Michigan Targets Energy, GM Targets China

Generally speaking, it's a good thing when local companies expand and invest globally. But, at a gut level, the decision by General Motors to spend a quarter of a billion dollars to build an energy innovation center in Shanghai, China feels like a slap in the face to this Michigan resident. Because that incredible scale of added commitment would be a spectacular boon to the students, workers, and residents in the General's home state and, ultimately, America.

For the last several years now, Michigan has oriented its staggeringly slow economic turnaround effort around the idea of energy innovation. Citizens have the heard Governor Granholm say it a mind-numbing number of times now: "Michigan is in the perfect position to lead the nation - and the world - in researching and developing alternative and renewable energy solutions."

The compelling thought looms not only as Michigan struggles to grow relevant industries, generate jobs, and prosper in the 21st century. But also as the United States wrestles with monumental challenges like climate change and homeland security. So energy innovation is a timely and strategic issue for the nation as well as it's eigth largest state.

But moving the needle requires more than a big vision and fancy speeches. It demands a complete and concentrated realignment of policy and spending decisions in both the public and private sector to drive real action. This is a huge ship to turn around!

Right now General Motors is steering away from where Michigan aims to go. The company is not only waging an all out battle against modern fuel efficiency standards that promise to drive innovation and technological advancement. Now its helping to fund the competition abroad.

"We believe China has the potential to become a leader in the adoption of alternative propulsion systems," said General Motors CEO Rick Waggoner.

Funny, that's what Michigan and America is trying to do. And while the venture likely will return knowledge, jobs, and hopefully profits back home, a $250 million infusion of cash, talent, and lab space would have been a serious step in the right direction for downtown Detroit. Disappointing that it's happening China.

Grand Rapids, MI Reacts to Streetcar Idea

In the midst of a spectacular building spree that's pumped nearly $3 billion into high tech medical labs, worldclass hotels, state-of-the-art museums, and countless pubs, restaurants, and condos, Grand Rapids, MI last week officially launched an investigation into the potential benefits of a piece that remains missing from downtown: a modern streetcar system to improve mobility for residents, workers, and visitors.

The eight month study, led by one of the world's leading engineering firms, will analyze the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of the proposal. Upon its completion, the investigation will deliver a preferred route, estimated capital costs, and projected ridership for the project. Basically, it will answer the question of whether Grand Rapids should make a move that has helped cities like Seattle and Denver prepare for the 21st century.

The boo birds, however, are already out. After the local ABC affiliate aired a special report on what the streetcar could mean for the revival of Michigan's second largest city, the naysayers stormed the station website to say the idea of streetcars is nothing more than an expensive plot that will cost too much tax money, stifle job growth, and further bust government budgets.

Click here to read a scrolling list of the missives. But here is a sample of the huffy statements:

"Anyone remember that Simpsons episode where that scam artist talked Springfield into getting a monorail? How could we possibly afford this with our state's economy in shambles?"

"This will be nothing but a traffic congestor and drain the local, state, and federal budget!"

"This is a stupid idea."

Streetcar opponents said essentially the same thing when Portland announced the initial leg of its system in 1997. Since opening the streetcar route at the turn of the century, the city has experienced ever deepening private investment, significant growth in knowledge economy jobs, and a rising reputation as one of the most competitive, attractive, and sustainable cities in America.

The Streetcar Solution in Cincinnati

It's no wonder why city leaders in Cincinnati are moving forward on further study of a plan to build a downtown streetcar system. Investment in a 3.9 mile route with 18 stops, six vehicles, and a maintenance barn is projected to cost approximately $102 million dollars. But the return on that investment is estimated at more than $1.4 billion.

That could help the city wipe out a multi-million dollar budget deficit, and rekindle the mentality that Cincinnati can be great again, according to City Architect Michael Moore.

"The inertia that we first have to overcome is the attitude that we can't pull off a big project," Mr. Moore said recently about a proposed route that could link together the central city, a university campus, and historic districts. "We've never ever attempted anything like this. Our goal is to bring people to a vibrant downtown area."

