Repetitive Recommendations

Check out the latest census stats if you need still more evidence that a large number of older industrial cities continue to 1) fall behind in the national movement to revitalize urban areas and 2) struggle to position themselves for growth and prosperity in the knowledge economy, as the Brookings Institution reports in its latest urban policy paper.

The U.S. Census Bureau recently ranked the Top 50 fastest growing metropolitan areas in the nation and not one Great Lakes city made the list. Sioux Falls, SD was the only Midwest city included, and they came in at #50. What would we do without Rochester, MN, Indianapolis, IN, St. Cloud, MN, and Rockford, IL, which came in at #86, #90, #91, and #100 respectively.

Reading between the lines, the reports illustrate that the outflow of young talent to the coasts and the southwest is no longer the greatest enemy of the effort to reinvigorate the economic and civic influence of the Midwest. No the lack of leadership and will to change business as usual is perhaps the greatest obstacle now confronting the region's future competitiveness and quality of life.

Why's that? Because the basic actions needed to reverse economic and environmental decline in the Rust Belt are clearly defined and nearly universal across the region. Report after report from Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and other Great Lakes states all say the same basic thing.

If the region truly wants to transition from the Industrial Era and compete in the Knowledge Age, what's needed is deeper investment in central cities, modern mobility options like rapid mass transit, streamlined and more coordinated governance, renewed commitment to higher education and innovation, and a much more attractive natural environment and quality of life.

What's needed is not yet another report that repackages the same themes. But rather the courage to embrace those themes and set the bold course necessary for yet another century of achievement.

Entrepreneurial Power Outage

Chicago and Detroit rank as the largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. with the lowest rates of entreprenurial activity, according to a new study by the Kauffman Foundation. The study, which measures business startups based on adult population, also reveals that Great Lakes states Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio rank among the bottom ten states nationally in terms of entrepreneurialism. That's a disturbing reality for a region that invented the industrial assembly line, pioneered Internet technology, and to this day boasts one of the most powerful networks of research universities in the world.

"Regionally, the rates of entrepreneurial activity declined in the Midwest," the report states. "As a result, the Midwest had the lowest level of entrepreneurial activity of all [U.S.] regions for the first time in the past 11 years, replacing the Northeast, which historically had posted the lowest rates of entrepreneurial activity every year from 1996 to 2005.

The Toledo Blade seized on the report as yet another sign of the urgent need for the greater Great Lakes to move beyond the Industrial Age and embrace an economic development model based on knowledge and innovation.

That idea is widely accepted among civic, business, and political leaders throughout the region. The question is how to make the transition. And, generally speaking, that debate is split into two primary camps.

On the one hand there are those who advocate for slashing taxes and government to raise a more business-friendly climate. On the other are those who call for deepening investment in key social assets - cities, education, transportation, and the environment - in an effort to elevate quality of life, retain and attract young talent, and reverse the decline in entrepreneurial zeal.

Or, as the Blade puts it, "the longer it takes for states like Ohio and Michigan to stop "smokestack chasing" and reinvent themselves to compete in the 21st century, the harder it will be to change perceptions and attract interest from the entrepreneurial sector."

Restoring Indiana's Industrial Wastelands

The effort to transform the Rust Belt into the Blue Belt got a $400,000 boost in Indiana yesterday, as state finance directors approved funding to accelerate the conversion of old industrial sites into parks and recreation trails.

The limited funding is dwarfed by the monumental challenge of cleaning up after the Industrial Era, particularly Big Steel along the southern shore of Lake Michigan. But it's yet another sign of the growing awareness in Indiana that generating jobs, attracting new residents, growing modern businesses, and boosting competitiveness depends more and more on the strength of the place's quality of life.

"Converting contaminated sites into trails not only provides additional recreation areas for Hoosiers but also makes Indiana more desirable to tourists and employers looking to relocate," State Public Finance Director Ryan Kitchell told the Northwest Indiana Times.

