Talking Heads

New York Senator Hillary Clinton didn't just launch a political campaign when she announced her candidacy to become the first women president in the history of the United States. She promised "a conversation with America." Now Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm wants to "talk with citizens" about the future of the Great Lakes State.

What is this the View?

Enough of this "talk" about change. What is urgently needed now is leadership and action. Not only for America, a country distracted from its domestic priorities and mired in a war that's costing evermore in life, money, and reputation. But especially for the greater Great Lakes region, which is undergoing a fundamental and intensely painful shift in its basic economic underpinnings.

The aspects of any serious agenda to stregthen the mega region stretching from Chicago to Pittsburgh and, by extension, the United States of America, are clear. What's needed is much more aggressive investment of time and money in education and innovation, revitalizing cities, streamlining government, and restoring the globally unique Great Lakes ecosystem.

This stuff is not new. We've "talked" about these needs for years. The conversation is ripe. Now is the time for talk to become action. Americans are hungry for leadership, someone to light the way out of mediocrity.

That gives an edge to those civic leaders with the courage to set aside partisan differences, roll up their sleeves, build diverse and nontraditional coalitions, and get to work solving the challenges of the time.

Everything else is just chit chat.

Catching the Next Big Technology Wave

About four years ago, Arizona commissioned a study which revealed that investing in green technology and sustainable manufacturing innovation represents perhaps the most significant growth opportunity for the state's 21st century economy.

Like any sound business plan, one section of the report, titled Positioning Arizona for the Next Big Technology Wave, also analyzed the competition, and detailed which US states are pursuing sustainable business initiatives. Not one Great Lakes state or province made the list.

So it was not surprising to find an article in yesterday's Toronto Star lamenting the fact that Toronto seems to be missing the idea that the global economy has begun to undergo a major transformation away from industries and businesses that make money by polluting the environment and toward those who profit by restoring and protecting it.

"We're about three years behind," Nicholas Parker, a Toronto native and co-founder and chairman of the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Cleantech Venture Network, told the Star.

"In our view, over the next five-year period, at least 1.4 million high-quality direct jobs will result from venture investment that's going into [clean tech], globally. Who's going to get those jobs? Shanghai? Stockholm? Silicon Valley? Or Toronto? The race is on to create those jurisdictions that are going to capture these jobs."

Renewable energy - one key component of a much broader sustainability-clean technology agenda - is now a common part of the regional dialogue about transforming the Rust Belt to the Blue Belt. But the region's political leadership as a whole has yet to embrace the philosophy of sustainable business. Much less put out a compelling vision for how the Great Lakes economy looks and functions in 2100, 2050, or even 2020.

Meanwhile, as the three-year old Arizona report and the Star article indicate, the competition, and the investors, are lining up elsewhere: Austin, TX, San Jose, Ca, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Washington, European Union........

Minnesota Moves Toward Modernity

Few Great Lakes states have moved as quickly as Minnesota to pursue an innovative policy agenda and lay a groundwork that strives to ensure a prosperous, beautiful, and neighborly place to live in the 21st century. The state is emerging as a model for how to transform the Rust Relt to the Blue Belt.

MN Gov. Tim Pawlenty doesn't support raising the gas tax. But last week he signed legislation calling for 25 percent of his state's energy to be generated from renewable sources by 2025. Analysts call it the most aggressive energy innovation agenda in the nation.

"When we invest in wind, solar and biomass energy projects, thousands of jobs and billions of dollars will flow to Minnesota's economy - not out-of-state energy companies," the governor said.

Leaders in Ohio continue to dismiss an important compact to sustain the Great Lakes as a property rights grab. But Minnesota passed it. Now the state is all but daring Michigan, Ohio, and others to follow through with a similiar commitment to the regional economy and environment.

"I'll issue a good-natured challenge to our other Great Lakes states to get it done sooner rather than later," Gov. Pawlenty said after signing the bill to safeguard the Great Lakes from heavy water withdrawals.

And two weeks ago Gov. Pawlenty dropped in on the Michigan Republican Party's convention in Grand Rapids to offer some advice on tax policy. Basically, he said cutting taxes - the principal priority of conservatives in the Great Lakes State even as they wrestle with a $900 million budget deficit - isn't necessarily the key to driving growth and investment these days.

"We're never going to be a bargain-basement place," Pawlenty said about Minnesota. "That's not our heritage, that's not our tradition, that's not what we want to be. In general, you have to strike the right balance."

