    “It’s just like any other animal - if you take care of them, then you’re going to be fine,” she said.

    Twice in the past 18 months, township ordinance officials have had to respond to complaints over poultry in dense residential areas. The issue drew a large number of supporters to a Board of Trustees meeting.

    Township Planner Joe Lawson says he is carefully reviewing the ordinance and researching the issue.

    New guidelines built into the master plan would give Lawson a way to develop a land use ordinance that would allow for chickens on smaller plots.

    “Am I in favor of allowing them on less than 5 acres? Absolutely. Am I in favor of allowing them on a 50 by 100 (foot) lot? I need to do more research on it before I am comfortable with that,” he said.

    Seaver_Farm_2.jpg

    Ypsilanti Township will market property it owns on Huron Street adjacent to the post office.

    Tom Perkins | For AnnArbor.com

    Economic development

    West Willow resident Linda Mealing also attended the public input session. She liked the ideas planning officials presented for spurring commercial growth along Washtenaw Avenue, East Michigan Avenue, Whittaker Road and Ecorse Road.

    The township has lost 30 percent of its taxable commercial value over the past six years.

    Along Washtenaw Avenue, the principles of the Reimagine Washtenaw project are being wrapped into the township’s master plan.

    The project is attempting to transition the corridor from auto-orientated development to development that encourages people to walk or ride their bicycles. Planners are envisioning dense, mixed-use development on smaller lots.

    Some of those ideas are being built into re-zoning along the township’s other three main commercial corridors.

    “These are gateway corridors to the community and you want them to be attractive and viable,” Lawson said. “If you enter the township via one of those corridors and it’s run down, people don’t want to stop or avoid the area all together.”

    Mealing said she appreciated that planners were considering more than just motorists in their plans.

    “I like the idea they have for the corridors and I like that they are considering different types of transportation, she said. “It’s friendly and inviting.”

    Greg Crist had similar thoughts to Mealing.

    “Those areas definitely need to change and need some new growth, so it’s good that they are seriously thinking about how to do it and also thinking about how to make it more accessible to people who might be taking the bus or riding their bike or walking,” he said.

    But Lawson said the area’s infrastructure is the biggest challenge to making it more accommodating to pedestrians. The public right-of-ways are so narrow that it’s difficult to install bike lanes and sidewalks in some areas.

    "When those corridors were built 50 to 60 years ago, they weren’t taking into consideration multi-modal transportation,” Lawson said.

    The township is particularly focused on generating dense development along the Whittaker Road - Huron Street corridor. Lawson said the township isn’t trying to build a downtown, but the hope is to attract similar development.

    He said there are relatively few restaurants or entertainment venues in the area to serve more than 30,000 residents on the township’s southside, so planners are hopeful to attract more such businesses.

    Part of the master plan revision discussion has also included development of a commercial area or restaurant on Ford Lake. Right now, most of the lake is designated for residential use or developed, but one parcel that won’t allow for dense residential due to its proximity to Willow Run Airport could be rezoned commercial to allow for a lakeside restaurant.

    Lawson also said marinas are a possibility, but Ford Lake is generally surrounded by bluffs, and parts of it are too shallow.

    The township will next draft a revised master plan which the planning commission can recommend the township Board of Trustees approve. The Board of Trustees will then have a final vote on whether to approve it.

    Lawson said the planning department is working on posting its plans on the township’s website. There will be an interactive feature that will allow residents to discuss what they like and don’t like in the township, and updates will be posted the township’s Twitter and Facebook pages.

    Tom Perkins is a freelance reporter. Contact the AnnArbor.com news desk at news@annarbor.com.


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    Plans for a new Burger King on East Michigan Avenue have been delayed by at least several months.

    The Ypsilanti Township Planning Commission removed approval of the site plans from the agenda of its May 20 meeting.

    Township Planning coordinator Joe Lawson said the new building was to be built by franchisee Bravokilo on a lot adjacent to a new Taco Bell at 1085 E. Michigan Ave. Bravokilo purchased the lot from Sundance, the company that owns the Taco Bell.

    Because Michigan Avenue is a trunk line, the Michigan Department of Transportation must approve business’s curb cuts. When the lot was vacant, MDOT asked Sundance to fill in a curb cut with the verbal agreement that the cut could be reopened when the property was purchased, Lawson said.