The Gerald R. Ford Great Lakes Restoration Act

The United States Navy is building a new aircraft carrier in memory of former President Gerald R. Ford. It will no doubt be an awesome example of American technological skill and military might. And Pres. Ford certainly earned the honor.

But here's a better idea: Scrap the aricraft carrier. Let's think about a more enduring tribute for the man from Grand Rapids. I suggest the Gerald R. Ford Great Lakes Restoration Act.

The new aircraft carrier is projected to cost $20 billion, according to a report today on National Public Radio. That's essentially the same price as the proposed Great Lakes restoration strategy now languishing in Congress. But will it stand the test of time?

The average expected lifespan of an aircraft carrier seems to be about four decades. The USS John F. Kennedy was decommissioned after just 38 years of service. The USS Franklin D. Roosevelt was decommissioned after 32 years. The USS Independence, which did a tour in Vietnam, was decommissioned after 40 years. So the USS Ford basically will be parked as a tourist attraction by 2050.

Putting that $20 billion into Great Lakes restoration, by contrast, will help sustain the economy, ecology, and quality of life in the American Midwest for generations. It will cleanup polluted waterways, regenerate Rust Belt cities, and reposition the mega region to compete in the global economy.

It would be a fitting and lasting tribute to President Ford's distinguished legacy. And we can begin by cleaning up the Grand River, right near his boyhood home.

The Navy already is constructing the USS Ford. And that's a good thing. But when they decommission the ship let's dock it in a Great Lakes port relieved of toxic pollution, sewage spills, and all the other problems that everyone knows exists but can't muster the leadership or money to fix.

The picture above, courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library, shows the boy that would be president in 1915.

Dual Personalities

The best and worst of the Great Lakes region has been on display in the national media lately. Most notably in the New York Times, one of America's flagship newspapers.

On one hand, the region is portrayed as a progressive, innovative, and open minded place with big plans to not only participate in, but actually help to shape, the global community. The Times, for example, recently covered the green building boom in Grand Rapids. The paper also highlighted the region's increasingly aggressive shift toward energy innovation to combat terrorism, climate change, and other troubling mega trends.

These are the stories that report the region's push toward modernity. They point to a new and more prosperous future.

Then there are the stories that report the region's inclination to live in the past, and its penchant for clinging tight to outmoded ways of operating that stunt growth and reputation alike. It's the story of divisive, partisan politics and reckless tax debates in Minnesota, Michigan, and Ohio. And it's the story of urban decay, racism, and complacency in Illinois.

Transforming the Rust Belt into the Blue Belt will take 100 years. But it begins with moderation in politics, reanimation of that lost innovative spirit, and renewed commitment to the region's basic assets - hardworking and entrepreneurial cities, globally unique Great Lakes, and world-class institutions of higher learning.

The Problem of Perception

Charles L. Ballard is a graduate of Princeton, an economics professors at Michigan State University, and a consultant to nations. He's also a noted author, most recently publishing a book titled Michigan's Economic Future, an analysis of the state's economic crisis and crucial policy issues.

So what's his response when WILX TV 10 in Lansing asks him why polls show only 33 and 26 percent of new MSU and UM grads, respectively, plan to stay in Michigan?

"Our image is the rustbelt instead of the greenbelt or the sunbelt," Ballard said. "It's going to take a lot of very aggressive marketing of our potential."

Thanks to the power of Google technology, I've added a newsroll at the left of this page which tracks and pulls in news media stories that include the terms 'Rust Belt' or 'Rustbelt.' I've only been playing with the feature for a day. But the story count seems to be numerous.

I've also set the search feature to track those stories which include the terms 'Blue Belt' or 'Bluebelt.' You might notice the hits are limited, and often refer to a karate degree or some type of fish. Not America's Great Lakes.

In other words, the term is available to title a new narrative - complete with a strategic policy, investment, and marketing campaign - that aims rebrand the Great Lakes in a way that puts the Rust Belt image in the history books.