Thanks to Peter Luke at Booth Newspapers for gleaning that particularly relevant quote. He also dug up these fun facts: Minnesota has lower unemployment, higher per capita income, more college educated residents, and lower taxes when compared to Michigan. MN also generated three times the economic growth of MI in recent years.

Maybe the decades-long push to continually slash taxes in Michigan isn't working.

Indeed, for the greater Great Lakes region, the path from de-industrialization to modern prosperity may go through Minnesota.

MI Enviros Expose Governor's Mediocre Energy Strategy

Aggressive investment in renewable fuels and energy conservation in Michigan could generate 6,800 jobs, slash statewide energy bills by $2.2 billion, and reduce power plant emmissions linked to global warming by 30 percent as early as 2020, according to an impressive report released today by Environment Michigan.

Ironically, the report is the latest blow to Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm's energy innovation agenda. The authors compared their recommendations - which include a mix of energy conservation, renewables spending, and resistance to new coal plants - to the recommendations set forth in Gov. Granholm's recently released 21st Century Energy Plan. The comparison revealed a timid state energy plan.

"[The governor's plan] would bring only 1/3 as many jobs and approximately half the consumer savings because of its tepid recommendations on clean energy," Environment Michigan stated in a press release.

Ouch. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for a governor who has staked her state's economic resurgence on a bold, supposedly cutting edge ultra modern energy initiative. If this were a baseball game, the governor would be out on a called third strike.

Strike one, the governor backed away from embracing a more aggressive and visionary renewable energy goal in her 2007 State of the State. The state's Urban Core Mayors called for 15 percent renewables by 2015. The governor called for 10 percent.

Strike two, the governor continues to resist a gas tax increase, even though the idea is supported by state business leaders and Republicans and is arguably the most direct route to promote energy conservation and the expansion of alternative fuels.

Strike three, a prominent member of the state's environmental community, typically staunch supporters of the Granholm Administration, issues a stinging rebuke that essentially says her energy plans is mediocre at best.

Governor Granholm can step back up to the plate, and get back in the energy game, by taking a strong position on a coal-fired power plant proposed for Northeast Michigan. Will she seize the opportunity?

Stay tuned...

Plenty of Work, But No Jobs

Forbes just published the Best Cities for Jobs 2007 and not one Great Lakes cities falls in the Top 25 listing. Another gloomy sign for a mega region whose higher education system turns out some of the world's top talent. But risks losing them more and more.

Generating jobs in the knowledge economy, and retaining that creative class of people, requires much more aggressive investment in cities and mass transit; environmental restoration and quality of life; educational preparedness; as well as cutting edge clean and green industries.

In other words, building places where people can thrive, rather than sink into depression while stuck in a traffic jam looking at the rusting manufacturing plants along once glorious waterfronts.

Forbes rankings are based on five measures: job growth, unemployment rate, income growth, cost of living, and median household income. Raleigh, NC, Phoenix, AZ, and Jacksonville, FL round out the top three. Cities like Omaha, NE, Little Rock, AK, and Oklahoma City, OK are 15, 17, and 21 respectively.

And the first Great Lakes city doesnt appear until #28. Hooray for Minneapolis, MN. After that, it's Indianapolis #41 and Lake County, IL - Kenosha County, WI #48. Meaning just three metro regions from the greater Great Lakes made the top 50.

Great Lakes cities did, however, basically sweep the rankings through the 90's. Here's who all landed in the Top 100:

#56 Cincinnati, OH
#59 Rochester, NY
#61 Akron, OH
#65 Columbus, OH
#73 Buffalo, NY
#76 Pittsburgh, PA
#81 St. Louis, MO
#82 Chicago, IL
#84 Gary, IN
#92 Cleveland, ON
#93 Grand Rapids, MI
#94 Milwaukee, WI
#95 Dayton, OH
#96 Toledo, OH
#97 Warren, MI
#98 Youngstown, OH
#100 Detroit

Illustrating the sorry economic state of Michigan, in particular, the Motor City could perceive making the Top 100 as good news.

Michigan's Twisted Energy Strategy

Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm took to public radio last Friday in a bid to pressure lawmakers to act on her new budget balancing proposals. But she wound up shooting her energy innovation agenda right in the ethanol pump.

She started off strong, recycling a favorite line from the past two State of the State speeches. "We're the state that put the world on wheels," the governor said. "We should be the state that breaks the US dependence on foreign oil."

But a phoned-in question on gas taxes exposed the hollow rhetoric. Increasing the gasoline tax is widely recognized as a key strategy to decrease fuel consumption, make alternative fuels more competitive, and decrease America's dependence on foreign oil. All goals Gov. Granholm claims to embrace.