    But Bravokilo learned from MDOT on Monday that the curb cut - or entrance drive - for their drive thru was too close to the Taco Bell’s driveway, and the plans would have to be revisited. Lawson said curb cuts along a busy road like Michigan Avenue usually have to be at least 300 feet apart.

    Burger_King_Mich_Ave.jpg

    Plans to build a new Burger King on a vacant lot on East Michigan Avenue have been temporarily delayed.

    Tom Perkins | For AnnArbor.com

    He said he doubted the site plans would be back on the Planning Commission's agenda for its June meeting.

    Bravokilo will invest $1 million to build the 3,446-square foot building. The Indiana-based company owns around 120 Burger Kings nationwide, as well as a variety of casual dining restaurants like Chili’s and Papa Vino’s.

    It owns a Burger King at 823 E. Michigan Ave. less than a half mile from the new site. Lawson said Bravokilo leases that building from the Burger King corporation, though it will own its new building.

    Burger King typically tries to lease its vacated properties for up to a year and demolishes the buildings if they remain unoccupied, Lawson said, though he added that he hasn’t heard any definite plans from the corporation.

    Staff was recommending that the planning commission approve the project. Ypsilanti Township has made the East Michigan Avenue corridor a focus for redevelopment, and Lawson said the new building is another sign of success.

    “Even though it’s a new restaurant but just on a different parcel along Michigan Avenue, they’re staying within the corridor and township, and it’s my hope they’re seeing the benefit of what we’re doing there,” he said.

    Township planning officials asked that the number of parking spaces be reduced by 10 to reduce the amount of impervious surface. A memo written by a planning official said the recently built Taco Bell next door has a larger parking lot that has proved unnecessary and created extra stormwater.

    Bravokilo proposed building a new Burger King on the city of Ypsilanti’s Water Street property in 2010, but city council members rejected the proposal on the grounds that it wasn’t consistent with their development vision for the property adjacent to downtown.

    Tom Perkins is a freelance reporter for AnnArbor.com Contact the news desk at news@annarbor.com.


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    As Ann Arbor resident Tim Lang lay in a veteran’s hospital bed in Maryland, all he could think about was how much he could no longer do.

    TimLang-one-leg.jpg

    Retired Marines Lance Corporal Tim Lang, above, began golfing shortly after losing his right leg in Iraq.

    Photo by Montana Pritchard | The PGA of America

    For his entire life prior to and after joining the Marine Corps, Lang’s identity was tied to his athleticism. But after his company’s Humvee drove over a roadside bomb in Fallujah, Iraq in 2006, that identity was stripped from him. Lang suffered injuries requiring him to have his right leg amputated above the knee. The prospect of playing a game of football or basketball was gone for Lang.

    All he could think about was what he could no longer could do. Lang let his handicap define him.

    Now, it’s 2013 and you’ll sooner find Lang on a golf course walking on his own two feet - be it, one of them prosthetic - displaying what he can do on the green instead of lying on his back thinking about what he can’t do.

    Lang still lets his handicap define him, but if you ask him what it is, he won’t tell you he’s an amputee.

    He’s a plus-5.
    Golf is a 'sissy sport’

    Lang lay on his back in Bethesda, Maryland for nearly 10 months after returning home from Iraq. Surgery after surgery, his feelings of despair mounted. In less than a year, he’d gone from a fit, strong 232-pound 21-year-old in the best shape of his life, fighting for his country, to a 109-pound amputee, unable to even go to the bathroom without assistance.

    “You’re talking about a person who all they can think about is wanting to be back bigger, better, stronger, faster than ever,” Lang recalls. “I was just dying to get back to that physical type of lifestyle I had just a few months earlier.”

    Lang, 27, comes from a large family where he said every child had his own way of standing out. His was sports. He loved playing basketball and football, and was haunted by the thought that he could never enjoy them like he once had.

    “I was coming to that slow realization that I won’t be able run anymore. I wasn’t going to be able to play football anymore, I wasn’t going to be able to play basketball,” Lang said. “That was a rather depressing time in my life.”

    Former professional golfer Jim Estes lives near the hospital Lang was staying at in Bethesda. Lang had seen Estes before in the hospital as Estes made regular visits for a charity for which he is the co-founder, the Salute Military Golf Association. SMGA offers post-9/11 war veterans the opportunity to use golf as a tool for both physical and mental therapy.

    time-lang-swing.jpg

    Tim Lang, right, swings a club while former PGA golf professional Jim Estes looks on.