The Real Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids is a growing metropolitan region that's quickly becoming a big city. But it continues to think about and organize itself as a small town, and that ultimately retards development, popoluation, and economic growth. It's also costing taxpayers a ton of money.

That's what David Rusk, the consultant, author, urban expert, and former mayor of Albuquerque, recently told a small crowd of civic leaders in Michigan's second largest city. On one hand, Rusk said, the City of Grand Rapids is narrowly and politically defined as a 45-square mile, 198,000-person municipality. That's about the size of Boise, ID, Irving, TX, or Mobile, AL.

On the other hand, Rusk explained, greater Grand Rapids is a 257-square mile urbanized area where some 539,000 residents constantly cross a wide array of man-made township, village, city, and county borders during the course of daily life. Thinking of GR in this way puts the city more on the level of a Denver, CO, Portland, OR, or Charlotte, NC.

High economic, environmental, and social costs result when government acts individually as Georgetown Township, the Village of Sparta, or the County of Kent, rather than collectively and collaboratively as a single and much more powerful governing body. The well documented costs Rusk cited in his talk include cuttthroat inter-municipal rivalary over new development, expensive new infrastructure (roads and schools) in rural areas, wasted existing infrastructure (roads and schools) in core cities (Think Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Grand Rapids), unnecessary duplication of services, and increased racial and economic division.

Nothing Rusk said was news to the people of Grand Rapids, the region, or the State of Michigan for that matter. West Michigan has talked about 'regionalism' for a decade. In fact, Rusk has been coming here since the early 1990's.

But even amidst busted budgets, waning competitiveness, outdated taxing policies, the out migration of young people, and other troubling economic trends, there's little will for real change. And that, according to Rusk, is ultimately holding the Great Lakes State back.

"The issue in Michigan that nobody in a position of leadership ever wants to deal with is the impact on competitiveness of having such a high degree of fragamention in local government," Rusk said. "Across this country, careful analysis shows that the more 'little boxes governments' a region has, the more there is a diffusion of responsibilities amongst many many local governments, and the slower the rate of economic growth."

$39 Billion Reasons to Accelerate the Restoration of NW Indiana

Spending approximately $8.4 billion to revitalize the depressed Lake Michigan shoreline of Northwest Indiana could spur nearly $39 billion in new economic activity, generate 39,000 jobs, and attract more than 60,000 new residents to the deindustrializing region in the next 40 years, according to an economic development plan recently introduced by the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.

The plan, published in January 2007, makes the clearest and most credible case to date about the economic benefits of targeting public and private investment to restore America's Great Lakes.

Midwest leaders in December 2005 introduced a $20 billion plan to, among other things, cleanup toxic pollution, rehabilitate sensitive coastal areas, and modernize failing sewer systems in the mega-region. The plan was released as states like Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Indiana struggle to shed their Rust Belt image, retain and attract talented young workers, and compete in the 21st century economy. The wrenching economic transition continues today.

But the political leaders - across the nation and even in the Great Lakes themselves - have sticker shock and remain hesitant to pay for what is generally viewed as a big government environmental boondoggle. Now, thanks to the business leaders in northern Indiana, there's clear and compelling evidence that the investment would translate into serious, timely, and long-lasting economic as well as ecological returns.

Indeed, the financial benefits from restoring the Great Lakes shoreline of Northwest Indiana alone would basically pay for the entire cleanup tab.

According to the recent RDA report, which is based on the widely supported Marquette Greenway Plan, extending the public beach, enhancing parks, and developing new commercial opportunities in the City of Portage could leverage some $652 million in private investment, generate 6,000 new jobs, and attract a projected 117.6 million visitors to the region.

Building a major marina, complimented by a series of residential and commercial projects, in the City of Whiting could attract some $218 million in private reinvestment and more than 14 million visitors within 30 years.

Expanding parks, cleaning up brownfields, and bringing condos, restaurants, and recreational services to the City of East Chicago stimulate $413 million in private reinvestment and generate some 2,000 jobs.

