Waukegan Harbor's Turning Point

Civic leaders in Lake County, IL are arguing about whether Waukegan Harbor should be 10 or 20 feet deep, as reported in today's Daily Herald. But the debate is about much more than dredging and navigation. It crystallizes the primary economic challenge now confronting the greater Great Lakes region as it enters the 21st century.

The Great Lakes is currently in the midst of an intense phase of installation where, to paraphrase technology historian Carlota Perez, new ideas erupt in a mature economy, advance like a bulldozer, disrupt the established fabric, and articulate new industrial networks.

"At the beginning of the period," Perez notes, "the revolution is a small fact and a big promise; at the end, the new paradigm is a significant force ready to serve as a propeller of widespread growth."

One of the increasingly popular small facts and big promises in the Great Lakes today is the idea that restoring and redeveloping gritty industrialized waterfronts like Waukegan Harbor - currently one of the most polluted waterways in the nation - can generate jobs, lure new residents and talented young workers, and boost competitiveness in the knowledge economy.

The City of Waukegan. Detroit. Cleveland. Buffalo. Milwaukee. The communities in Northwest Indiana along Lake Michigan's southern shore. Seemingly everbody has a plan to restore the natural beauty of working water- and riverfronts and revitalize them with modern condos, clean beaches, new businesses, and other amenities. What is being installed is the idea that the Rust Belt can transform and reinvent itself as the Blue Belt and kickoff a new era of prosperity.

But acting on these ambitious plans - what Perez calls the deployment phase - often requires incredibly difficult and complicated feats of strength that really grind the gears of proponents for the old and outgoing model of industry. Demolishing riverfront cement plants, for instance, consolidating the lakefront steel industry, relocating a waterfront airport or, in Waukegan, sparring with a drywall manufacturer at the harbor's edge.

That's what behind the news of civic leaders arguing about water depth in Waukegan.

"If it does go to 10 feet, we will be forced to shut down," Steve Rogers, plant manager of the National Gypsum company, told the Daily Herald.

"The question keeps coming up," said Ray Vukovich, director of governmental services in Waukegan, which anticipates a $1.2 billion redevelopment of the Lake Michigan waterfront. "How long is industry going to be there."