    Photo courtesy of Salute Military Golf Association

    Estes had heard Lang was an athlete and so he stopped by his bed to talk to him about golf. Lang had just come out of surgery for amputation of more of his leg. He was in no mood to talk about something he didn’t even consider a sport.

    “I told him if you know a football coach tell him to come out my way,” Lang said. “Golf was always kind of a sissy sport to me. It wasn’t aggressive enough…I had no interest in playing.”

    Estes left Lang alone, but came back a few months later with a different approach.

    “I said ‘if you’re such a great athlete, and golf isn’t a sport, why don’t you show me something. Show me how easy it is.’” Estes said. “I said look around, you can’t play football and you can’t play basketball, but you definitely can play golf with one leg.”

    That’s not all Estes said, according to Lang.

    “ I can’t really repeat what he said," Lang recalls with a laugh.

    Estes had Lang figured out: challenge his competitive spirit, his manhood even.

    “That kind of lit a fire,” Lang said. “I was like ‘alright, as soon as I can get up off my IV and blood pump I’ll be out there.”

    Estes, of course, destroyed Lang competitively once they finally made it to the course, but Lang found something out that day.

    Deep down, he’s a golfer.

    “I quickly recanted everything that I had said about it,” Lang said. “I started to love the game.”

    Golf as therapy

    Golf isn’t considered the most strenuous of sports, but walking 18 holes while you’re at the same time re-teaching yourself how to walk altogether is no easy task. But even moreso than the physical benefits of being outside and moving around, as Lang got more into the game he began using it as a mental therapy. A therapy he wasn’t willing to admit he even needed before he started golfing.

    tim-lang-put.jpg

    Tim Lang, right, receives a putting lesson from retired PGA golfer Jim Estes.

    Photo courtesy of Salute Military Golf Association

    Lang would lie in his bed with no desire to go to his physical therapy sessions before he started golfing. Once he started golfing, he started scheduling them earlier, so he could get out to the course sooner.

    Lang said he’s been a competitive and ambitious person his whole life, but was not motivated to do anything after his injury. That is until he began competing against others in golf and being driven to improve.

    “Depression is a weird animal. Most of the people that are depressed don’t even know they’re depressed and they won’t admit it, and I wouldn’t have admitted it,” Lang said. “(Golf) helped me realize how messed up I was earlier. How dark of a hole I was in.”

    “But after getting up and getting on my feet again, being up in nature on a Saturday or a Friday…I was excited to get up every day, I was excited to go out and knew that golf was now a new sport where I could depend on myself,” Lang said.

    Lang didn’t just start being good for an amputee or a beginner, but flat out good, period. Good enough to where he’s competing in amateur events. Estes thinks he has a shot at the National Amputee Golf Association championship.

    Lang - who is also a student at Easter Michigan University, studying criminal psychology - now delivers his message across the country as an ambassador for the Salute Military Golf Association. He speaks to veterans in circumstances like he once was, motivating fellow veterans like Estes did for him.

    “It’s a very inclusive game and I love to be able to share my message of how disabled people or people with challenges can benefit from the game,” said Lang.

    Lang’s message isn’t just motivational to his fellow veterans. Before the beginning of the high school golf season, Lang spoke with the Saline High School boys golf team. His speech just happened to coincide with a conditioning session in which the team was “dogging it,” according to coach Debbie Williams-Hoak.

    “The guys were whining and saying ‘oh it’s too hard’ and then they listen to Tim and one of the first questions I asked the guys was ‘if we went back and did our conditioning workout now, would your effort be a little different?’” Williams Hoak said. “And everyone of them were like, ‘yeah.’”

    “Listening to him talk about it was really inspiring because he had to battle through almost losing all of his physical abilities to get back to playing some great golf,” said Saline senior Ryan Peruski. “I think it’s really inspirational for anybody who thinks that ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do that, I’m too overweight, it’s too late in my career, I’m too old, I’m too young’ or whatever.”

    “It shows anything can be done if you want to put a lot of hard work into it.”

    Professional aspirations

    Lang was a quick study on the course. He credits Estes’ teaching style - to the point, no sugarcoating - and Estes credits Lang’s athleticism.

    “He always was an exceptional athlete. From my perspective those are easy guys to teach golf,” Estes said. “He’s got a huge upside potential, I told him he can win the amputee championship.”

    In a relatively short time, Lang has gone from a skeptic to true believer in the benefits of the game and from casual golfer to competitive. When he and Estes play, Lang refuses to take any strokes. Estes still wins, but Lang is getting there.