Randy Simes, a student at the University of Cincinnati, said civic leaders are on the right track.

"As a creative person, it can be difficult to make it work [in Cincinnati] over a place like Chicago, New York or Atlanta." Mr. Simes wrote in a recent editorial. "We need to continue to prioritize the arts and place new emphasis on things like mass transit. This is a very important issue to many young people and in particular the creative class. If we fail at creating a city with these elements, then we will fail at attracting that ever-important young professional."

As for footing a $102 million transit bill while Cincinnati stares down a $29 million shortfall, Chris Bortz, a member of the city's economic development committee, told the local Fox affiliate: "If we continue to cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, the city will continue to decline."

Asking the Right Transit Question In Michigan

Speaking to a select group of members from the state House of Representatives yesterday, Megan Owens, the bright young executive director of Transportation Riders United, a nonprofit group working to improve public transit in Detroit, made a compelling case that aggressive investment in rapid buses, commuter trains, and light rail lines that link residential, commercial, and industrial centers in Michigan is perhaps one of the greatest economic opportunities ever to confront the state.

To which David Palsrok, the equally young state Representative from Manistee, MI, wasted no time responding: "But how do we change behavior, get people out of their cars, and get them to use the [mass transit] service?"

The comment illustrated Michigan's inability to recognize and reckon with the huge forces now reshaping the state economy and culture.

It's not that Rep. Palsrok - a third term lawmaker - and other state leaders fail to acknowledge that modern transit infrastructure - like roads, sewer, or water lines - can propel growth in the 21st century. The nation's history, Rep. Palsrok explained, is full of stories about spurring economic development around stage coach depots, train stations, and airports. So "there's no doubt," he said, that street cars and other public transit services could help stimulate growth in communities across Michigan.

But the question isn't 'how does Michigan change behavior and get people to ride the expensive new machinery,' as Rep. Palsrok suggests. Because the research reveals - and this was the principal message delivered by Ms. Owens and others who testified before the House Commerce Committee - that behavior IS changing.

A perfect storm of global mega trends is fundamentally altering society in Michigan and across the nation. They include:

  • Single professionals, empty nesters, and immigrants fueling population growth in central cities.
  • Increasing traffic congestion, rising gas prices, and the growing financial burden of car ownership.
  • The push to promote green building and sustainable development.
  • Mounting concerns about climate change and environmental protection.
  • Lifestyle changes that favor walking, biking, and healthy living.

Taken together, these trends overwhelmingly favor growth in vibrant metropolitan areas and, by extension, the expansion of clean, safe, convenient, and cost effective public transit.

The question is how long before Michigan responds with new policies and spending practices that manage the change and translate some potentially ruinous threats into real opportunities.

The Vision of Vern and Earl

With an historic drought in the South, fire in the West, and economic transformation in the Heartland, a small band of United States Representatives have introduced a proposal to teach America's college students how to innovate a development strategy that simultaneously grows jobs and the economy while protecting the nation's increasingly valuable natural assets.

The proposal, spearheaded by Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Vern Ehlers, a Democrat from Oregon and a Republican from Michigan respectively, would authorize $50 million in federal grants for 2008 to keep the nation's universities on the cutting edge of new research, policies, and technologies in the emerging field of sustainablility.

The proposed Higher Education Sustainability Act of 2007 would also provide funding for institutions to ramp up recycling, energy conservation, and other green practices, as well as convene a summit of the nation's top education leaders on the philosophy and practice of sustainability.

"The need for innovative approaches to sustainable development becomes critical to our economic competitiveness, environmental health, and the strength of our communities as population growth, urban development, and extreme weather incidents place greater stress on ecosystems around the globe," Rep. Blumenauer said in a recent speech introducing bill 3637 on the House floor.

