What Will Be the Big East Lansing Stories of 2021?

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We’re hoping to be here for you through all of 2021! If we have enough funds to make that happen, here’s what we think will be the biggest stories facing our reporting team next year:

1. What will learning look like for East Lansing Public Schools?

Gary Caldwell for ELi

MacDonald Middle School and all other ELPS schools began the school year remotely.

East Lansing Public Schools has relied on remote learning since Friday, Mar. 13, following Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order that suspended in-person learning. That order was later extended to last for the remainder of the school year. Summer 2021 was filled with significant debate within the East Lansing district about how soon was too soon to plan for reopening.

The ELPS Board of Education voted 4-1 in August to continue remote learning for the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. Secretary Chris Martin dissented, arguing that the plan did not contain enough detail on how a future return to in-person learning would work and expressing concern for the most vulnerable students.

Then, this month, the Board voted 5-2, with Hilary Henderson and Kate Powers voting against, to permit a return to in-person learning with some important caveats. Teachers will be able to choose if they want to return to the classroom, and class size will be capped at 16. This means that perhaps not all students who want to return will be able to. The start dates for students returning to in-person learning are being staggered. Kids in the Young Fives through Grade 2 are expected to return on Feb. 1, 2020, children in Grades 3 through 5 on Feb. 15, and middle and high school students on Mar. 1.

We know this will continue to be an important story for ELi to cover.

2. Will town-gown relationships take on a new tenor?

One of the many entrances to MSU.

Although Grand River Ave. has often appeared as a border separating MSU and East Lansing, it proved to be a porous one that Covid-19 could penetrate. The two sides have worked together to try to quell the spread of the virus, including taking action to make the DDA District a mandatory mask zone, similar to the masking policy on MSU’s campus.

Mayor Aaron Stephens was optimistic in late summer that this could be the start of a new town-gown relationship, but it has been a rocky road. Many college students returned to East Lansing despite MSU turning to online instruction for the Fall 2020 semester. The influx of students to East Lansing and fears of community spread of Covid-19 influenced the ELPS School Board’s decision to begin the school year remotely. Community members grew weary of the constant noise from partying, and MSU-related cases skyrocketed in September.

MSU now plans to make it mandatory for sophomores to live on campus, beginning in 2022. How will this, coupled with the pandemic, reshape this relationship? We’ll track that story for you.

3. What will the police oversight study group recommend?

Gary Caldwell for ELi

The idea for citizen-run oversight has long been debated in East Lansing, but significant steps have been taken in 2020. On May 26, Council unanimously approved the formation of a Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission. The committee was only convened by City staff for the first time in October.

The committee is working together to decide what an independent police oversight commission might look like. The group must either come up with recommendations for Council’s consideration in April or ask for an extension. The committee has grappled with how to tackle a monumental task in just six months, while considering large amounts of information provided by the East Lansing Police Department and the Human Rights Commission about transparency, complaints against officers, police training and oversight, and racial bias in officer-initiated contact with the public.

We’ve been steadily covering this committee’s meetings and plan to continue.

4. Both the City and School District made strong statements of commitment to racial equity in 2020. Will they now change hiring practices or take other major actions?

Gary Caldwell for ELi

A protest for racial justice at City Hall in June.

This past year, through data provided via the Freedom of Information Act, ELi found that the City has a workforce in which men hold two-thirds of the full-time jobs and several key departments employ only white people. Only 44% of Black employees of either gender working as employees of the City hold full-time jobs.

On June 9, City Manager George Lahanas announced he would create the position of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Administrator. On June 18, Elaine Hardy was appointed as the City’s first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Administrator. In response to ELi’s findings, Hardy stated that, “Part of the reason why this position was created was to look at all aspects of our hiring, recruitment, training and promotion policies with the lens of creating a more equitable and inclusive workforce.”

Reporting from ELi this year also found that the makeup of the faculty at ELPS does not mirror the makeup of the student body. Over 43 percent of ELPS students are non-white, while the ELPS faculty is 96 percent white. Following the killing of George Floyd, ELPS released a statement of steps it would take to increase its commitment to racial equity, which included increased attention to hiring more diverse faculty. The Marble Equity Team suggested that ELPS fulfill this goal by recruiting teachers from Wayne State and Eastern Michigan University as well as historically Black colleges and universities. 

Will the City and School District follow through, and if so, how? We expect to keep reporting on this.

5. What will happen next with Center City?

An aerial view of he Center City District.

The Center City District, the large downtown development including The Landmark, Newman Lofts, and the new Target, has been a source of a lot of reporting  in 2020 that we expect to continue in 2021.