    “He’s the exception, one of about 10 out of 1,500 in our program that have used golf in more than just a recreational capacity,” Estes said.

    Lang is working to get his single-digit handicap even lower and plans to play in several competitive amateur events. Golf will be a Paralympic sport in 2016, which he has listed among his many goals in the sport.

    “I’m so young I don’t know what I can do. What I’ve done in four years is excelled at a really fast pace, so I think the sky is the limit for me,” Lang said. “As far as I can go is what I want to do. I really want to have a big part in the Paralympics, want to win some amateur events and who knows after that. “I’m trying to get down to a three, four or five, be able to win amateur events consistently and I would love to take it to the next level, but I’m not trying to get ahead of myself,” Lang said. “I’m just going one step at a time and doing as much as I possibly can with it.”

    So yeah, Lang has a handicap: it’s a plus 5.

    But if all goes according to plan it won’t be for long.

    Pete Cunningham covers sports for AnnArbor.com. He can be reached at petercunningham@annarbor.com. Follow him on Twitter @petcunningham.


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    garden_apartment.jpg

    I prepared my first garden bed and hope to have vegetables and flowers this summer.

    Lizzy Alfs | AnnArbor.com

    It’s an unlikely place to find flowers and vegetables.

    My apartment building’s lawn isn’t exactly the picture of gardening perfection with its overgrown weeds and scattered cigarette butts.

    But as I started to savor warm weather days, I wondered: How could I spend more time outside this spring and summer?

    It occurred to me on a walk around my Old West Side neighborhood that gardening is a wildly popular hobby in Ann Arbor. The residents in the houses surrounding my apartment building spend hours perfecting their yards each week.

    And it’s not just Ann Arbor: According to the National Gardening Association, about $2.5 billion is spent annually on U.S. home gardening. The Garden Writers Association reports that the number of U.S. households growing edible plants is expected to increase by 11.3 percent in 2013.

    Growing up in Metro Detroit, I always questioned how my dad could possibly spend so much time working in our yard. I would get home from school and he’d take me on “tours” through his vegetable garden. I usually just rolled my eyes.

    But I decided this spring that starting a small vegetable garden would mesh with some of my other new hobbies; I recently fell in love with the Ann Arbor Farmers Market and I started cooking in response to a money savings plan I started last year. So why not garden, too?

    First, I had to conquer my severely neglected “garden” area outside my apartment’s porch. But let's be real, picking up a gardening habit with no background knowledge isn’t easy.

    I got the OK by my landlord to move forward with my gardening plans, and then I did some online research. (Oh, and called my dad about 20 times for advice). Mother Nature Network has an online guide for first-time gardeners where I learned a key piece of gardening advice: You'll learn as you go.

    I started by purchasing the least expensive gardening supplies I could find, only to have my trowel break on my first day in the garden.

    veggies_lizzy.jpg

    The first sprouts in my vegetable garden.

    Lizzy Alfs | AnnArbor.com

    While I was weeding and preparing the soil, I discovered some frustratingly deep — and dead — plant roots that I could not unearth.

    Slightly desperate-looking but still determined, I knocked on neighbors’ doors and borrowed a spade (if you’re like me, you have no idea what that is), and put some serious elbow grease into removing those tangled roots. Someone said they might be hostas, but I still have no idea. (You can sort of see the uprooted plants on the left-hand side of the picture at the top)

    I quickly had to get over my fear of worms and slugs, and I dealt with the fact that it was freezing and rainy. My hands and knees hurt and I got weird stares from my apartment building neighbors.

    Still, after three hours of work, I had prepared the perfect little garden area.

    Since that first weekend, I’ve put cute flowers around the edge of the garden, and I planted green onions and lettuce. Like a proud mama, I’ve been showing everyone a picture of my sprouting lettuce. (I’m fairly certain I planted it wrong and it won’t grow to fruition, but I’m still happy)

    I prepared pots with herbs, including basil, cilantro, mint, lavender and rosemary. I planted tomatoes, cucumbers and a few peppers.

    Spending time taking care of my garden is definitely work, but I always feel accomplished and I love knowing that I’ll eventually be able to eat what I’m growing.

    As it turns out, my dad was right to be proud of his vegetable garden. And I just discovered an incredibly rewarding hobby.