"Society will reap the benefits of the excellent return on investment gained by educating students in sustainable practices” Vern Ehlers added in a press statement. "Students graduating from universities that take advantage of this grant program will not only implement the concepts they learn in their own lives. They will approach their career with a sustainable mindset that will benefit the companies and non-profit institutions they work for, and our nation’s economy as a whole.”

Identifying the 21st Century Worker

This year's round of the prestigious InvenTeams grants are signed, sealed, and delivered and the list of funded projects provides some insight into what today's students in the Great Lakes region want to be when they grow up. These kids aren't aiming for the traditional job on the assembly line. They're developing break-through technologies, advancing energy innovation, and striving to build a cleaner, greener society.

InvenTeams is a national grant program sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology designed to rekindle excitement about math, science, engineering, and entrepreneurship, and inventing among the nation's high schoolers. The initiative awards as much as $10,000 to teams of students at high schools across the country to "identify a real-world problem and invent a practical solution to it."

Five of this year's 16 awards went to schools in the greater Great Lakes. And sure there's a team in Chicago working to perfect a high-tech pancake maker. But there's also the team at Farmington Hills Harrison in Michigan developing a device to improve water quality monitoring in rivers and lakes.

The students at Great River School in St. Paul, MN are honing more modern equipment to test wind speeds and determine the optimal location for energy-generating turbines.

And the kids at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, MN are inventing an ultra safe electric motorcycle that can travel 40 miles per charge, according to a report on TwinCities.com.

"It's not just a nerdy team activity," one student told reporter Bao Ong. "People respect it."

Photo courtesy of InvenTeams.

With Competition Mounting, Pennsylvania Pumps $11M Into Energy Innovation

Well, you can't say Ed Rendell is a coward on the energy innovation issue. Yesterday the Pennsylvania governor announced his state would invest $11 million in two dozen projects designed to turn everything from sun rays to chicken shit into electricity.

He also warned that Pennsylvania must move much more aggressively if it intends to keep pace with other states and establish itself as a serious player in the "new energy economy." Investors this year are expected to pump $81 billion into the renewable energy market, Gov. Rendell said, but Pennsylvania is only able to support a measly 10 percent of the business ventures applying for assistance from the state economic development office.

That costs the Keystone State as much as $100 million in new investment annually, the way the Rendell Administration figures it, as entreprenuers look elsewhere for startup capital.

“We’re among the top destinations for cutting edge projects in areas like solar and wind energy technologies but other states and other nations are stepping up to compete with us,” Rendell said in a press release.

“California has made more than $3 billion available for solar development and Iowa is investing $1.3 billion in biofuels production. Even smaller and less populated states like Rhode Island and Wyoming have made $300 million and $400 million available for alternative energy development.”

Indiana's Big Lake Mistakes Continue

Either the people writing the water quality rules aren't talking with the people writing the waterfront revitalization plans. Or Indiana is faking it when it comes to transitioning the state's environment and economy to compete in the 21st century. Because the state again appears poised to permit a major steel manufacturer to ramp up the pollution it dumps in the Great Lakes.

What's at stake is the viability of perhaps the state's greatest economic asset: Lake Michigan.

What's clear now is that top talent and new companies are increasingly attracted to clean, green, and vibrant cities. Some in Indiana have recognized that trend and, in an effort to boost the prosperity of lagging industrial cities like Gary, begun to advance the Marquette Greenway Plan, an amazingly ambitious effort to redevelop the Lake Michigan waterfront with new marinas, trails, condos, and public spaces.

But who wants to boat, swim, or live on a lake with ever higher levels of grease, chemicals, and heavy metals? That's the increasingly relevant question as the state's environmental regulators consider easing standards designed to minimize lake dumping, as the Chicago Tribune reports today.

"This isn't supposed to be happening," said Dale Bryson, a former water cop at the federal Environmental Protection Agency who now chairs the Allianc for the Great Lakes, told the Chicago Tribune. "The whole purpose behind these laws and rules is to reduce pollution, not allow it to increase."

Back to the Future in Michigan

Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm didn't exactly break new intellectual ground today in her brief speech to WIRED West Michigan, a group of civic leaders working to diversify the regional economy for the Digital Age.