The move also is viewed by a growing number of people in Michigan as an immediate way to crank up state revenues, plug a budget deficit of crisis proportions, and ramp up investment in critical infrastructure such as roads, maybe even mass transit. That's why the idea is supported by several prominent Chambers of Commerce.

But when a caller presented the governor with that reasoned rational on the recent radio show, she looked right past it, raising significant questions about the strategic thinking behind her plan to solve the state's budget fiasco, spur energy entreprenuers, and position Michigan to prosper in the 21st Century global economy.

Here's the brief transcript:

Caller Paul from Royal Oak, MI: "I propose significantly raising the gasoline tax. To raise revenue and also to encourage conservation. I think it would be a two-fer."

Moderator Rick Pluta: "Governor, what are your thoughts on raising the gas tax?"

Gov. Granholm: "This has been suggested by business groups. However I'm not proposing an increase in the gasoline tax at this pount because I want to get our fiscal house in order. Insofar as part of my economic plan is a 2 penny sales tax on services, I think there's only so much we can ask of citizens at any given time."

Moderator Rick Pluta: "Might there be a gas tax increase in the future?"

Gov. Granholm: "I know there's a lot of groups that would like to see it. I'm wondering if there's a better way to achieve additional revenue."

The gas tax opportunity - and the threat of letting it slip by - has not gone unnoticed by the media. Detroit Free Press Columnist Brian Dickerson asked yesterday whether "a gas tax hike is the best hope for the state's recovery."

The Great Lakes' 21st Century Energy Strategy

The greater Great Lakes region now stands galvanized around the idea that leading the nation's push toward clean energy sources will not only help kick America's dependence on foreign oil and stregthen the country's geopolitical strategy.

There's also growing regional consensus around the idea that energy innovation is one key strategy to generate jobs, modernize a lagging economy, and rebrand the Rustbelt as a prosperous place to live and work.

"We can change the entire image, from a Rustbelt city to a city of the future," Ronn Richard, director the Cleveland Foundation, recently said of a proposal to erect 10 wind turbines on Lake Erie. "This kind of push would help Cleveland reclaim its place as a major economic and cultural force on the world stage."

Ohio, in fact, recently launched an effort to develop a statewide energy strategy. Announcing the effort, Governor Ted Strickland said he's "convinced that we can create thousands of good-paying jobs by encouraging next-generation energy production including ethanol, clean coal, wind, and solar."

Minnesota stands at the forefront of energy innovation in the region, and the state's booming ethanol industry was featured in the New York Times last Sunday.

Entreprenuers see energy opportunity in Indiana, too, with a proposal to build 10 windmills on the Lake Michigan shore. "Let us boldly set an example in our country," Dale Barton, owner of Gary-based Urban Energies, told the Post-Tribune.

Michigan recently finalized its 21st Century Energy Plan, and the state now aims to diversify its energy portfolio with ethanol, wind, and maybe sewage. "We've got this unique confluence of history, circumstances, and timing, and that makes 2007 a pivotal year for energy policy," Mike Shriberg, director of Environment Michigan, told the Bay City Times.

Wisconsin has big renewable energy plans, too. But the state also exemplifies the tremendous challenges confronting the Great Lakes Basin as it transitions from a 20th to a 21st century economy, and from dirty to clean energy sources.

The state, like many others across the region, has a voracious appetite for coal, according to a recent report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and it generates greenhouse gases much faster than the national average. What's more, Wisconsin, is investing more than any other state, according to the report, in additional coal-fired plants. Coal plants that aren't equipped with technology to reduce emissions. What is this? 1950?

"This is the path that almost every state in the nation is now taking," Jonathan Foley, a climatologist at the University of Wisconsin told the Journal Sentinel. "And it's the wrong path."

Indeed, the need to change course ultimately presents a historic opportunity for the Great Lakes region to leverage its legacy of innovation and again set a new direction for the nation and world.

Marquette, MI Joins Waterfront Revolution

The region-wide push to rehab river and lake front properties is one of the more obvious signs that Great Lakes communities are groping for a strategy to squash their Rustbelt image.

The latest example comes from Marquette, MI, where residents called for more public access, open views, and architecturally significant buildings to enhance the downtown waterfront. Marquette sits on the southern shore of Lake Superior.

“One of the interesting things we heard, people were talking a lot about preserving public access and views to the water,” consultant Geoff Ferrell said in a report in today's Mining Journal. “A whole lot of the waterfront access in the area is not public access. You can walk over there and all around, but you’re on private property.”