    Lizzy Alfs is a business reporter for AnnArbor.com. Reach her at 734-623-2584 or email her at lizzyalfs@annarbor.com. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lizzyalfs.


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    Most of us have nicknames for our bosses (not here at AnnArbor.com, of course. Our bosses are all wonderful, just people). The employees at the Corner Brewery are no different. They playfully refer to c0-owner Rene Greff as the "Velvet Hammer." To celebrate their boss they will celebrate Velvet Hammer Day, a day filled with exotic entertainment and, of course, beer.

    Thumbnail image for 051610_rene-greff2.jpg

    The Velvet Hammer

    In the evening, tarot card readers, artisans and local burlesque dancers will entertain and enliven the festivities. There will be t­shirt making, magic and fire spinners before the 13­ act burlesque show. Members of the roller-derby team the Ann Arbor Derby Dimes are expected to make an appearance. Performances from members of the Ann Arbor Aviary, a studio that focuses on aerial and ground acrobatics and flexibility, are also expected.

    A special sour brew called Velvet Hammer will be available for purchase. Along with Velvet Hammer, several other sour beers will be available including Framboozled and Flamboyant Red.

    Friday, May 31, 2013. Noon. No cover; price of purchases. The Corner Brewery is at 720 Norris St., Ypsilanti. 734-480-2739.


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    A fire early Monday at a condominium development displaced residents of two attached units and caused extensive damage, the Ann Arbor Fire Department said. One firefighter was injured at the scene but was treated and released from the hospital.

    firevillageoaks.jpg

    Fire investigators were focusing on a fire pit on the rear deck of one of the two attached condominium units that caught fire early Monday.

    Photo courtesy Ann Arbor Fire Department

    Firefighters responded to a 1:55 a.m. call about a fire at a 2-unit condo building on the 400 block of Village Oaks Court. The caller told dispatchers the whole rear of the unit was on fire.

    The first crew to arrive found heavy flames in one condo spreading to the other attached unit. All inhabitants had evacuated the building.

    Battalion Chief Steven Lowe in a news release said firefighters were able to quickly control heavy fire and stop the threat of it spreading. Two other units on either side of the burned unit reported smoke damage, he said.

    Fire investigators were focusing on a fire pit on the back deck of one of the units.

    The Washtenaw-Lenawee County Chapter of the American Red Cross said it provided a family of four with food and lodging, as well as beverages and snacks for about 30 first responders.

    The injured firefighter was checked at the University of Michigan Hospital and released.

    Firefighters from several other municipalities assisted at the scene.


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    060112_ENT_GREEKFESTIVAL_JM.JPG

    Ann Arbor resident Christos Papanastasopoulos cooks chicken kabobs during the 2012 Ya'ssoo Greek Festival.

    Jeffrey Smith | AnnArbor.com file photo

    "We have this idea about love and friendship shown to strangers—felix xenia," says Father Nicolaos Kotsis of Ann Arbor's St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church. "We want to make our neighbors and those who come visit us feel welcome. They are supposed to receive more attention than ourselves sometimes."

    This sentiment is a perfect introduction to what the Ya'ssoo Greek Festival is all about. People of every cultural heritage gather together to celebrate spring with Greek food, dancing, live music, a marketplace, and tours of the neo-Byzantine church.

    The annual weekend-long, outdoor Greek cultural festival will be hosted by St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church on Scio Church Road, on May 31 from 11 a.m. to midnight, June 1 from 11 a.m. to midnight, and June 2 from noon to 6 p.m.

    PREVIEW

    Ya'ssoo Greek Festival

    • Who: All welcome. Sponsored by St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church.
    • What: Popular cultural festival featuring Greek cuisine and homemade pastries, live Greek music and entertainment, dancing, the Agora Marketplace, the Hellenic Cultural Exhibit, and Kids’ Corner.
    • Where: St. Nicholas Church, 3109 Scio Church Road. Shuttle and free parking at Knox Presbyterian Church (2065 S. Wagner) a half-mile from St. Nicholas.
    • When: May 31 and June 1, 11 a.m.-midnight; June 2, noon-6 p.m.
    • How much: Admission is $3 after 4 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. Saturday; free for children 12 and under; free admission for everyone on Sunday. Visit annarborgreekfestival.org.
    When making plans to attend the Ya'ssoo Greek Festival, note that the best way to get there is by taking the shuttle service. Park at nearby Knox Presbyterian Church at 2065 S. Wagner Road and jump on the free shuttle, which runs continuously with a short wait time.