But when you're the head of a state temporarily blinded by economic upheaval and entrenched ideologies, you have to continually repeat your message so the slower folks can come to understand it.

So in talk after talk Gov. Granholm reminds people that, in order to remain relevant in the 21st century, the state needs unprecedented investment in the skills of its people and its quality of life.

Do that, she said, and Michigan will be well positioned to play in the global economy. She summarized her speech with an inspiring sound bit scribbled on the chalk board outside the venue where she spoke:

"Innovation is Michigan's history but - even more importantly - innovation is Michigan's destiny."

Great Lakes X's and O's

When New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson hinted last week that the Great Lakes region could help arid Western states meet the rising and insatiable demand for water, Wisconsin Senator Rob Cowles called on the people of his state to send "a big signal" to the Democratic long shot for President.

The question is whether the signal should be a defensive or an offensive play call? Because the people of the Great Lakes region have a choice. We can chose to pass protectionist policies that strive simply to lock up a globally unique water resource and ban massive diversions to far off states and foreign nations. And we can chose to advance a proactive policy that aims to spur innovation, create jobs, and boost competitiveness by becoming the quarterback of the booming global water tech business.

Put another way, we can export water (or, more likely, constantly fight water exports) or we can export new ideas and technologies to solve the global water crisis.

Gov. Richardson touched on that idea recently when he told the Las Vegas Sun that America needs a national water policy, and that the nation needs a dialogue between states about how to "deal with issues like water conservation, water reuse technology, water delivery, and water production."

The market potential for water tech is vast, with some estimates defining the global water business as a $300 billion industry. It's a smart play in a knowledge economy that increasingly demands new and improved ways to simultaneously sustain the economy and the ecology. And states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio have unique combination of innovative spirit, manufacturing know how, and freshwater expertise to dominate the market.

But the Governor, an accomplished diplomat, also remarked that "Wisconsin is awash in water," and fueled the century-old fear in the Great Lakes that Colorado, California, and others are plotting to build pipelines and pumps to siphon off the region's incredibly robust supplies.

Dan Egan, the veteran Great Lakes reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, jumped all over that aspect of Gov. Richardson's comments and interviewed experts across the region for a response.

"It's another scary reminder that we need to get going and pass a compact [that limits water withdrawals] - and a strong compact - so this kind of thing is off the table," said state Sen. Cowles, a Republican from Green Bay.

"We have protections in place, but it's very fragile," said state Rep. Jon Richards, a Democrat from Milwaukee.

But while the politicians talk treaties, pioneering business leaders are talking technology - and big profit.

John Torinus wasn't included in Egan's article. But the Wisconsin business leader personally took to the pages of the Milwaukee paper the following day with his own column drawing attention "to the emerging economic cluster based on freshwater technologies."

Torinus doesn't address Gov. Richardson's comments directly. But his thoughtful article illustrates the aqua rich Great Lakes can play offense or defense against the growing global demand for clean fresh water. And the truth is successful teams play well on both sides of the ball.

America's Heartland: Taking it Back

There's a race on to rename the Rust Belt, or at least individual regions, and redefine the troubled geographic area as a much more modern, inviting, and prosperous place to live and work.

The latest example of that comes from the Pittsburgh-Cleveland corridor, where entrepreneurs and now elected officials aim to rebrand their deindustrializing region as a Tech Belt rich with cutting edge life science firms, innovative universities, and other high tech initiatives capable of competing on a global scale.

In June 2007, this blog reported that Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barret recommended branding the region as the Fresh Coast. Others propose the North Coast, the Blue Belt, or the Third Coast.
But there's another term just waiting to be dusted off, reclaimed, and saved: Heartland.

There was a time when the people of America's Heartland - roughly defined as the states of the greater Great Lakes region - pioneered innovative new industries, social programs, and modern cities that set the course for a nation and changed the world.

