The decision, announced today by Congressman Vern Ehlers, ultimately could trigger more than $29 million in federal funding to build a nearly 10-mile bus rapid transit route and modernize the transportation infrastructure in Michigan's second largest city. It's also expected to expand mobility choices, leverage a new wave of private real estate investment, and boost quality of life in the central city.
But the implications of the approval likely will extend far beyond the Grand Rapids region. Michigan is the 8th largest state in the union. Yet the state has been unable to tap into the federal government's primary funding program for mass transit projects known as New Starts.
Dozens of cities across America are planning, building, or expanding bus, street car, light rail, and other public transportation projects. So competitition, in other words, is brisk for New Starts funding. What's more, the process favors states and communities that have successfully jumped through the program's hoops in the past. Michigan, the Auto State, isn't one of them.
Until now. Grand Rapids becomes the first Michigan city to secure New Starts approval, and that presents a powerful opportunity to accelerate transit projects across the state, including a proposed light rail project in Detroit. The next step for Grand Rapids and, more importantly, the State of Michigan, is to come up with the local dollars necessary to match and bring home the federal funds.
Peter Varga, CEO of the Rapid, the regional transit authority serving the Grand Rapids region, is confident state and local leaders will find the $7 million in the next couple years.
"We don't want to stop this," Mr. Varga said. "If you say 'no' to this, you're saying 'no' to everything in the future whether it's transit project in southeast Michigan, Traverse City, or wherever."
"Michigan has to move into the future and be able to attract new businesses, technology, and knowledge-based workers and that kind of recruitment and developmentall requires advanced transportation systems," Varga added. "What we've done is demonstrate that we can get a [major mass transit] project rated by the Federal Transit Administration and that we can fund it under the federal program. Other systems [in Michigan] can do the same."
"We'll be the first one, but I never envisioned we'll be the only one."
In other FTA news that affects the Great Lakes region's maturation in the 21st century, the agency announced on December 11, 2007 a $156 million commitment to the 40-mile commuter rail line project in Minnesota. The funds cover approximately half the total construction costs.
"After a difficult year, there’s a new star rising on Minneapolis’s transportation horizon and it’s lighting a path to faster trips to the office, to the ball game, and back home," said the US Deputy Secretary of Transportation Thomas Barrett.
Later that afternoon, their like-minded peers in Cleveland announced a $3.6 million philanthropic donation to fund the launch of the Great Lakes Institute for Energy Innovation at Case Western Reserve University.
What we're seeing here is the quickening pace of competition to capture a significant share of the rapidly emerging alternative and renewable energy business, which is growing 30 percent annually and projected to approach a $170 billion market by 2015.
That means thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment are at stake for cities like Cleveland, Milwaukee, Buffalo, and Grand Rapids, all of which are fighting like dogs to survive the wrenching transition from the Industrial Era to the Digital Age.
What makes research labs so important? They're critical to 1) attract the top talent; 2) lure the companies that feed off the intellectual capital; and 3) ultimately support the innovation, incubation, development, manufacture, and commercialization of the new products and services that will shape arguably one of the most important industries of our time.
“The greatest challenges and opportunities for engineers and scientists of the 21st century likely will focus on the generation, transportation, utilization and storage of energy,” Norman Tien, dean of the Case School of Engineering, said in a press release announcing the $3.6 million gift from the Cleveland Foundation.
"With this startup funding, the Case School of Engineering is well-positioned to advance energy innovation in Ohio. We will be augmenting the engineering faculty with this funding by hiring mid-level, well-established players who will have an immediate impact on the school and on our energy initiatives."
So you can count entrepreneurs and advocates for a 21st development strategy in Buffalo among the frustrated lot who fear the greater Great Lakes region is moving much too slowly in the pursuit of a modern economy.
Clean energy is one of the fast growing sectors in the American marketplace. The industry is expected to generate an estimated 850,000 new jobs and a national market value of $160 million in the next decade, according to report scheduled to be released tomorrow in Muskegon, Michigan.
How could seizing it be anything but a top priority?
Countless cities, states, and nations now aim for a piece of the lucrative action. There's international competition in this game. And Buffalo, like a number of Great Lakes cities, is uniquely positioned for success with the capable - and idle - workforce, the brownfields awaiting new industry, and the transportation connections to build a mighty high tech green power business with a global reach.
But the "edge only counts if we get in the race," rightly observes Buffal News Columnist Donn Esmonde. "So far, we are barely at the starting line.".
But, if you champion a 21st century economic development agenda, as opposed to blindly clinging onto the same old ideas that got us in this Rust Belt mess in the first place, then you know these courageous elected officials are truly visionary.
Because what they appear to be fighting for is a comprehensive transportation solution that, in the long run, will do more to stem traffic congestion, grow the local economy, strengthen both urban and suburban neighborhoods, and conserve energy in Milwaukee than a bigger highway could ever do.
Here, briefly, is the story. The state Department of Transportation is pushing a $1.9 billion plan to build out I-94 from 6 to 8 lanes over a 37-mile stretch of the freeway from Mitchell Airport, just south of the city, to the Illinois border. Proponents say the proposal is critical to move goods and people between the increasingly busy corridor that connects Milwaukee and Chicago.
But the City of Milwaukee, like dozens of other cities struggling to rebuild their competitiveness for the knowledge economy, has ambitious plans to expand mass transit, accelerate urban redevelopment, and elevate quality of life to retain and attract young talent and modern companies.
A critical component of the city's transit plan is a commuter rail line that links passengers to Milwaukee, Kenosha, Racine, northeastern Illinois, and Chicago. The proposed service would follow a similiar north-south alignment as the I-94 highway.
The freeway expansion plan, however, basically ignores mass transit. So, by a 10-4 vote, city leaders moved a resolution urging state transportation officials to consider "a more strategic approach to the WI DOT's funding of some of its major projects affecting Milwaukee."