    A church member who helps promote the festival, Artemis Alex, says Ya'ssoo presents "authentic cultural experiences," which visitors from both inside and outside of Washtenaw County come to enjoy. "Being in Ann Arbor, we are multicultural to begin with. We are international with our students here and everyone else," she says, agreeing that it is easy to hold a cultural festival here. "People are excited to come and enjoy our culture and our food."

    One of the biggest indicators of culture, as well as one of the best reasons to attend Ya'ssoo, is food. Church members cook up an amazing feast of entrees, sides, and desserts - one of the best meals that I have ever had. Greek beer and wine will also be served.

    "They take the food seriously and with good pride that comes from wanting to please the guests and make sure they have a good time," Father Kotsis says of the church members who cook for Ya'ssoo.

    The festival would not be what it is without dancing, another main feature. Dance performances by kids and teens from the church and Detroit-based group KYKLOS Hellenic Society Dancers will punctuate opportunities for the whole crowd to boogie down.

    "Dancing, for Greeks, I think, is a very important expression of their joy. At weddings, baptisms, or anytime they want to express joy and the fullness of life, you'll see someone who is Greek dancing. There are many different types of dances. Several are your basic dances that are common for people of Greek heritage. The rest of them come from different areas of Greece and reflect regional histories and cultural aspects," Father Kotsis explains.

    Both nation-wide and regional dances will be performed at Ya'ssoo. Younger kids in St. Nicholas' Greek school program will showcase dances that are common across Greece, while teens in the GOYA youth group's dance troupe will present some examples of localized dances. And let us not forget the beautiful, colorful costumes the dancers wear - another look visitors can take into the Greek and Greek-American culture experience.

    If you are so inclined, do not hesitate to try the dances yourself. Everyone is encouraged to move around and get joyful, even if you do not know a single step. "It is great to see our neighbors from the Ann Arbor community dance. The Greek culture is always open to having people join in," Father Kotsis says, adding that there is no reason to be intimidated if you have never tried it before. "Just get up and move your arms and have fun!" he laughs.

    Ya'ssoo is also a shopping opportunity. The Agora Marketplace will feature artifacts and merchandise - handmade jewelry, clothing, icons, a booth for St. Nicholas Church's bookstore, and other goods.

    New this year, kids can do creative projects that have a Greek theme at the Kid's Corner. "It is a real family event. There was a demand for more kid's activities, so we are trying it out," Alex explains. Another option for the young ones is to go play on the soccer field.

    Last but certainly not least, another significant aspect of culture is religion. Tours of St. Nicholas will happen throughout the course of the festival. The church on Scio Church Rd. broke ground in 2001 and services there first began in 2003, after they moved from the old Greek Orthodox church on Main Street. This year is the church community's 78th in Ann Arbor.

    "What we have here is three designs of ancient churches of Constantinople brought together in a neo-classical Byzantine-style church," Father Kotsis says of St. Nicholas' architecture elements. Shapes within the church's design are inspired by the ancient Hagia Sophia (a dome within a square), Hagia Irene (a square cross), and the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (a hexagon).

    They are in the process of adding icons - art depicting Biblical figures and stories - around the altar. An iconographer is currently working on them in a studio in Greece. And among the art and architecture of the newer building, treasures that once adorned the church community's old building downtown go back a couple generations - namely the pulpit and baptismal font.


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    When you’ve spent three-plus decades traveling the world, what happens when you retire?

    That’s a question Will and Joan Weber get a lot as they prepare to hand over the reins of their eco-travel business Journeys International to their daughter, Robin Weber Pollak, after 35 years in business in Ann Arbor. They’ll greet the end of an era with a weekend-long celebration in September.

    The Webers believe their company was among the original — if not the first — to embrace an ethical movement now loosely called ecotourism. In the broadest sense, it means responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the welfare of local people.

    Journey International’s trips — which range from $2,500 to $4,500 — offer a comfortable and authentic experience.

    Journeys International grew out of a deep love for culture and travel. In the mid-1970s, Will was living in a small village in Nepal as a volunteer and trainer. Joan came to visit and stayed on as an English teacher.

    Will Robin Joan Weber 2012.JPG

    Will and Joan Weber are retiring after 35 years and will leave their ecotourism business, Journeys International, to their daughter, Robin Weber Pollack, shown at center.

