Ray Suarez: Ann Arbor as a ‘Campus and Careers’ Patchwork Community

BY Ray Suarez  December 8, 2009 at 9:48 PM EST

The home of the renowned University of Michigan is just a short drive from Detroit. In those 40 minutes, the traveler crossed from a city in freefall with unemployment approaching 30 percent, to a thriving small city, with new buildings, lower unemployment, and millions of dollars heading to town in the pockets of college students from elsewhere. Ann Arbor is not totally immune to the economic decline of its state, but its own unemployment mirrors America’s, not Michigan’s, at just over 10 percent.

One of Patchwork Nation’s “Campus and Careers” counties, Ann Arbor’s county attracts thousands of Ph.D.s, graduate students, top-flight researchers and ambitious young people year after year.

We visited the university shortly after the announcement that the school would buy what had been a Pfizer research and development lab, abandoned by the pharmaceutical giant, for more than $100 million. Thousands of scientists worked at the lab, so the Pfizer decision to close up shop in Ann Arbor was a blow to the city.

A setback from the private sector became an opportunity for the public sector. The University’s president, Mary Sue Coleman, told me the top-quality lab space would have cost the school far more than it was paying Pfizer. The school plans to throw open the doors to researchers and private sector partners. For Ann Arbor government, the U of M purchase is good news, and not-so-good news: when the lab migrates from part of the far-flung Pfizer empire to a public university, it moves from being a big payer of local real estate taxes, to a new tax-exempt status.

One delightful side trip during the team’s time in Ann Arbor was a day at Zingerman’s the nationally known food business headquartered in the city for 27 years. Yes, business is down a bit on Zingerman’s pricy, high-quality foods. But not by much, say the founders and partners, Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw. Even as Michigan has suffered the worst economic downturn in 80 years, Zingerman’s has continued to hire, continued to roll out new product lines, and remained committed to Ann Arbor.

For more check out these Web-only video postcards on Zingerman’s and the wired world of Ann Arbor.