Specifically, the city leaders called for "a collaborative approach and simultaneous funding of high-speed rail, light rail, and the expansion and reconstruction of I-94"
Mayor Tom Barrett said the approach was a fiscally responsible way to achieve a more balanced, comprehensive transportation system that gives people choices beyond the automobile.
But the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorialized that the leaders were mistaken, and inferred that voters should hold them accountable for such reckless governing.
What's becoming increasingly clear in the wake of those bulletins is that the longer Michigan's politicians take to enact a statewide policy to pursue energy innovation - as at least two dozens U.S. states have already done - the longer they choose to obstruct the state's ability to grow jobs, turnaround an embarrassing economy, and position for prosperity in the 21st century.
The week's first energy announcement comes from Detroit, where innovative solar technology is flying of the shelves at Energy Conversion Devices, which just inked an agreement with one of the nation's leading solar panel installers. Analysts called it a modest deal. But Forbes reported on the transaction. A rare and welcome sign of positive growth for a state seemingly synonomous with factory closings, real estate foreclosures, and bankruptcies in the national media.
ECD's stock, by the way, ended trading today up nearly 11 percent.
The story picks up more momentum 70 miles to the west in East Lansing where Michigan State University, one of the state's leading research institutions, released a report touting the economic benefits that could accrue to the Great Lakes State given an agressive strategy to promote the wind business.
The report reveals that a plan to strategically deploy new wind energy generating infrastructure in the state would, among other things, stimulate approximately $20 billion in new construction investment and establish more than 25,000 jobs - some temporary, some permanent - over the next two decades.
On to Grand Rapids, finally, where one of the region's leading economic development agencies is gearing up to release a report next week that says a basic strategy to grow the alternative energy industry could generate 4,300 new jobs and leverage approximately $1.2 billion in new investment in five short years.
“Supporting the development of Michigan’s alternative energy sector is a critical strategy for securing the economic health of the state,” said Jim Croce, CEO of the Detroit-based NextEnergy.
You should never extrapolate about global warming from your own weather, New York Times Columnist Tom Friedman wrote last week, but it is becoming hard not to.
Indeed, the freezing trends on Grand Traverse Bay are just one indication of climate change in the Great Lakes region, according to James Nugent, a horticulturalist with Michigan State University.
The graph at the left of this post was generated at least a couple of years. But, according to a web search, it received little media attention at the time. And, since a friend recently brought it to my attention, I thought it made a worthwhile and timely post today as Al Gore accepted the Nobel Prize for his work on the climate issue.
Basically, what the graph says is that Grand Traverse Bay, a beautiful expanse of freshwater in Northwest Michigan, froze anywhere from seven to 10 times a decade from 1851 - when they started keeping records - until about 1980.
Then things started to change. The bay froze six times from 1981 to 1990. It froze just three times from 1991 to 2000. And it has frozen only once since 2001.
"This shows a rapid decline in the frequency of bay freezing during the most recent 25 year period," Mr. Nugent once wrote in a paper, concluding that "significant warming has occured in the Grand Traverse Bay region during the winter months."
The likely long-term results of the trend are major disruptions in the nature of the waterway, some of which may already be visible. There's strong indication that lower lake levels, for instance, are a symptom of the warming trend as lack of ice cover enables year around evaportation.
I always thought of lake levels as nervous news. They go up. And they go down. It's the nature of the hydrologic cycle that's run on for millenia regardless of human things like lakefront hotels, cottages, and boat docks. But it's increasingly difficult to ignore the idea that the very nature of the Earth's weather system is changing, not just on the coral reefs off the Florida coast or some polar bear tundra in the North Pole, but right in our own backyard.
To pull the thread back to the theme of this blog, the question is whether our region is ready and willing to anticipate the trends and respond with the sort of urgency, innovation, and collaboration that this incredible challenge demands.
I'm wondering how we regain and deploy that anything-is-possible spirit across Great Lakes culture today.
One particular above-the-fold front page story in the Arizona Star, about a major charitable donation to fund biotech research, caught my attention at the time because it illustrated the tendency of people to see and explain the favorable side of the events that I was picking up on during my travels in that dry, hot, and seemingly temporary place.
"Arizona's biosciences will receive a $100 million donation today that officials predict will spur medical and scientific breakthroughs, create higher-paying jobs, attract new companies and position the state as a high-tech leader," Reporter Eric Swedlund wrote in his Feb. 26, 2006 report.
"This can be a kickstart to change the entire dynamic of the state," one source said. "This is knowledge-based economy at its finest."
Contrast that with the Midwest attitude and awareness. The media barely even blinked today when Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's announced that his state would invest $70 million to fund the scientific advancement of supercomputing at the local Argonne National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy's high tech research center.
According to the governor's press release, the investment would enable "Illinois scientists to apply breakthroughs in supercomputing and pursue advances in nanotechnology, climate change, protein modeling and more, solidifying the fastest growing research program in Argonne’s history." It's a strategic move in the era of knowledge and creativity.
So what did the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times' online edition lead with? News of a snow storm. The statewide section? News of a boy mulled by a pit bull and a bus crash in Indiana. Surely the business section would inform readers of this pioneering push into the digital age, right? Wrong. More news about the mortgage crisis, bankruptcies, and slowing growth in the service sector.
This is crazy, right. Certainly the Chicago Tribune would carry news of a public project that, as the governor put it, would "help scientists propel American leadership in technology and engineering for decades to come." Especially as the nation's young people fall behind in math and science skills and the greater Great Lakes region navigates this incredibly disruptive economic evolution from the Industrial Era to the Digital Age, no?.
Wrong again. The front page story at chicagotribune.com is more news about snow, a metra train running over a pedestrian and, in the business section, the shutdown of a potato chip plant.
In fact, search Yahoo News and it seems not one newspaper or television station in the state or region picked up the story.
OK. OK. We get it, you say. The media blew it. And $70 million is pocket change in the incredibly expensive world of supercomputing anyways. So what's your point?
