COVID-19 Update: Rocket Mortgage and HomeFree-USA Expand Black College Programming, 1918 Influenza History Offers Warning for Future Virus Reemergence, and More

Here is a roundup of the latest news concerning the COVID-19 pandemic in addition to announcements from local, state, and federal governments, as well as international channels. To share a business or nonprofit story, please send us a message.
graph of daily coronavirus cases in Michigan
Courtesy of Bridge

Here is a roundup of the latest news concerning the COVID-19 pandemic in addition to announcements from local, state, and federal governments, as well as international channels. To share a business or nonprofit story, please send us a message.

Rocket Mortgage and HomeFree-USA Expand Programming for HBCUs
Rocket Mortgage in Detroit and Black-founded HomeFree-USA in Maryland are expanding their ongoing partnership that provides financial education and career preparation at six historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Financial terms of the of the partnership were not disclosed.

The services are provided through HomeFree-USA’s Center for Financial Advancement education initiative, which helps Rocket Mortgage develop a pipeline to bring diverse new talent to Rocket Mortgage and its Rocket Cos. affiliates.

The HBCU’s involved are Fisk University, North Carolina A&T State University, Fort Valley State University, Bowie State University, North Carolina Central University, and Morgan State University.

“Diversity, equity, and inclusion are core tenets of our culture — existing beyond the lens of homeownership by informing everything we do and every space our organization touches,” says Trina Scott, chief diversity officer for Rocket Cos. “This expanded partnership will provide Black and other students of color with financial education programming and training, as well as allow them to access meaningful opportunities to join our organization in whatever role best suits their talents and skillsets.”

First partnering in 2018 on CFA, the organizations work side by side to provide tools and opportunities to prospective homebuyers to bridge the Black homeownership gap, collaborate on numerous financial information programs, and offer educational initiatives to HBCUs. The partnership expands beyond those goals for 2021 by investing in career preparation that will allow HBCU students to access fields where they are traditionally underrepresented.

Sponsoring partners engage the students, faculty, parents, and the local community at-large on such topics as credit, student loans, savings, homeownership, and opportunities in the mortgage finance profession.

In 2020, Rocket Cos. and the greater Rock Family of Cos. announced its “6 Point Plan,” a blueprint to address diversity, equity, and inclusion at the organization. Since then, the organization has leveraged its “For More Than Profit” philosophy and culture to impact the outcome on race, equity, and inclusion in six specific areas, including talent recruitment.

The two organizations are already planning to bring the CFA initiative to additional campuses for the 2021-2022 academic year.

In addition to efforts to increase the hiring of Detroit residents, this expanded partnership allows Rocket Cos. to attract diverse talent to Detroit as it continues to holistically address its ongoing DEI efforts. Rocket Cos. says it will hire 10 percent of its future interns from HBCUs, with the goal of bringing as many of the interns on as full-time team members as possible.

1918 Influenza History Offers Warning for Potential Future Pandemic Reemergence

The 1918 influenza pandemic provides a cautionary tale for what the future may hold for COVID-19, says a researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

After a decade studying a flu virus that killed approximately 15,000 Michigan residents, Siddharth Chandra, a professor in MSU’s James Madison College, saw his research come to life as he watched the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was so surreal,” says Chandra. “All of a sudden, I was living my research.”

Chandra’s research was published online Feb. 10 in the American Journal of Public Health with co-authors Julia Christensen, Madhur Chandra, and Nigel Paneth.

Using influenza infection and mortality data on Michigan from 1918-1920, Chandra identified four distinct waves. The first large peak was in March 1918. “After a second spike in cases in October 1918, the governor instituted a statewide ban on public gatherings,” Chandra says. “Much like the restrictions that were put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

After three weeks, the number of cases decreased and the ban was lifted, which led to another peak in December 1918. “The ban didn’t stop the spread of the flu. It just delayed the spike in cases,” he said.

Chandra mapped the data showing the peaks and spikes in cases from October 1918 and December 1918 and tracked flu virus case growth by county over time. In October, counties in the southern part of the state and near the Mackinac Straits had the highest numbers but by December, the highest numbers of cases were in the heart of the state.

The most surprising piece of data came 18 months later in February 1920, when a statewide explosion of cases created a massive spike even larger than the one in October 1918. For Chandra, it is an educated guess as to the reasons for this delayed increase.