    When they returned to Ann Arbor to finish their doctoral degrees — his in natural resource planning and management, with hers in psychology and education — they talked incessantly about their time in Nepal. They couldn’t understand why, when friends showed them brochures, it was so expensive to travel there and why there were ‘’layers upon layers of guides,’’ Joan says.

    So the Webers took it upon themselves to organize a 25-day Himalayan trek, drawing on their contacts and their knowledge of Nepal. A business was born for the couple and for the late Pemba Sherpa, their mountain guide.

    Until his death a few years ago, Pemba led many of JI’s trips in the tiny country. Now, his son Nawang Sherpa has taken over, just as the Webers’ daughter Robin will.

    "The business model we established had everything to do with putting interested, curious people with people who live in countries they’re visiting, who can show how they live, what environmental issues there are," said Joan. "We looked for amazing people to take care of the people we send."

    The company runs about 400 trips each year for individuals, couples, groups and families.

    Helping local economies, a cornerstone of the ecotourism ethic, led the Webers to establish the Earth Preservation Fund, which has provided more than 100 grants to community-based programs all over the world, among them building a community library in Ladakh, India, teaching traditional weaving skills in Peru and protecting turtles in Kenya.

    The company has been recognized for the richness of its trips, more recently by National Geographic Traveler, which last year selected Journeys International's ’s trip, Burma: Trek to the Last Village, as a 2012 Tour of a Lifetime. In 2008 and 2009, National Geographic Adventure ranked Journeys International as one of the world’s best adventure travel companies.

    Ecotourism, part of the sustainable tourism market, is a key agent in reducing poverty and attracting development financing in underdeveloped countries, says the Center for Responsible Travel. And it is gaining momentum.

    In 2007, the last year for which there is hard data, ecotourism captured $77 billion of the global travel market and was expected to grow with rising concern about global warming.

    Robin Weber Pollak, 30, returned to Ann Arbor about a year ago after earning an MBA from George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She doesn't plan to move away from the company's core mission, but she’ll focus on communicating with a new generation of travelers, helping them to learn more about the world, creating libraries and developing JI’s staff.

    "What I really love is helping participants gain new insights about themselves and the world," Robin said. "Even we gain new clarity with every trip. It helps us broaden our views in such powerful ways. The transformative possibilities keep me going."

    Since they formed Journeys International in 1978, the Webers have crossed many oceans and many bridges — the literal and metaphorical kinds. Business suffered following the events of 9/11, which grounded flights and had travelers asking for their deposits back.

    For a long time, people made travel arrangements on short notice; today, they book a year in advance, says Joan.

    "It took a couple years before people regained their confidence in traveling," said Will.

    Still, there’s the challenge of convincing people that some places are not as bad as what they see on the news.

    "Bad experiences can happen anywhere, but when you’re in a destination where there’s bad news generated, it’s much worse if you’re at home watching on CNN," Will said. If they warn travelers about anything, he says, it's security-related delays at airports.

    The business employs eight full-time staff members in Ann Arbor and many more abroad. Some of them will make the trip for the 35th anniversary Jamboree from Sept. 27 to 29.

    "We’re approaching this Jamboree as an opportunity to show people our hometown, our wonderful autumn, the Huron River," said Joan. "We’re excited to look at Ann Arbor through a different lens."

    The Webers are expecting about 40 of their guides — including Nawang Sherpa — from places including Uganda, Brazil and Turkey and another 100 or so people who’ve traveled with the company for three days of celebration.

    The weekend will include storytelling at the Michigan Theatre, travel presentations at the Michigan Union, a bird walk, a photography workshop and more.

    "It's a handoff, in a way," Joan said. "It's kind of a retirement celebration, but it'll be very much a cross-cultural blessing for the next generation and the future."

    Adds Will: "We have a chance to return the favor of hospitality bestowed on us hundreds of times."

    Then, they'll retire.

    The Webers will no longer lead formal trips, but that hardly means they'll stop moving.

    Will Weber, 65, is intrigued by Greenland, a place he's never been but plans to visit at some point. Joan Weber, 62, loves Central America and plans to spend time there.

    But for now, Will plans to cultivate a new interest in raising native plants and an older interest in birding. He says he'll work on local and international environmental causes.

    In the near future, Joan plans to unpack her memories, working with some 50,000 photos and her writings throughout the years. She'll hang out with the people who've traveled with her throughout the years, continue studying Spanish, and of course take the occasional trip, mostly in the Americas, she says.

    "I'm saving most of Western Europe for when I'm very old."