The point is that the traditional news bureaus across the greater Great Lakes region seem to be so busy yelling about the demise of the old economy that, too often, they miss the important opportunities to help explain the rise of the new economy. The industry is fixated on loss.
That's a shame and, ultimately, a huge public disservice. Because the way forward in the 21st century requires innovation, entrepreneurialism, talent, and risk. It also demands vision, optimism, and hope. And until the region's mainstream information brokers start telling that story, as they appear to be doing out in the booming west, they'll remain a mechanism of the dying system rather than the voice of a brighter future.
Guess where the report originates? Not at some high tech startup in Silicon Valley. Not in a fancy research center at MIT or the Department of Energy. But rather in Roger Ruan's laboratory at the University of Minnesota.
The story is the latest to illustrate how America, in many ways, is looking to the greater Great Lakes region - with its long history of research, innovation, and hard work - for leadership to advance the nation's renewable energy strategy and help solve the converging problems of oil dependency, climate change, and technological stagnation.
So, too, does the news now sweeping the country that Congress has reached agreement on a policy requiring automakers to pursue modest increases fuel efficiency standards.
Or, as the Detroit Free Press put it, "the deal negotiated will force (emphasis added) U.S. automakers to make a 40 percent improvement in their vehicles' mileage to 35 miles per gallon by 2020."
And therein lies a major challenge. America more and more is pushing to enlist the ingenuity of Heartland states like Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in the energy innovation campaign. But the question is whether the region's traditional and entrenched leadership from business, politics, and the media is really truly ready and willing to fully heed the call and step up to the challenge.
Or must they be "forced" into meaningul action? Despite the mounting number of stories that reveal an inspiring - and profitable - 21st century change in thinking about wind turbines, mpg's, or even algae, there always seems to be something that brings the whole conversation crashing back down into the comfort zone of 20th-century-style-business-as-usual.
As evidence, check out yesterday's editorial in the Detroit News, which argues new coal plants are key to Michigan's future.
The Buffalo News, by sharp contrast, editorializes that a new clean energy economy is emerging, with the potential to generate tens of thousands of jobs in the State of New York.
The deal reportedly makes Michigan's second largest city the largest purchaser of renewable power from Consumers Energy.
"This historic investment by our city's leadership strongly establishes Grand Rapids as a progressive, green community committed to environmental sustainability and the triple bottom line," Mayor George Heartwell said in a press release issued by Consumers. "This is a positive step forward which will benefit the Michigan economy and will reduce the City of Grand Rapids' carbon footprint by an estimated 10,200 tons of carbon dioxide annually."
"The prize at the end of the race is worth all of our best efforts, and the prize is when our children's children's children breathe clean air and enjoy abundant power without fear of depleting or destroying natural resources," said Mayor Heartwell, who has publicly mused about setting a goal of 100 percent renewable power for his city.
"That's the vision and it's up to us to accomplish it."
- A $7.6 million widening of Cass from two to five lanes from the Clinton River Bridge to 19 ½ Mile.
A $6.3 million widening of Romeo Plank to five lanes.
A $2.7 million widening of 23 Mile to five lanes.
A $2.5 million widening of Cass to five lanes from Groesbeck to the Clinton River Bridge.
Not a single project aimed at expanding public transit or other alternatives to the automobile, and this at a time as gas shoots past $3 a gallon and prime time cities like Denver, Toronto, and Portland invest billions in new light rail trains and urban streetcar infrastructure to enhance quality of life, attract knowledge workers, and safeguard the environment.
So, putting the pieces together, Detroit and the State of Michigan is spending tens of millions of dollars to expand a short-sighted transportation strategy that is increasingly unaffordable, out of touch with a strategic development strategy, and ultimately unsustainable.
"We need $320 million more a year," to keep 90 percent of the roads in good condition, state transportation director Kirk Steudle told the Detroit News. "Where that is going to come from, I don't know."
So we'll just keep widening the roads and adding more surfaces to repair.
With the region in the midst of a full blow waterfront revolution, a time when countless communities are discovering that steel mills, highways, and cement plants are perhaps not the highest and best use of increasingly valuable shoreline and riverbank property, East Grand Rapids joins the likes of Cleveland, Toronto, Traverse City, and Grand Rapids who have dared to speak the idea of reconfiguring a man made roadway to better leverage their waterfront assets.
It remains to be seen whether the city's residents have the courage to dramatically rethink the roadway that squeezes Reeds Lake, fire up the bulldozers, and join the ranks of San Francisco, New York, and Portland - all of whom have deconstructed highways to improve quality of life.
Or we could choose to be bold, confident, and fearless, like the good old days when the citizens of America's heartland launched the Industrial Revolution, propelled national prosperity, and changed the world.
Because a federally sponsored water task force is just the sort of forum the people of the Great Lakes need to forge a new discussion about water policy, and make the case that the region is uniquely positioned to help solve the nation's water challenge with new technologies and management techniques as opposed to naively throwing more water at the problem.
Regional leaders could even call for a federally funded public works project to underwrite a massive investment in the research, development, design, and manufacture of new ideas and products to boost water stewardship and conservation. Just so happens there's a proposed $20 billion Great Lakes restoration strategy that could get the work started now languishing in Congress.
Looking at the issue this way, Midwest residents and leaders should actively support the proposed commission. Not run from it.
We should embrace it and own it.
But the Press article illustrates how the people of the Great Lakes start from a position of weakness when it comes to the water management discussion. Not a strategic position of strength and cunning.
"Any talk of a national water policy raises the specter of Southwestern cities and Southeastern peanut farmers looking to somehow stick a straw in the Great Lakes," the Press states. "The Southeast and Southwest are in the grip of droughts that show no sign of relenting, and could grow worse if scientists are even half right about the expected effects of global climate change."
In all too familiar fashion, the editorial then goes on to rehash the standard Great Lakes statistics about containing 20 percent of the world's fresh water and 90 percent of the nation's supply.