For one, there is the matter of who can live at Newman Lofts. The developers violated the City zoning code by renting to people under the age of 55 at the age-restricted apartments. They urged the City to remove the restriction, threatening legal action. ELi’s reporting showed that their efforts, which they claim were pandemic related, began long before the pandemic. Council voted 4-1 in November to give the developers a “stay” of enforcement to allow time for the City and developers to negotiate an “amicable solution.” 

We’ll track where that goes. We’ll also track what happens next with the controversy over the Center City District bonds refinancing, a story no other outfit reports for you.

6. What’s up with the deer cull?

Gary Caldwell for ELi

A trio of deer take pause and observe a potential threat.

The City has told ELi that the first-ever East Lansing deer cull will begin in January. The City is contracting out the actual work of the cull to USDA sharpshooters. The meat, once screened for safety, will be donated to charities that address food insecurity.

Council voted to approve the cull in February of 2020 amid strongly split public opinion. In recent months, ELi has gotten many queries from readers about the deer cull. We first wrote about it in October and then followed up with the City in December to learn the exact dates: Jan. 2, 2021 to March 1, 2021.

What will be the public reaction to the cull, assuming it happens? We will let you know.

7. What now for construction west of Abbot Road?

The proposed MSUFCU building looking northwest, with Dublin Square shown to the right.

ELi first broke the story of the City’s intent to sell Parking Lot #4, located just south of Dublin Square, to MSUFCU in November 2019. Voters overwhelmingly approved the sale of land through a referendum on the March 10, 2020 ballot. Although MSUFCU had been communicative and responsive during the process, only a rendering and contract – not a full plan had been made public at the time of the vote. 

The credit union didn’t want to sink a lot of resources until they knew if the voters would allow the sale. A more complete plan was made available in late June 2020, with some people ultimately expressing concerns about the building footprint being “too large” for the proposed site and about the seven-story, windowless brick wall on the Dublin Square side. 

The City’s Planning Commission recommended approving the plan 6 to 1. When MSUFCU’s plan made its way to Council in September, all five members approved the plan, but in November, MSUFCU asked Council to postpone the final sale of land until Jan. 6, 2021. The delay was due to concerns from Dublin Square owners, whose attorney stated, “significant concerns that the Development will have significant and detrimental effects on and cause damage” to the Dublin Square property.”

What about the Evergreen properties, owned by the Downtown Development Authority? In October, River Caddis Development got a 95-day extension to an exclusive agreement from the DDA, giving the developers until January to find tenants and/or alter and complete their plans and bring them before the DDA. 

We also keep waiting for the start of the affordable-housing apartment building at 341 Evergreen Avenue and the sewer project for that street, which City staff now say will start in February.

Will these projects come to fruition? You know ELi will keep you informed of big redevelopment.

8. What will life look like after the pandemic?

Gary Caldwell for ELi

Two young people don masks on Albert Ave., part of the mandatory mask zone.

The pandemic has upended almost every aspect of East Lansing life. Local public schools and Michigan State University have turned to remote learning. People have worked from home and taken new measures like masking up and maintaining physical distancing when out and about.

The pandemic has shed light on disparate health outcomes between whites and people of color in our area, with a move on the part of local leaders to declare racism as a public health crisis. The elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to the worst effects of the virus, have had to balance protecting their physical health with loneliness and isolation.

But the community here has also come together in various ways. Some have sewed masks as volunteers. Others have crowdsourced lists of restaurants open for takeout during shutdowns. The community, including ELi, has worked together to find little things to brighten our days and brainstormed ways to support local businesses.

Vaccination has begun in our area with Sparrow, McLaren, and Ingham County Health Department all receiving shipments of vaccines. What’s next for our area?

In 2021, ELi hopes and plans to keep bringing you a deeper, more meaningful look at life here in the pandemic.

9. What will happen to local small businesses and East Lansing’s economy?

During the pandemic, many small businesses have had to shutter their doors temporarily or permanently in response to executive orders and the outflow of MSU students, staff, and faculty. This year, the Downtown Development Authority offered $250,000 in small grants to local businesses, and when funds remained, allowed for a second round of applications. The City, in conjunction with the Downtown Management Board and DDA, attempted several measures to bring people to the downtown area over the summer, but many never came to fruition. In September, the City also announced the availability of HUD Community Development Block Grants to try to help businesses.

As part of this community, ELi has tried to encourage readers to spend locally this holiday season since it is possible that more than half of local businesses will not survive the pandemic.

Will the community turn its attention – and pocketbooks – toward supporting local businesses going forward? How will our local economy and our local business landscape change in the upcoming months and years? We’ll stay on this issue.

10. What else might be a big East Lansing story in 2021? We don’t know! That’s why East Lansing needs a news organization like ELi. 

We will never be able to predict everything that will happen, but that is why our editorial staff and reporters constantly monitor what is happening in our City. When something breaks, we are here to bring you accurate, reliable reporting.

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