The findings, according to the RDA report, are similiar for the cities of Gary and Hammond, as well as extensive land tracts owned by Mittal and US Steel. Indeed, the opportunities for reinvention, regeneration, and prosperity are endless for grey and gritty Northwest Indiana, just as they are in Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Buffalo, and dozens of other Great Lakes cities.

"This plan is an impetus for regional progress in the 21st century," the report states. "Project development constraints are time and money."

One last, curious thing: Congressman Pete Visclosky remains a driving force behind the idea of reclaiming and revitalizing the Lake Michigan shoreline in Northwest Indiana. But the Democrat has yet to officially add his name to the list of leaders supporting the Great Lakes Collabortion Implementation Act, which is the key federal legislation that could accelerate the realization of his vision. Where you at Pete?

Buffalo Boat Boom

The Buffalo-Niagara region's newest regatta, the North American Championships of the Beneteau, is expected to generate more than $400,000 in economic activity, according to a report in today's Buffalo News.

It's also elevating the Great Lakes' reputation as a destination for thrill-seekers and business executives alike who prize the region's unmatched water-based way of life, according to Tom Kucharski, president of Buffalo Niagara Enterprise.

Not bad for a four-day event expected to attract some 40 boats.

Just think what the region's yachting industry could do if the Buffalo River wasn't designated as one of America's most polluted waterways and the waterfronts and harbor were places for people instead of garbage and abandoned factories.

The real potential of Buffalo's boating business - and those of countless cities on the shores of America's Great Lakes - illustrates how an investment in Great Lakes restoration will likely result in profound and long-lasting economic, environmental, and cultural benefits.

Florida's Restoration Economy Goes Primetime

There was a time when Eric Balthazar was under-educated and out of a job. Then civic leaders in his state accelerated a major environmental restoration program and devised a workforce training initiative go with it. Today, as the multi-billion public works project shifts into high gear, Mr. Balthazar and hundreds of his job-seeking neighbors boast new skills and full employment.

Is that sort of creative policy making and investment happening in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, or somewhere in the Great Lakes, you ask? Nope. Florida.

"We're creating jobs and small business opportunities through environmental restoration," Alvin Jackson, the director of outreach for the restoration project, recently told WXEL TV.

I recently toured several Everglades restoration projects with Mr. Jackson, pictured above, to better understand the economic benefits of the project. My goal was to uncover evidence that strengthens the business case for investing in a public project of similiar magnitude to restore the Great Lakes. The findings are promising.

In total, Everglades restoration could generate "as many as 10,000 new jobs in construction, maintenance, and operation," H. James Sigsbee, chief financial officer at Northern Trust Bank, wrote in a 1999 paper. "Those new jobs, in turn, will mean more demand for housing, furnishings, and other consumer spending that will total far more than the [original investment in restoration.]"

Sigsbee suggested a so-called "multiplier effect of 2 or 3 is conservative." Meaning, for every billion invested in restoration communities could see as much as $2 or $3 billion in additional economic activity. At the time, project managers were projecting some $5.5 billion in everglades restoration construction, which would translate to as much as $16 billion in economic return, according to Sigsbee.

These days, Alvin Jackson's talking about the economics of restoration on the nightly news in South Florida. Click here to see a brief video news report about how Florida - and the federal government - are generating jobs, strengthening quality of life, and boosting competitiveness by investing in environmental revitalization.

By sharp contrast, civic leaders in the Great Lakes region today issued a preliminary report lamenting the sad fact that Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, and Ohio rank near the bottom in spending for natural resource conservation and management.

Watering a New Economic Idea in NY

Pushing green power and biotech as the next big economic thing is like counting lost manufacturing jobs these days: Everybody's doing it. Now a growing number of visionaries are touting the idea that there's money to be made and jobs to be generated by investing in freshwater restoration and conservation.

The latest is George Makarewicz, a science professor at State Univeristy of New York Brockport. "Adequate clean water is likely to be the most important factor in future economic development and settlement patterns in the United States," Mr. Makarewicz wrote earlier this week in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. "Understanding the threats to the chemical and biological conditions of this water is essential."