It says nothing of the region's unmatched researched universities, incredible heritage of innovation and problem-solving, or the multi-billion dollar global water tech market now emerging in the knowledge economy.
Put simply, the airport authority apparently is anticipating the trends and planning a 21st century transportation hub in a region and state that historically has rejected public transit.
But, in the process, they've also flushed out the latest opponent to new ways of funding modern mass transit in Michigan. Ironically, it's Northwest Airlines from Minnesota! The carrier opposes a special passenger fee to fund the improvements.
“The big deal to us is to add a tax to pay for a train to nowhere,” Andrea Fischer Newman, Northwest’s senior vice president for government affairs, recently told Crain's Detroit Business. “There’s no need for it because all the rental car companies use buses.”
There's alternative ways to pay for this thing. But the idea that a transportation company is fighting the expansion of a hyper-connected, multi-modal transportation network is puzzling.
Most major airports have some sort of tram that move people around from terminal to terminal. Detroit Metro has the beginning of something similiar, as pictured above.
The really smart cities - San Francisco, Portland, Washington D.C. to name a few - provide permanent rail as an easy option for folks to get from the air field to the downtown and other regional amenities.
Had Detroit made a similiar investment 20 years ago, there's strong indications that the population loss, unemployment, housing slump, and other troubling trends would be much less acute today. And Northwest, by extension, likely would be shuffling even more planes and passengers outta southeast Michigan.
But that isn't stopping the entrenched bureaucrats from pushing ahead with super costly new road and highway projects at the expense of the mass transit project a growing majority of citizens say is necessary.
The Indiana Department of Transporation is pouring buckets of money to plan for construction of the I69 highway.
The Michigan Department of Transporation is slowly implementing a $400 million plus plan to expand the I196 highway through downtown Grand Rapids.
And Wisconsin is debating the most expensive highway expansion in state history.
"You have a couple billion dollars now going into freeway expansion at a time when we're also trying to figure out ways to reduce auto travel because of the use and cost of oil and the impacts on our climate," Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel yesterday.
"We have to take a deep breath and figure out how we're going to build a multimodal system, instead of just pouring concrete."
Mr. Hiniker's comments, like the recent realtors report cited above, illustrate how public sentiment has steadily and quietly jumped way ahead of government planning and spending when it comes to transportation.
What's at stake for central cities, states, and the nation in the 21st century is economic competitiveness, ecological sustainability, social wellbeing, and homeland security.
The agreement calls for new limitations on greenhouse gas emissions, modest reductions in energy consumption, and more grass stations. It also sets the goal of meeting 30 percent of the region's electricity needs with renewable sources by 2030, according to a report in today's Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune.
“Today’s agreement is an important milestone toward achieving a cleaner, more secure energy future,” Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty said in a press release. “The Midwest is well-positioned to help lead the energy revolution that our nation needs to stay competitive and strong."
The immediate question is whether or not this pact will really be implemented. Because despite all the rhetoric about the potential to spur new jobs and high tech businesses with an aggresive renewable energy agenda, there are legitimate questions about just how committed Great Lakes leaders are to advancing serious energy innovation.
Ohio claims to be orienting its economic future around renewable energy. Yet Ohio Governor Strickland's energy plan appears poised to advance a rate structure that favors coal and nukes over wind and sun, according to a recent report from Tom Henry at the Toledo Blade.
Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle proclaimed October Energy Awareness Month.
Then he signed on in support of an allegedly futuristic coal plant in Illinois, according to a recent report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
And energy companies are planning coal-fired power plants all across Michigan, without a peep from Governor Jennifer Grahnolm, who rightly claims the pursuit of alternative energies "can mean thousands and thousands of jobs for Michigan citizens."
The energy pact signed today by the Midwestern governors represents an important step forward for the region's 21st century development strategy. The real challenge - especially for a region so heavily dependent on Old Economy energy - is to put the thing into action.
That conversation might begin with this undeniable fact: The world's water problem is a huge opportunity for the Great Lakes region. Not, at the moment, a threat, as the newspaper reports and press releases would have us believe.
As clean fresh water grows increasingly scarce and more expensive in places like California, Nevada, and Georgia, the robust supplies flowing through the greater Great Lakes region present an unmatched opportunity to secure existing industries, recruit new water-dependent businesses from drier regions, and promote long-term job retention and growth. That's elementary.
But the economy evermore is organized around knowledge and generating new ideas. So, instead of fretting about building wildly expensive pipelines and pumps to transport water across the countryside, the people of the greater Great Lakes can prosper by pioneering new water management strategies and services that help those with dwindling water resources boost the sustainability of their supplies. That's the 21st century approach.
Water tech’s potential is vast. Water quality and quantity are growing global problems and industry revenues already are estimated at $300 billion worldwide, according to a 2003 report prepared by the Battelle Memorial Institute, a scientific and technological consulting firm based in Columbus, Ohio.
Water supply and wastewater treatment, for example, is a $122 billion global market. The market for improved desalination of seawater, currently estimated at $2 billion annually, is projected to grow to $70 billion by 2020. Irrigation is already a $30 billion annual market, with demand for watersaving systems growing 10 percent each year.
With an entrepreneurial heritage, worldclass research universities, and the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world, the people of America's Great Lakes are uniquely positioned to compete successfully in these new ventures.
But environmental groups, politicians, and the mass media remain fixated on the thirsty westerners and foreigners coming to siphon off the Great Lakes. Not on a forward-looking policy and investment strategy to support the innovation, design, development, manufacture, and delivery of new equipment and management techniques to solve looming water scarcity problems.
As evidence, here's a sample of recent clips stemming from New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's comments about the plentiful Great Lakes. The stories pump the perception that the Great Lakes are under imminent attack from thirsty hoards, or that the region's water supply is on the verge of being drained away. They sell the fear of exporting Great Lakes water. Not the promising potential to export solutions to the world's water problems.
