Please Pass the Rust Remover

Whether it was coined by Walter Mondale in a 1984 presidential campaign attack against incumbent Ronald Reagan, or conjured up by some slick advertising executive in the sun states, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett yesterday called on Great Lakes leaders to strike the phrase 'Rust Belt' from the regional vocabulary. Changing the language, he said, could help change the perception. And that's a big part of re-igniting the civic spirit and setting a more prosperous course for the Midwest and nation.

"My request is to never use the words 'Rust Belt' again," said Mayor Barrett, in a brief speech at a forum organized by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. "Let's throw it away. One of the challenges we have [in the Great Lakes region] is how we view ourselves and how we present ourselves."

Instead, Mr. Barrett recommended branding the region as the 'Fresh Coast,' on account of all the water. Others at the forum suggested 'Tech Belt,' to call attention to the region's emerging technology industries. The boys at Brookings like 'North Coast,' putting the region in a league with the heavy hitters in the East and West. This blog advocates for 'Blue Belt' to conjure images of a much cleaner, healthier, and successful society.

Whatever the name, Mayor Barrett's comments, which drew thunderous applause from the crowd of economists, policy wonks, and interested citizens, channel a new attitude that's emerging in the region and now beginning to overcome all the self-pity, hopelessness, and negative energy.

I first encountered this renewed sense of pride and optimism last fall on a reporting trip in Cleveland. I was in town to investigate the city's revitalization strategy. Like many Great Lakes cities, downtown Cleveland has experienced incredible population loss and disinvestment.

But the city also is taking steps to rebuild itself and set the stage for a new century of prosperity. Civic leaders have an ambitious plan to rehab the waterfront on Lake Erie. They're building enhanced mass transit services down the Euclid Corridor. New hospitals and medical research labs are rising from the ground. And several urban neighborhoods are experiencing significant reinvestment.

So I had lunch with leaders of the 20/30 Club, a group organized by local young professionals to help their city attract and retain young professionals, to understand if the city is on the right track. I asked Brian Klecan, the group's president, and others members what Cleveland needed to do to raise its quality of life and compete for top talent.

Surprisingly, Klecan and the others to a person basically said 'nothing.' Cleveland is hot, they said, it's a great place to live. We just need to tell people about it.

Klecan went on to say that Cleveland has all sorts of impressive assets - three major league sports franchises, worldclass museums, Lake Erie, thriving music, arts, culinary, and theatre scenes, a university, and that hard-nosed Middle American work ethic. What's important, he said, is building on and promoting those strengths.

That's basically what Mayor Barrett said yesterday in DC.

"We have to, as a region, come together and talk about the amenities that we have," he said. "We need to do a much better job at selling our selves. Whether it's Cleveland, or Pittsburgh, or Buffalo, or Detroit, or Milwaukee, or Chicago."

"We used to not have to sell ourselves. But things have changed. The jobs went south. They're going to China. We're in a world economy and we have an obligation now to let people in this country, and people in this world, know why this is a good place to raise families and do business."