That's a history of hard work and accomplishment that can never be stripped from the mega Midwest. And the time is ripe to rekindle that sense of purpose and leadership for another century of success that makes the Rust Belt period look like a fleeting blip on the arc of time.

Heartland. Now is the moment to take the label and all it embodies back.

Celebrating Cleveland's Culinary Underbelly

Clevelanders had a mixed reaction when chef, author, and adventurer Anthony Bourdain filmed and broadcast an episode of No Reservations from their rebounding metropolis. Some said Bourdain's self-proclaimed "rust-filled odyssey" highlighted the city's struggles to an international audience and stoked an inferiority complex. Like piling more wood on the 'Mistake by the Lake' fire.

But Bourdain, a New Yorker, said flat out "Cleveland does not suck," as he suspected. And ultimately he dedicated the show to what is too often overlooked as a strength in the greater Great Lakes region: a rich heritage of craftsmanship, diversity, and creativity expressed through food. And where there is good food, there are signs of intelligent and industrious life.

"Cleveland's a beacon of hope in the great blank area between the coasts," Bourdain said in a recent interview. "There's an original German butcher doing things old school and new chefs doing things that are hopeful, like new Great Lakes fish dishes."

If nothing else, Bourdain reveals a couple days of flavorful good eating next time you're in Cleveland. Check it out.......

Bringing Renewables Into Port

To the growing list of job opportunities associated with more aggressive investment in wind energy infrastructure for the greater Great Lakes, add several more: freighter captains, crane operators, truck and hi-lo drivers, cargo handlers, and port managers.

Business is booming to record levels at one of Duluth's main shipping terminals due in large part to "a tsunami" of shipments carrying wind power equipment, according to a recent report in the Duluth News Tribune.

There's mounting evidence that the wind business will generate all sorts of jobs for technical, scientific, professional, and skilled workers. But apparently transportation - a historic strength of the greater Great Lakes region - is another industry that stands to benefit. The Clure Marine Terminal is processing imports from overseas as well as exports to Spain.

"This is a shipping frenzy right now with wind power," Adolph Ojard, director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, told the News Tribune.

Imagine what could happen in ailing port cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Toledo if Michigan and Ohio got serious about energy innovation.

"There's huge potential out there," Gary Nicholson, president of Lake Superior Warehousing, told the News Tribune.

Energy Innovation Becoming Serious Business in Ohio

With at least 11 separate legislative proposals to promote energy innovation floating around the state capitol, two of Ohio's leading business associations have joined forces in support of Gov. Ted Strickland's so-called 'advanced energy strategy' saying the plan would secure reasonable power rates, modernize the grid, and generate jobs.

The governor's agenda was recently presented to the Energy & Public Utilities Committee in the Ohio Senate.

A key tenet of the proposal, introduced last August, would mandate that Ohio satisfy 25 percent of its electricity needs with wind, solar, and other advanced energy sources by 2025.

Environmentalists have expressed some skepticism because the term "advanced" leaves the door open to investments in technologies such as clean coal and nuclear. But labor leaders and manufacturers are expressing rare joint support for the proposal, illustrating the governor's plan continues to unite a broad coalition for new policies.

The Ohio AFL-CIO issued a statement saying the plan is "a thoughtful, comprehensive effort to protect Ohio’s working families, consumers and businesses from the instability of de-regulation and as a tool to spur economic development and job growth in Ohio."

Ohio Manufacturers Association President Eric Burkland reportedly called the governor's proposal a "jobs bill."

The statements come as a series of bills in the state House and Senate aim to bring Ohio's energy agenda into the 21st century. One bill would provide a tax credite to consumers who purchase hybrid cars. Another would require energy producers to minimize mercury pollution. Still another would create a special Council on Sustainable Energy Development.

Clearly, the urgent message gaining strength in Ohio is that passage of these sorts of bills will stimulate new business opportunities and put people to work in the economy of the future. The question now becomes how quickly will these ideas pass throught the lethargic political process and become law. Doesn't seem too outrageous to require biofuels on the Ohio Turnpike.