"I ask whether you endorse the Great Lakes Restoration and Protection Strategy and, if so, to articulate your implementation plan," the governor continued.
With just under one year to go before the 2008 election, Gov. Doyle's call illustrates how hungry the people of the Great Lakes are for a reasoned agenda to reverse decades of economic, environmental, and civic decline. His remarks also gift wrap a highly strategic, no-brainer issue for the presidential contenders, several of whom - Clinton, Giuliani, and Obama - hail from the Great Lakes region.
The Great Lakes restoration plan could be an incredible economic, ecological, and social improvement tool for the nation's heartland. The program will not only begin to reverse a century of environmental abuse.
It will also generate tens of thousands immediate short term job opportunities; leverage private investment and accelerate urban revitalization; secure existing water-dependent industries and promote long-term job retention and growth; elevate quality of life and position the region to attract top talent; and spur technological innovation in the promising water sector.
Indeed, investing in the proposed $20 billion initiative - properly executed - without doubt will lead to far-reaching benefits that not only outweigh the cost of the cleanup program, but ultimately strengthen the Midwest and the nation as a whole."Protecting, preserving, and improving the Great Lakes is not just a Wisconsin issue or a Michigan issue, it must be a national priority,” said Gov. Doyle, who chairs the Council of Great Lakes Governors.
Which ambitious candidate will be the first to answer the governor's call?
Just days after news reports that Consumers Energy planned to spend billions of dollars building and improving coal-fired electric plants in Michigan - instead of more aggressive investment in renewable energy sources - the National Weather Service on Monday, November 5 issued a wind advisory across much of the Great Lakes region.
Not long after that numerous homes in Michigan - including my own - lost power. Shouldn't it be the other way around? Wind should help keep the lights on, right? Not shut 'em down.
I know, I know: transmission lines from wind turbines snap in storms, too. But it was somewhat ironic to read in yesterday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the gusty winds actually supplemented - rather than diminished - the power grid in Wisconsin. The article goes on to report that one energy company there plans to spend $1 billion doubling its ability to generate wind power.
Meanwhile, the energy experts and politicians in Michigan seem content to power the future with coal and watch the wind blow by.
But that's exactly what happened yesterday at an event sponsored by Michigan Future, Inc, a nonprofit group working to set the Great Lakes State on a prosperous course for the 21st century.
Brains are the key commodity in the Information Age, according to a growing number of economists, corporate leaders, and social researchers. And to compete for the brains, the experts say, states and regions must provide vibrant cities with a rich entertainment scene, a clean environment, nonstop diversity, reasonable personal and municipal costs, walkable neighborhoods and transit, a high quality of life, and at least the perception of job opportunities. An edgy, creative, entrepreneurial, optimistic attitude doesn't hurt.
The increasingly urgent dilemma for Michigan is that these kind of places barely exist within the state's borders. Sure there is a band of optimists who argue that the state and region does offer these types of amenities, and that we just need to market them. To some extent, there's truth in that thinking. There are pockets in Detroit, places in Ann Arbor, and districts in Grand Rapids with an aspiring urban character and lifestyle. Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Buffalo have their spots too.
But there are disturbingly few places in Michigan and across the greater Great Lakes region where people who know and long for that urban vibe can taste anything like North Beach in San Francisco, the boroughs of NYC, or Den Den Town, the tech center of Osaka, Japan. The region, at this point, just doesn't offer an urban experience of that scale, and the research says that reality threatens to stifle competitiveness.
What's more, as yesterday's meeting revealed, people seem to be struggling simply to define how a real city even looks, feels, and functions. And if that's how far Michigan needs to back up to move forward on a modern development strategy, the state's turnaround is a frighteningly long way off.
"We need a better sense of what it is we're talking about," Brian Boyle, a founding partner in the Detroit-based communications firm Issue Media Group, urged the group at yesterday's gathering. "I'm not convinced people [in Michigan] understand what it's like to live in places like Portland, OR or Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. There's a reason why young people are moving to these places. And there's a reason why people are paying $2,000 a month to live in a closet in New York City. We need to understand why that is, what these places look like, and how we do it."
For the last several years now, Michigan has oriented its staggeringly slow economic turnaround effort around the idea of energy innovation. Citizens have the heard Governor Granholm say it a mind-numbing number of times now: "Michigan is in the perfect position to lead the nation - and the world - in researching and developing alternative and renewable energy solutions."
The compelling thought looms not only as Michigan struggles to grow relevant industries, generate jobs, and prosper in the 21st century. But also as the United States wrestles with monumental challenges like climate change and homeland security. So energy innovation is a timely and strategic issue for the nation as well as it's eigth largest state.
But moving the needle requires more than a big vision and fancy speeches. It demands a complete and concentrated realignment of policy and spending decisions in both the public and private sector to drive real action. This is a huge ship to turn around!
Right now General Motors is steering away from where Michigan aims to go. The company is not only waging an all out battle against modern fuel efficiency standards that promise to drive innovation and technological advancement. Now its helping to fund the competition abroad.
"We believe China has the potential to become a leader in the adoption of alternative propulsion systems," said General Motors CEO Rick Waggoner.
Funny, that's what Michigan and America is trying to do. And while the venture likely will return knowledge, jobs, and hopefully profits back home, a $250 million infusion of cash, talent, and lab space would have been a serious step in the right direction for downtown Detroit. Disappointing that it's happening China.
The eight month study, led by one of the world's leading engineering firms, will analyze the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of the proposal. Upon its completion, the investigation will deliver a preferred route, estimated capital costs, and projected ridership for the project. Basically, it will answer the question of whether Grand Rapids should make a move that has helped cities like Seattle and Denver prepare for the 21st century.
The boo birds, however, are already out. After the local ABC affiliate aired a special report on what the streetcar could mean for the revival of Michigan's second largest city, the naysayers stormed the station website to say the idea of streetcars is nothing more than an expensive plot that will cost too much tax money, stifle job growth, and further bust government budgets.