“Assuming it’s the same influenza virus, World War I ended in 1918 and the men were coming home to their families,” he said. “We had a mobile agent that brought the virus home to infect family members, which would explain the increase in cases among children and the elderly.”

Unfortunately, there is not a way to confirm this, Chandra notes. “We would need samples from patients in 1920 from across the state. Then, we would need to compare those with samples from patients in 1918 from across the state, and that’s not likely to happen.”

The weather may have also been a factor since cool temperatures with low humidity likely provided optimal conditions for the virus to live and spread. Another factor that played a role was the absence of a vaccine.

“In 1918, there was no hope for a vaccine. In 2021, we have a vaccine available,” he said.

One of the key insights from the 1918 pandemic that can inform the public health response to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic is the number of people who are susceptible to the virus. Which means that it is possible that a spike like the February 1920 one will occur in late 2021 or early 2022.

“So many people will remain susceptible until they get vaccinated,” Chandra says. “Bad things can still happen a year or two from now even if we see a decrease in the number of cases now. We still have over 200 million people walking around who are susceptible to the virus, including myself.”

Navitas and Homepoint Expansions Bring Jobs to Ann Arbor Region
Two projects expected to generate 266 new jobs, generating a total private investment of $7.1 million in the Ann Arbor region, have received support from the Michigan Strategic Fund, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. announced.

Navitas Systems in Ann Arbor designs, develops, and manufactures energy-enabled system solutions and energy storage products for commercial, industrial, and government agency customers. Its products range from customized energy storage solutions for defense-related applications to custom renewable energy integrated power systems.

It is planning to expand into a second facility in Scio Township, where it will house its commercial battery manufacturing, additional engineering resources, battery cell production, and office space. The project is expected to generate a total private investment of $3.36 million and create 111 high-paying new jobs, resulting in a $750,000 MBDP performance-based grant. Michigan was chosen over competing sites in Illinois and Pennsylvania.

“We appreciate the opportunity to continue our development path in the state of Michigan,” says Alan Elshafei, founder and CEO of Navitas Systems. “The job incentive grant is an important part of our justification for making the additional investments in Ann Arbor as compared to other sites.”

For information on careers with Navitas, visit here.

Homepoint is a national multi-channel mortgage loan originator and servicer. The company is the third-largest wholesale mortgage lender in the country, funding residential mortgage loans in all 50 states through its network of mortgage broker and correspondent partners.

It is looking to add an operations center in Ann Arbor, a project that will generate an additional private investment of $3.7 million and create 155 new jobs. The positions will include originators, underwriters, closers, and disclosure analysts. The Michigan Strategic Fund approved an increase of the total new jobs from 50 to 205, resulting in an increase of Homepoint’s MBDP grant from $360,000 to $960,000. The terms of the agreement were extended from June 1 to Dec. 1, 2023. Michigan was chosen over an alternate site in the Midwest.

Homepoint provides individual training development for its associates along with organization-wide career opportunities. Individuals interested in careers with Homepoint can visit here.

“The growth of Navitas Systems and Homepoint here in Michigan is an important signal that our strategy for long-term economic growth in Michigan is continuing to create a path for job growth in our state, even in a challenging economic environment,” says Mark A. Burton, CEO of MEDC. “We appreciate the continued confidence and investment of both of these companies in the Ann Arbor area and the ongoing partnership with Ann Arbor SPARK on growth opportunities in Michigan.”

Park West Museum in Southfield Reopens with New Art and Renovations
Art lovers in the metro Detroit area have the opportunity to explore new and expanded offerings at Southfield’s Park West Museum, sponsored by Park West Gallery, now reopen seven days a week from 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

“We really took advantage of the last shutdown,” says Albert Scaglione, founder and CEO of Park West. “We brought in collections from museum exhibitions that have been touring the world and renovated our galleries to display them in the most beautiful way possible. Even if you’ve visited the Park West Museum before, you will definitely see something new if you visit us now.”

Visitors to the Park West Museum will have the opportunity to view selections from 11 museum exhibitions that have appeared across the United States and Israel. The artists appearing in these exhibitions include Marcel Mouly (a student and contemporary of Picasso), Las Vegas artist Michael Godard, child prodigy Autumn de Forest, Alexandre Renoir (the great-grandson of Pierre-Auguste Renoir), Ukrainian artist Anatole Krasnyansky, Israeli master Yaacov Agam, Detroit artist Tim Yanke, famed surrealist Salvador Dali, and Pablo Picasso.

