Government Games Stall Growth in Waukegan, IL

The cleanup of Waukegan Harbor in Illinois would increase local property values by a projected $800 million, signal the city's transition from the waning Industrial Era to the emerging Digital Age, and set the stage for a new century of prosperity in Waukegan, where the per capita annual income is just over $17,000 and 14 percent of the population is below the poverty line.

But state and federal officials seem determined to bungle the $36 million deal, which would remove from the harbor bottom more than a quarter million cubic yards of sediment laced with PCB, a nasty little persistent pollutant that's linked to human health problems like cancer.

Local leaders appear to be on their game. In 2003 they adopted A 21st Century Vision for Waukegan's Lakefront and Downtown. The overarching goal is to bring new residential, commercial, and recreational opportunities to the Lake Michigan waterfront. The plan has received national attention and recently won the Daniel Burnham Award for excellence in planning.

But designing a waterfront where people want to live, shop, and play in many ways means minimizing industry and all its related consequences to the local environmental and aestethic value. And that, apparently is something the federal government won't stand for.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency earlier today withdrew its support for the harbor cleanup - and the $23+ million in federal funding to execute it - because local leaders in Waukegan want to ban future industrial uses on the waterfront after the project is complete. Instead of barge traffic they want to promote recreational boating and other activities that elevate the region's overall quality of life.

The move comes just five months after state government nearly killed the cleanup over a budget balancing fiasco.

City leaders now are pushing to decertify the harbor for industrial use, according to a report in today's Lake County News-Sun. But the fiasco is the latest example of state and federal leaders' inability to grapple with the basic elements of a modern development strategy for the greater Great Lakes region.

As the local leaders in Waukegan strive to organize future growth around new residences and public recreational opportunities on a vibrant waterfront, the feds are, in effect, arguing for cement factories and drywall manufacturers.

To be certain, the region needs these important industries. But it's not 1950 anymore. They are no longer the highest and best use for a globally unique lakeshore.