Click here to read a scrolling list of the missives. But here is a sample of the huffy statements:
"Anyone remember that Simpsons episode where that scam artist talked Springfield into getting a monorail? How could we possibly afford this with our state's economy in shambles?"
"This will be nothing but a traffic congestor and drain the local, state, and federal budget!"
"This is a stupid idea."
Streetcar opponents said essentially the same thing when Portland announced the initial leg of its system in 1997. Since opening the streetcar route at the turn of the century, the city has experienced ever deepening private investment, significant growth in knowledge economy jobs, and a rising reputation as one of the most competitive, attractive, and sustainable cities in America.
That could help the city wipe out a multi-million dollar budget deficit, and rekindle the mentality that Cincinnati can be great again, according to City Architect Michael Moore.
"The inertia that we first have to overcome is the attitude that we can't pull off a big project," Mr. Moore said recently about a proposed route that could link together the central city, a university campus, and historic districts. "We've never ever attempted anything like this. Our goal is to bring people to a vibrant downtown area."
Randy Simes, a student at the University of Cincinnati, said civic leaders are on the right track.
"As a creative person, it can be difficult to make it work [in Cincinnati] over a place like Chicago, New York or Atlanta." Mr. Simes wrote in a recent editorial. "We need to continue to prioritize the arts and place new emphasis on things like mass transit. This is a very important issue to many young people and in particular the creative class. If we fail at creating a city with these elements, then we will fail at attracting that ever-important young professional."
As for footing a $102 million transit bill while Cincinnati stares down a $29 million shortfall, Chris Bortz, a member of the city's economic development committee, told the local Fox affiliate: "If we continue to cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, the city will continue to decline."
To which David Palsrok, the equally young state Representative from Manistee, MI, wasted no time responding: "But how do we change behavior, get people out of their cars, and get them to use the [mass transit] service?"
The comment illustrated Michigan's inability to recognize and reckon with the huge forces now reshaping the state economy and culture.
It's not that Rep. Palsrok - a third term lawmaker - and other state leaders fail to acknowledge that modern transit infrastructure - like roads, sewer, or water lines - can propel growth in the 21st century. The nation's history, Rep. Palsrok explained, is full of stories about spurring economic development around stage coach depots, train stations, and airports. So "there's no doubt," he said, that street cars and other public transit services could help stimulate growth in communities across Michigan.
But the question isn't 'how does Michigan change behavior and get people to ride the expensive new machinery,' as Rep. Palsrok suggests. Because the research reveals - and this was the principal message delivered by Ms. Owens and others who testified before the House Commerce Committee - that behavior IS changing.
A perfect storm of global mega trends is fundamentally altering society in Michigan and across the nation. They include:
- Single professionals, empty nesters, and immigrants fueling population growth in central cities.
- Increasing traffic congestion, rising gas prices, and the growing financial burden of car ownership.
- The push to promote green building and sustainable development.
- Mounting concerns about climate change and environmental protection.
- Lifestyle changes that favor walking, biking, and healthy living.
Taken together, these trends overwhelmingly favor growth in vibrant metropolitan areas and, by extension, the expansion of clean, safe, convenient, and cost effective public transit.
The question is how long before Michigan responds with new policies and spending practices that manage the change and translate some potentially ruinous threats into real opportunities.
The proposal, spearheaded by Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Vern Ehlers, a Democrat from Oregon and a Republican from Michigan respectively, would authorize $50 million in federal grants for 2008 to keep the nation's universities on the cutting edge of new research, policies, and technologies in the emerging field of sustainablility.
The proposed Higher Education Sustainability Act of 2007 would also provide funding for institutions to ramp up recycling, energy conservation, and other green practices, as well as convene a summit of the nation's top education leaders on the philosophy and practice of sustainability.
"The need for innovative approaches to sustainable development becomes critical to our economic competitiveness, environmental health, and the strength of our communities as population growth, urban development, and extreme weather incidents place greater stress on ecosystems around the globe," Rep. Blumenauer said in a recent speech introducing bill 3637 on the House floor."Society will reap the benefits of the excellent return on investment gained by educating students in sustainable practices” Vern Ehlers added in a press statement. "Students graduating from universities that take advantage of this grant program will not only implement the concepts they learn in their own lives. They will approach their career with a sustainable mindset that will benefit the companies and non-profit institutions they work for, and our nation’s economy as a whole.”
InvenTeams is a national grant program sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology designed to rekindle excitement about math, science, engineering, and entrepreneurship, and inventing among the nation's high schoolers. The initiative awards as much as $10,000 to teams of students at high schools across the country to "identify a real-world problem and invent a practical solution to it."
Five of this year's 16 awards went to schools in the greater Great Lakes. And sure there's a team in Chicago working to perfect a high-tech pancake maker. But there's also the team at Farmington Hills Harrison in Michigan developing a device to improve water quality monitoring in rivers and lakes.
The students at Great River School in St. Paul, MN are honing more modern equipment to test wind speeds and determine the optimal location for energy-generating turbines.
And the kids at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, MN are inventing an ultra safe electric motorcycle that can travel 40 miles per charge, according to a report on TwinCities.com.
"It's not just a nerdy team activity," one student told reporter Bao Ong. "People respect it."
Photo courtesy of InvenTeams.
He also warned that Pennsylvania must move much more aggressively if it intends to keep pace with other states and establish itself as a serious player in the "new energy economy." Investors this year are expected to pump $81 billion into the renewable energy market, Gov. Rendell said, but Pennsylvania is only able to support a measly 10 percent of the business ventures applying for assistance from the state economic development office.
That costs the Keystone State as much as $100 million in new investment annually, the way the Rendell Administration figures it, as entreprenuers look elsewhere for startup capital.
“We’re among the top destinations for cutting edge projects in areas like solar and wind energy technologies but other states and other nations are stepping up to compete with us,” Rendell said in a press release.