Picasso fans, in particular, are encouraged to seek out the new collections at the Park West Museum, the current home of the largest selection of Picasso’s ceramic works on display anywhere in the world.

“We’re thrilled to bring these all of these exceptional museum collections to the Detroit area,” says Mike Snodgrass, senior art consultant for the Park West Museum. “Not only are these world-class artists, but they also represent a fantastic diversity of art. You’ll find works from classic masters like Salvador Dali appearing next to electrifying contemporary artists like Michael Godard and Tim Yanke. It brings together hundreds of years of art history in a way that really does have something for everyone.”

The Park West Museum is located at 29469 Northwestern Highway in Southfield. For more information, visit here or call.

Monroe County’s ZoomBroom Receives $40K Matching Fund Investment
The Monroe County Business Development Corp. and ProMedica Innovations in Ohio have invested $40,000 from the MCBDC’s Matching Fund Program in ZoomBroom.

ZoomBroom is a new consumer product designed to make cleaning decks, patios, sidewalks, and steps easier. Its slim, lightweight design makes it easy to store in a home or business.

The Matching Fund Program funding will support the company’s Kickstarter campaign and early onset development efforts. The company is the brainchild of local entrepreneurs Randy Kuckuck and Kevin Newcomer.

“This investment is what the BDC Board of Directors and ProMedica Innovations had in mind when they allocated a combined $500,000 to start the Matching Fund Program back in 2018,” says Tim Lake, president and CEO of the MCBD. “We have two local businessmen with a new product that they intend to launch and develop within Monroe County and we are proud to support their enterprise.”

Kuckuck says, “The investment that (the Matching Fund program) is making in ZoomBroom shows their confidence in us as we build this new enterprise in Monroe.”

ZoomBroom says it expects to have this new product available on the Kickstarter platform in April 2021. For more information, visit here.

State Treasury Grants Relief from Unemployment Benefit Tax Penalties and Interest
Michiganders who collected state unemployment benefits last year will not be required to pay penalty and interest related to underpaid estimated tax payments, according to the Michigan Department of Treasury.

Effective immediately, the state Treasury Department has granted an automatic waiver of all penalties and interest related to underpaid estimated tax payments owed by taxpayers who received unemployment benefits in 2020.

Under state law, taxpayers are required to pay quarterly estimated tax payments when the annual tax due is expected to exceed $500 or more. Taxpayers who fail to pay an estimated quarterly tax payment are typically subject to penalties and interest.

All taxpayers who received unemployment during the 2020 tax year will automatically receive this waiver. Because this waiver is automatic, taxpayers do not need to contact the state Treasury Department or provide any additional documentation for a waiver be applied.

Unemployment benefits are subject to federal and state taxes. Taxpayers who chose to not have taxes withheld from their benefits will owe any outstanding tax.

For more information, visit here.

GLWA, Oakland County, City of Detroit Collaboration to Improve Water Quality
The Great Lakes Water Authority, Oakland County, and the city of Detroit will work together, across municipal and county boundaries, on three projects that will protect public health by reducing wet weather discharges into regional waterways.

The collaboration came together during GLWA’s Wastewater Master Plan planning process, as discussions were being conducted about the need for a regional focus on reducing combined sewer and sanitary sewer discharges into our waterways during wet weather events.

Part of the collaboration involves the Evergreen-Farmington Sanitary Drain Drainage District, a regional sewer service district that collects sanitary sewage operated by the Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner, securing additional wet weather flow capacity in the regional wastewater system to complete its 30-year plan for improving the water quality of the Rouge River.

As a result of this additional capacity, EFSD will not only improve system reliability, but also will avoid the cost of constructing a new wet weather treatment facility, as well as costs from its long-term operations and maintenance.

To offset this additional flow into the regional wastewater system, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and GLWA each will undertake their own projects:

  • DWSD is implementing its Far West Detroit Stormwater Improvement Project which was identified in 2017 as part of its green stormwater infrastructure program. The project will improve sewer flow and capacity by removing stormwater within the right-of-way from the combined sewer pipes.
  • GLWA will accelerate the undertaking of a two-part improvement project at its West Warren combined sewer outfall location in Detroit, ahead of schedule, that will correct wet weather discharges from this location and bring it into compliance with its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. The project includes constructing a new diversion weir chamber west of the Rouge River and increasing the size of an existing 18-inch diameter pipe to a 54-inch pipe east of the Rouge River.

