A Vital Conversation Starter

Here in Washington DC yesterday the Brookings Institution held a legislative briefing on a sweeping strategic agenda to restore the economic, environmental, and cultural strength of the flattened Great Lakes region. The only problem: no lawmakers showed up.

Representatives of the Canadian Consulate were in attendance. Staff from the major research universities like Michigan and Ohio State participated in the discussion. Even the City of Chicago sent an intern.

But only a handful of lawmakers - MI Representatives Tim Wahlberg, Bart Stupak, Vern Ehlers, and John Dingell; WI Rep Steve Kagen; NY Rep Jim Walsh; and Senators Stabenow (MI), Brown (OH), Coleman (MN), and Durbin (IL) - dispatched staff to take notes on a summary of The Vital Center: A Federal State Compact to Renew the Great Lakes.

The report lays out an ambitious, reasoned, and doable agenda to invest in the human potential, central cities, ecological health, and economic might of the greater Great Lakes.

The office of US Congressman Peter Hoekstra, from Holland, MI, is 85 paces from Room 2218 in the Rayburn House Office Building, where Brookings presented the report's recommendations. Still, not one member of the Representative's staff made the short walk down the hall to sit in on the presentation.

Likewise, Indiana Reps Steve Buyer, Mark Souder, and Donald Manzulla; New York Reps Edolphus Towns, Jose Serrano, and Michael McNulty; and Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson also all have offices on the same floor of the building where the briefing was held. But not one engaged the discussion.

The Brookings report reveals the people of the Great Lakes are coming together around a compelling plan to transform the Rust Belt into the Blue Belt. Business leaders are talking with environmentalists. University presidents are talking with mayors. And the governors from the region's individuals states are hitting the same points - jobs, education, innovation, quality of life - in their major speechs.

More and more, civic leaders across the mega-region recognize they share common goals and a unified agenda. Eventually, they'll look for political leadership that's engaged in, and understands, the dynamics of the debate.