“California has made more than $3 billion available for solar development and Iowa is investing $1.3 billion in biofuels production. Even smaller and less populated states like Rhode Island and Wyoming have made $300 million and $400 million available for alternative energy development.”
What's at stake is the viability of perhaps the state's greatest economic asset: Lake Michigan.
What's clear now is that top talent and new companies are increasingly attracted to clean, green, and vibrant cities. Some in Indiana have recognized that trend and, in an effort to boost the prosperity of lagging industrial cities like Gary, begun to advance the Marquette Greenway Plan, an amazingly ambitious effort to redevelop the Lake Michigan waterfront with new marinas, trails, condos, and public spaces.
But who wants to boat, swim, or live on a lake with ever higher levels of grease, chemicals, and heavy metals? That's the increasingly relevant question as the state's environmental regulators consider easing standards designed to minimize lake dumping, as the Chicago Tribune reports today.
"This isn't supposed to be happening," said Dale Bryson, a former water cop at the federal Environmental Protection Agency who now chairs the Allianc for the Great Lakes, told the Chicago Tribune. "The whole purpose behind these laws and rules is to reduce pollution, not allow it to increase."
But when you're the head of a state temporarily blinded by economic upheaval and entrenched ideologies, you have to continually repeat your message so the slower folks can come to understand it.
So in talk after talk Gov. Granholm reminds people that, in order to remain relevant in the 21st century, the state needs unprecedented investment in the skills of its people and its quality of life.
Do that, she said, and Michigan will be well positioned to play in the global economy. She summarized her speech with an inspiring sound bit scribbled on the chalk board outside the venue where she spoke:
"Innovation is Michigan's history but - even more importantly - innovation is Michigan's destiny."
The question is whether the signal should be a defensive or an offensive play call? Because the people of the Great Lakes region have a choice. We can chose to pass protectionist policies that strive simply to lock up a globally unique water resource and ban massive diversions to far off states and foreign nations. And we can chose to advance a proactive policy that aims to spur innovation, create jobs, and boost competitiveness by becoming the quarterback of the booming global water tech business.
Put another way, we can export water (or, more likely, constantly fight water exports) or we can export new ideas and technologies to solve the global water crisis.
Gov. Richardson touched on that idea recently when he told the Las Vegas Sun that America needs a national water policy, and that the nation needs a dialogue between states about how to "deal with issues like water conservation, water reuse technology, water delivery, and water production."
The market potential for water tech is vast, with some estimates defining the global water business as a $300 billion industry. It's a smart play in a knowledge economy that increasingly demands new and improved ways to simultaneously sustain the economy and the ecology. And states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio have unique combination of innovative spirit, manufacturing know how, and freshwater expertise to dominate the market.
But the Governor, an accomplished diplomat, also remarked that "Wisconsin is awash in water," and fueled the century-old fear in the Great Lakes that Colorado, California, and others are plotting to build pipelines and pumps to siphon off the region's incredibly robust supplies.
Dan Egan, the veteran Great Lakes reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, jumped all over that aspect of Gov. Richardson's comments and interviewed experts across the region for a response.
"It's another scary reminder that we need to get going and pass a compact [that limits water withdrawals] - and a strong compact - so this kind of thing is off the table," said state Sen. Cowles, a Republican from Green Bay.
"We have protections in place, but it's very fragile," said state Rep. Jon Richards, a Democrat from Milwaukee.
But while the politicians talk treaties, pioneering business leaders are talking technology - and big profit.
John Torinus wasn't included in Egan's article. But the Wisconsin business leader personally took to the pages of the Milwaukee paper the following day with his own column drawing attention "to the emerging economic cluster based on freshwater technologies."
Torinus doesn't address Gov. Richardson's comments directly. But his thoughtful article illustrates the aqua rich Great Lakes can play offense or defense against the growing global demand for clean fresh water. And the truth is successful teams play well on both sides of the ball.
The latest example of that comes from the Pittsburgh-Cleveland corridor, where entrepreneurs and now elected officials aim to rebrand their deindustrializing region as a Tech Belt rich with cutting edge life science firms, innovative universities, and other high tech initiatives capable of competing on a global scale.
In June 2007, this blog reported that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barret recommended branding the region as the Fresh Coast. Others propose the North Coast, the Blue Belt, or the Third Coast.
But there's another term just waiting to be dusted off, reclaimed, and saved: Heartland.
There was a time when the people of America's Heartland - roughly defined as the states of the greater Great Lakes region - pioneered innovative new industries, social programs, and modern cities that set the course for a nation and changed the world.
That's a history of hard work and accomplishment that can never be stripped from the mega Midwest. And the time is ripe to rekindle that sense of purpose and leadership for another century of success that makes the Rust Belt period look like a fleeting blip on the arc of time.
Heartland. Now is the moment to take the label and all it embodies back.
But Bourdain, a New Yorker, said flat out "Cleveland does not suck," as he suspected. And ultimately he dedicated the show to what is too often overlooked as a strength in the greater Great Lakes region: a rich heritage of craftsmanship, diversity, and creativity expressed through food. And where there is good food, there are signs of intelligent and industrious life.
"Cleveland's a beacon of hope in the great blank area between the coasts," Bourdain said in a recent interview. "There's an original German butcher doing things old school and new chefs doing things that are hopeful, like new Great Lakes fish dishes."
If nothing else, Bourdain reveals a couple days of flavorful good eating next time you're in Cleveland. Check it out.......
Business is booming to record levels at one of Duluth's main shipping terminals due in large part to "a tsunami" of shipments carrying wind power equipment, according to a recent report in the Duluth News Tribune.
There's mounting evidence that the wind business will generate all sorts of jobs for technical, scientific, professional, and skilled workers. But apparently transportation - a historic strength of the greater Great Lakes region - is another industry that stands to benefit. The Clure Marine Terminal is processing imports from overseas as well as exports to Spain.
"This is a shipping frenzy right now with wind power," Adolph Ojard, director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, told the News Tribune.