Combined, these projects will prevent an estimated 48 million gallons of wet weather flow per year from making its way into the Rouge River untreated.

For more information on GLWA, visit here.

Wayne State Announces Reconnect Transfer Award
Wayne State University in Detroit is offering support to students who participate in the newly released Michigan Reconnect program through the state of Michigan. Students interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree after obtaining their associate degree through Michigan Reconnect will be considered for a $4,000 transfer award: $2,000 per academic year for two consecutive years beginning the term of admission.

“Wayne State is building on an excellent program by extending the benefits of the Michigan Reconnect program to ensure a smooth transition for eligible community college students who wish to complete their bachelor’s degrees at a world-class research university,” says M. Roy Wilson, president of WSU. “Accessibility and affordability are pillars of the Wayne State experience, and we’re pleased to be able to team up with community colleges to offer this program to our students.”

Michigan Reconnect will pay the cost of tuition for eligible adults who want to pursue an associate degree or skills certificate at their in-district community college. The program also offers skills scholarships to help cover the cost of tuition for more than 70 private training schools, with 120 programs that offer certificates in high-demand careers in industries such as manufacturing, construction, information technology, health care, and business management.

To be eligible for Wayne State’s Reconnect Transfer Award, students must meet eligibility requirements of the State of Michigan Reconnect program, have earned an associate degree at a Michigan community college, and enroll in a WSU degree program to earn their first bachelor’s. Students automatically will be considered for merit-based funding in addition to the Reconnect Transfer Award.

For more information, visit here.

Gourmet Cannabis Edibles Brand Introduced to Michigan
Kaneh Co., a California-based high-end culinary brand that specializes in gourmet cannabis infused edibles, made its Michigan debut in early December 2020.

Consumers began seeing Kaneh Co. products — including brownies, confections, cookies and more — in Michigan dispensaries.

The company’s approach includes using only premium Kaneh Co. ingredients, including the finest chocolate. Each product also includes a consistent, high-quality, and precise 10 mg cannabis extract dosage made from Michigan-grown cannabis plants.

Kaneh Co. edibles available in Michigan include the Best of Both World Brownies, Salted Toffee Blondies, Superfood Granola Bites, Red Velvet Cookies, Triple Chocolate Brownies, S’mores Brownies, and Peanut Butter Fudge Brownies, all dosed by hand.

Among the Michigan dispensaries where the products are available include House of Dank, Puff Cannabis Co., Green Pharm Cannabis Center Detroit, Gage Cannabis Co., and Cloud Cannabis Co. Prices vary by product and location and will range between $10-$22.

Local Photographer Starts Pooch Playoffs to Benefit Leader Dogs for the Blind
Paula Kurzawa Photography in Lake Orion has started the Pooch Playoffs national fundraising competition to benefit the Rochester based nonprofit Leader Dogs for the Blind.

The business is accepting 16 participants to be photographed and voted on in a bracket style competition to determine the “Ulti-Mutt Cutie” of Oakland County. All contestants will receive a metal dog tag and gift bag full of prizes from local sponsors including Love 4 Dogs, The Urban Dog, and Soggy Doggie, with the final winner earning a printed canvas from their photo session and the opportunity to compete with bracket winners from all over the country for an “Ulti-Mutt” prize.

Mini photo sessions are available to book at $99 per pup, with scheduling dates available until Feb. 28.

“This past year has been especially hard for nonprofit organizations, so when the opportunity presented itself to raise money for the Leader Dogs for the Blind, I was more than happy to step up,” says Paula Kurzawa, owner of Paula Kurzawa Photography. “Pets are such important members of our families, yet we rarely think to have their photos professionally taken. The Pooch Playoffs offers everyone the opportunity to have their pets photo taken by a professional, while also supporting a really impactful organization.”

The bracket style competition will begin March 1. Each week, participants will be matched against another pup to narrow down and determine who will be Oakland County’s “Ulti-Mutt Cutie.” The winner will be announced March 29.

Interested pet owners can call 248-705-1141 or email to schedule their session.