Makarewicz proposes transforming a section of a high-speed ferry terminal in Rochester into the Lake Ontario Natural Resources Center, a modern science lab focused on the advancement of water science and technology.

"Founded 77 years ago, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (in Massachusetts), now with a staff of more than 600 scientists and technical staff, has a major impact on the local economy and enjoys an international reputation," the professor wrote. "The Port of Rochester and high-speed ferry terminal also offer opportunities to develop new ventures with an environmental perspective."

Indeed, the search for solutions to outdated water management practices and technology is becoming big business in the United States and abroad. The market for water engineering services alone jumped 25 percent in 1999. And a growing number of entrepreneurs see major market growth for new services and products that increase access to clean fresh water. Worldwide, annual industry revenues are estimated at $300 billion, according to a 2003 report prepared by the Battelle Memorial Institute.

Even arid Arizona has embraced the goal of becoming the "water management capitol of the world." But innovative thinkers in Grand Rapids and Detroit, MI, Cleveland, OH, and now New York are beginning to recognize that a global market for new knowledge and expertise that improves water resource management clearly exists. The question is whether it's something the region will shape a strategy to pursue, as many Midwest states have done for alternative energy and biotech.

Three Key Targets

Beyond being Democrats, U.S. Congressmen David Obey, James Oberstar, and Collin Peterson all share three things in common. Each political leader calls the Midwest home. Each recently assumed the chairmanship of a powerful legislative committee. And each seem to be ignoring what could very well be the most important piece of federal legislation ever enacted for their home turf.

The November 2006 election catapulted six Congressman representing the Great Lakes region to prominent positions of national leadership. They include:

These committees hold the combined federal power to pass a wide array of policy initiatives and direct billions of dollars in public spending to innovative programs that benefit the economy, ecology, and culture of the Midwest.

What's more, New York Senator Hillary Clinton, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich already have declared their candidacy for president. And Rahm Emanuel, the Congressman from Illinois, sets the agenda of the House Democratic Caucus.

Indeed, the greater Great Lakes region is enjoying a rare and invaluable moment of influence on the national stage. So what will we do to seize this opportunity? What big idea will the region's leadership unite behind and advance in Washington? What will they accomplish?

The most obvious and ripe opportunity is to leverage the political clout to enact and fully fund the $20 billion proposal to restore the Great Lakes, introduced in both the House and Senate last March. The public works project would help modernize the economy, cleanup degraded but still globally unique waterways, and preserve an incomparable way of life.

Still, the idea struggles to gain traction, even among the political leaders whose districts it would without doubt benefit. In fact, three of the new committee chairs - Obey, Oberstar, and Peterson - have yet to sign on in support of the strategy to revitalize the Great Lakes.

Who's for Midwest Modernization

Congressman Dennis Kucinch is running for president in 2008. But he must not want it too bad.

After all, the Democrat from Cleveland has yet to sign on in support of the Great Lakes Restoration Implementation Act recently introduced in Washington D.C. And that puts the presidential hopeful at risk of not capturing all the region's 127 electoral votes, including key battlegrounds like Michigan, Wisconsin, and his home state of Ohio.

Cleveland, like all of NE Ohio, has big plans to revitalize its lakefront, renew its downtown, cleanup its rivers, generate new economy knowledge jobs, uplift its quality of life, and compete in the 21st century global economy. And the $20 billion public works project to restore the Great Lakes would program significant public spending to advance the effort. Supporting the proposal is a simple way for politicians to show they're in tune with the urgent economic, environmental, and social needs of the deindustrializing midwest.

Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama - two fellow Democrats - support the proposal. But Rep. Kucinch, like a number of Great Lakes leaders, have yet to see the strategic value in the restoration proposal. Here's how the region's current support for the restoration plan lines up:

Yes: Sen. Obama and Represenatives Emanuel, Bean, Davis, Jackson Jr., Schakowsky, Kirk

No: Senator Durbin and Representatives Rush, Lipinski, Gutierrez, Roskam, Weller, Costello, Biggert, Hastert, Johnson, Manzullo, Hare, LaHood, and Shimkus.