Imagine what could happen in ailing port cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Toledo if Michigan and Ohio got serious about energy innovation.
"There's huge potential out there," Gary Nicholson, president of Lake Superior Warehousing, told the News Tribune.
The governor's agenda was recently presented to the Energy & Public Utilities Committee in the Ohio Senate.
A key tenet of the proposal, introduced last August, would mandate that Ohio satisfy 25 percent of its electricity needs with wind, solar, and other advanced energy sources by 2025.
Environmentalists have expressed some skepticism because the term "advanced" leaves the door open to investments in technologies such as clean coal and nuclear. But labor leaders and manufacturers are expressing rare joint support for the proposal, illustrating the governor's plan continues to unite a broad coalition for new policies.
The Ohio AFL-CIO issued a statement saying the plan is "a thoughtful, comprehensive effort to protect Ohio’s working families, consumers and businesses from the instability of de-regulation and as a tool to spur economic development and job growth in Ohio."
Ohio Manufacturers Association President Eric Burkland reportedly called the governor's proposal a "jobs bill."
The statements come as a series of bills in the state House and Senate aim to bring Ohio's energy agenda into the 21st century. One bill would provide a tax credite to consumers who purchase hybrid cars. Another would require energy producers to minimize mercury pollution. Still another would create a special Council on Sustainable Energy Development.
Clearly, the urgent message gaining strength in Ohio is that passage of these sorts of bills will stimulate new business opportunities and put people to work in the economy of the future. The question now becomes how quickly will these ideas pass throught the lethargic political process and become law. Doesn't seem too outrageous to require biofuels on the Ohio Turnpike.
The latest indication of that comes from Buffalo, where, amidst the headlines of the UAW strike, the local newspaper recently ran a story telling how local leaders believe their region can be a real force in the knowledge economy.
“In 10 years, we’re all going to be buying solar panels, electric cars, energy-saving refrigerators and turbines," Paul Dyster, chairman of the citizen’s board advising the Niagara River Greenway Commission, told reporter James Heaney. "We can make them ourselves, or we can buy them from China.”
“We’re at the starting line all over the country," said Jeff Jones, state coordinator for the Apollo Alliance. "Buffalo has as good a chance of any region in the country to take the lead [in the innovation economy].”
Indeed, the creative destruction of the Great Lakes economy marches on. New and radical ideas and businesses are rising - as they have throughout history - that will transform the very nature of the marketplace and leave behind entire industries. And even the longest picket lines the union can muster ain't gonna stop it.
Still, members of the UAW launched a strike against GM yesterday in search of fair compensation, benefits and, ironically, job security. The move is perhaps the clearest indication yet that a significant portion of the Michigan workforce is aging and anchored to the obsolete business models of a past generation. It's telling how a vast majority of the people walking the picket lines appear to be 50- and 60-years-old.
Young knowledge workers, by sharp contrast, widely regarded as the future of the state's economy, earn approximately $7,000 less than their counterparts across the nation, according to Dr. Forrest. These are the people in growing economic sectors like biotech, finance, design, and alternative energy. And civic leaders in Michigan wonder why the talent base is compelled to graduate college and leave the state for opportunities in Chicago, Portland, or San Francisco.
But, as a growing movement of Great Lakes cities set in motion aggressive plans to make their industrial waterfronts cleaner, greener, and more accessible, the pressing question for Cleveland is whether the city can afford NOT to move the busy transportation hub.
Because right now it's blocking the city's ability to fully leverage one of its greatest and most unique assets: Lake Erie.
The broader context that Cleveland now operates in is best described as nothing less than a waterfront revolution. Across America, cities are redeveloping lake- and river-fronts to boost the quality of life, attract new residents and businesses, and compete in the 21st century.
The movement has begun to take hold in the greater Great Lakes region as well. Fresh off persuading BP to rethink its pollution plans for Lake Michigan, residents in Northern Indiana continue to push for investment in the Marquette Greenway Plan, which would consolidate the steel industry's land holdings and bring new parks, trails, and redevelopment to struggling central cities like Gary.
Detroit recently opened the first phase of its ambitious riverfront boardwalk.
And it's no secret what's happening to the Lake Michigan waterfront in Chicago, the most popular and competitive urban metropolis in the Midwest.
Cleveland has a visionary lakefront revitalization plan, too. But the plan for storefronts and condos likely will struggle to takeoff if 380 acres of waterfront property remain dedicated to runways and airplanes. Along with landfills, highways, and nuclear reactors, airports tend not to be ideal and inviting neighbors.
But Stephen Forrest, one of the state's more accomplished entrepreneurs, says it's in the country's best interest for national leaders to understand and respond effectively to the economic transition underway in America's Heartland.
“Michigan’s problem is not local," Dr. Forrest said in a recent presentation to a group of venture capitalists in Holland, MI. "It’s not even a regional problem. It’s a national problem. The federal government needs to understand the importance of this region to the entire country.”
Despite the upheaval, the greater Great Lakes region - with Michigan at its center - remains one of the most influential economic centers in the United States of America. But the Mega Midwest remains deeply invested in the Industrial Era as the global economy is driven more and more by information and new ideas.
Without an immediate "all hands on deck" approach to accelerate the transition, generate new jobs, and reverse the decline, “Michigan could become a millstone around the nation’s neck," according to Dr. Forrest. The U.S., he said, simply cannot compete globaly if it writes off the 2/3 of its population which exists in the center of the country and says we can do it all on the coasts.
“Michigan is the leading indicator of large regional trends," said Dr. Forrest, who serves as vice president of research at the University of Michigan. "The reason we’re getting pummeled by this economic change is simply because we’re so invested in and been so successful in the past at manufacturing."
"So it’s natural that we would be hit the hardest the earliest," Forrest continued. "But it’s coming all around us. We know that. Ohio is the next one down. Indian is having trouble. So if we fix Michigan we actually fix the whole region. And if we fix the region we fix the U.S.”