    Julie Edgar is a freelance writer for AnnArbor.com.


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    We_support_our_troops_edited.jpg

    Veterans and active duty military led the way at the Glacier Area Homeowners Association Memorial Day Parade Monday morning.

    Ben Freed | AnnArbor.com

    Neighbors, children and plenty of pets lined the streets between Greenbrier Park and Glacier Hills Park to cheer on the veterans and other marchers in the Glacier Area Homeowners Association annual Memorial Day Parade.

    The veterans were joined in the parade by two fire trucks, a police escort, the Huron High School Drum Line, local Boy and Girl Scout troops, antique cars and several city council members and candidates.

    Event chair Kirk Westphal said the crowd of approximately 400 people was the largest he has seen at the march, which ended with a ceremony honoring the American flag, veterans and fallen soldiers.

    “There’s documentation that the neighborhood march goes back to 1968,” he said.

    “Continuously, it’s probably been running closer to 38 years. You miss a year every now and then for various reasons, but it’s a great part of being in this community.”

    Ya Shiou lives on the parade route and says she hasn’t missed a parade since she moved into the area in 1973. A native of China, Shiou said her favorite part of the march is watching the neighborhood children enjoy themselves and participate in the event.

    girl_on_bike_glasses_memorial_day_edited.jpg

    Children watched the parade pass as the prepared to join in on an array of decorated bicycles.

    Ben Freed | AnnArbor.com

    According to an unscientific poll of children at the event, the runaway favorite attraction was the two fire trucks. Tying for second place were the drum line and the ability to follow the parade on bikes and roller blades.

    As the age of attendees who were polled increased, the focus turned more to the historical meaning of the holiday. Cadet Girl Scout Morgan Gallimore from Troop 41443 has attended the parade with the scouts for the last four years. She enjoys the sights and sounds, but paid special attention to the ceremony at the end of the march, which included a marching of the flag and reading of names of soldiers killed in the line of duty.

    “I like marching and seeing the veterans,” she said. “We’re here because we like to respect them and honor the flag. The ceremony where we salute the flag as it goes past is an important part.”

    Other attendees, like World War II veteran Staff Sgt. George Bigelow, had personal connections to those who died while serving in the American Armed Forces. Bigelow was on a ship that was torpedoed in the English Channel while bound for the Battle of the Bulge on Christmas Eve in 1944.

    Bigelow said that 800 men were lost when the ship sank that night, and he had a near-death experience before he made it out alive.

    George_Bigelow_holding_picture_with_face_Memorial_Day_edited.jpg

    Staff Sgt. George Bigalow holding a picture of himself in France nearly 70 years ago.

    Ben Freed | AnnArbor.com

    “As I was floating up in the water I saw what looked like a 9-inch television screen playing the happiest moments of my life. Of course I didn’t know what to call it then because TVs hadn’t even been invented yet,” he said.

    “That calmed me down and I was able to float peacefully up and come out of the water before I drowned.”

    Once he reached the surface, Bigelow grabbed hold of the nearest piece of wood he could find and held on for dear life. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he was eventually rescued by a tugboat that had come to find survivors.

    “When I woke up the next day, the Red Cross came to give me basic supplies like toothbrush and toothpaste,” he said. “That was probably the best Christmas ever.”

    Bigelow said parades and marches are important for the community because remembering will become more difficult as time passes.

    “It’s great for people to remember and pay tribute,” he said. “I’m the only one left of my squad and it’s important not to forget the sacrifices that were made.”

    Once the ceremony concluded, many participants and observers stayed to write cards to soldiers, mingle and enjoy popsicles provided by the Ann Arbor Breakfast Optimists Club. There was also a station at the park for children to write letters that will be sent to active duty soldiers.

    Ben Freed covers business for AnnArbor.com. You can sign up here to receive Business Review updates every week. Reach out to Ben at 734-623-2528 or email him at benfreed@annarbor.com. Follow him on twitter @BFreedinA2.


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    The Glacier Area neighborhood came out in full force Monday to honor Memorial Day. More than 400 people lined the streets of the neighborhood to watch a parade and then gathered in Glacier Highlands Park for a ceremony honoring the American Flag and American soldiers killed in the line of duty.

    Click on the speaker in the upper left corner for a quick listen to the bagpipes and drum line in the parade:

    From babies all the way to World War II veterans, onlookers were treated to a display that included bagpipes, a drum line and antique cars.


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