Yes: Rep. Carson

No: Senators Lugar and Bayh and Representatives Visclosky, Donnelly, Souder, Buyer, Burton, Pence, Ellsworth, Hill

Yes: Senators Levin and Stabenow and Representatives Ehlers, Stupak, Hoekstra, Ehlers, Camp, Kildee, Upton, Wahlberg, Knollenberg, Rogers, Miller, McCotter, Levin, Kilpatrick, Conyers, Dingell

No: none

Yes: Senator Coleman and Rep. McCollum

No: Senator Klobuchar and Representatives Walz, Kline, Ramstad, Ellison, Bachman, Peterson, Oberstar

New York
Yes: Senators Clinton and Schumer and Representatives Maloney, Reynolds, Higgins, Slaughter, and Kuhl

No: Reps. Bishop, Israel, King, McCarthy, Ackerman, Meeks, Crowley, Nadler, Weiner, Towns, Clarke, Velazquez, Fossella, Rangel, Serrano, Engel, Lowey, Hall, Gillibrand, McNulty, Hinchey, McHugh, Arcuri, and Walsh.

Yes: Senators Brown and Voinovich and Reps. Gillmor, Kaptur, Jones, Sutton, LaTourette, and Regula.

No: Reps. Chabot, Schmidt, Turner, Jordan, Wilson, Hobson, Boehner, Kucinich, Tiberi, Pryce, Ryan, and Space.

Yes: Senator Casey and Rep. English

No: Sen. Specter and Reps. Brady, Fattah, Altmire, Peterson, Gerlach, Sestak, P. Murphy, Shuster, Carney, Kanjorski, Murtha, Schwartz, Doyle, Dent, Pitts, Holden, T. Murphy, and Platts.

Yes: Reps. Ryan, Baldwin, Kind, Moore, Sensenbrenner, Petri, and Kagen.

No: Senators Kohl and Feingold and Rep. Obey

Where's the Great Lakes Leadership

Even amidst a wrenching economic transition, just 52 of the 141 political leaders elected to represent the greater Great Lakes region in Washington D.C. officially support a visionary national strategy to restore the region's globally unique waterways, generate tens of thousands of jobs for out of work voters, and boost the region's competitiveness for the 21st century.

The proposed Great Lakes Restoration Implementation Act, first introduced in 2006, and again in March 2007 in both the House and the Senate, is a bipartisan bill supported by some 90 civic organizations across the Midwest. But only 43 of the region's 125 members in the House of Representatives, and 9 of the 16 Senators, have signed on to advance the legislation. The $20 billion public works project would, among other things, restore sensitive coastal areas, cleanup toxic pollution left behind by the Industrial Era, and upgrade outdated sewer infrastructure.

Or how about just cleaning up those creepy black barrels, pictured above, beside the Cuyahoga River in downtown Cleveland. The same scene is on the shores of Lake Muskegon in Michigan, and beside the Buffalo River in New York.

Still, a mere 37 percent of the region's national leadership supports the investment. Lack of support stems from a number of different reasons. Some, like Congressman John McHugh of New York, oppose the bill based on minor provisions to protect wetlands, according to Washington insiders. Others say the bill is a costly, big government welfare program designed to appease a minority of special environmental interests. Some simply don't live close enough to the waters to care.

Bottom line: Enacting the restoration proposal is a strategic way to streamline government, eliminate wasteful spending, reverse decades of economic and environmental decline in the Midwest, and reknit the basic fabric of one of America's most important mega regions.

At this point, Great Lakes leaders not actively supporting the legislation are increasingly out of touch with the region's basic needs. They are also distancing themselves from legitimate public policy responses that will move the region toward modernity in the global community.

Tomorrow we'll break down who's on board, and who's not, with bill #791 in the Senate and #1350 in the House.