Marquette joins Gary, IN, Cleveland, OH, Detroit, MI, Buffalo, NY, and numerous other Great Lakes cities who are developing plans and searching for funds to replace steel plants, coal piles, and other misguided waterfront uses with inviting public parks, high end condos, and lucrative retail.

Sewer Power

From the shameless self promotion file....

Sewage treatment plants can become potent power producers instead of Great Lakes polluters if Michigan rekindles its spirit of innovation and thinks sustainably.

Click here to read the rest of my column appearing in today's Detroit News.

Grand Rapids, MI Inches Towards $69 M Streetcar

The City of Grand Rapids, MI has invested billions in new condos, restaurants, and futuristic medical research labs and hospitals in the central city. Now civic leaders are realizing the city's renaissance is missing one important piece: modern mass transit.

So they are accelerating the study of a street car system designed to circulate residents and visitors around downtown, according to a report in yesterday's Grand Rapids Press. The move is part of a broader strategy to speed urban revitalization, attract talented workers and companies, and position the city to prosper in the global economy.

The proposed project, estimated to cost approximately $69 million, is strikingly similar in terms of scale and cost to a number of streetcar systems already built or underway in cities across the United States. Portland’s, for example, cost $54 million, is 4.8 miles long, and in 10 years stimulated nearly $3 billion in new downtown investment, including the largest economic development project in that city’s history.

"Wherever the track goes down becomes ground zero for massive development," former Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie recently told a local transit task force. "But private investment ripples about four blocks away on either side of the streetcar line. So you want to go where development has yet to occur."

The streetcar project is moving forward slowly. But a number of the region's decision makers still view mass transit as a big government expense, rather than a critical investment in the region's modern economic development strategy. Even more poisonous is the idea that a streetcar system is a pie-in-the-sky big city dream that will never happen in little ole Grand Rapids.

Plenty of demons stand in the way of this important effort to evolve Michigan's second largest city for the 21st century.

Romney Patronizes Big Auto, Michigan

The automakers may have different ideas and slower timelines. But there's growing consensus across the Great Lakes region about the urgent opportunity to aggressively push the boundaries of energy innovation and break America's dependence on foreign oil.

Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts who is campaining for the Republican nomination for president, walked that fine line at the Detroit Economic Club yesterday. Romney said he believes American-made cars must be more fuel efficient, but that he's opposed to goverment-mandated fuel efficiency standards, according to excerpts of his remarks posted on his Website.

In fact, tougher fuel rules are among the top seven initiatives Romney proposes to ensure America's continued economic expansion. The other six have primarily to do with easing regulation, streamlining government, and rolling back taxes.

Lower taxes play well to the crowds. But his comments come as the greater Great Lakes - one of the most economically important yet depressed regions in the U.S. - yearns for deeper investment. Investment in people and education; investment in cities and mass transit; investment in technology and innovation; and investment in the waterways that power the midwest industries that helped the nation rise a world leader.

The U.S. is spending $500 billion, by some estimates so far, to invade, reform, and rebuild Iraq, largely because of rampant domestic demand for oil. What's the strategy to change that scenario and renew investment in the homeland? Those are the sorts of political ideas Great Lakes voters should demand from prospective presidential candidates.

MI State of the State 2007

It was displaced by such important programs as Inside Edition and Entertainment Tonight on the local TV channels, but Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm did deliver her 2007 State of the State Address last night. The speech aired on PBS.

The governor never said what the "State of the State" actually is. But, following the visionary leadership of such states as Minnesota, she did propose a $100 million energy project to attract and grow alternative energy companies in Michigan.

"This new industry, so critical to our economy, our national security, and our environment, is already setting up shop in Michigan," Gov. Granholm said. "With other states clamoring for this opportunity MIchigan cannot afford to wait."

The governor also called on state lawmakers to more aggressively target solar and wind companies; establish 1,000 ethanol and biodiesel fuel pumps across the state by 2008; and adopt the goal of generating 10 percent of the state's energy from renewable sources by 2015.

The Urban Core Mayors group earlier called on state leaders to adopt a goal of 15 percent renewables by 2015.

"Anything less than a 15 percent renewables by 2015 sells our state short. We need to transition to the new economy now, not later. Renewable energy will be a huge contributor to economic activity," said Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, who has adopted the goal for his city in his 2007 State of the City address.

Saying Michigan needs to ramp up investment in people and cities, the governor also sketched the broad outlines of what she called a more modern tax policy. The state will again struggle to plug a gaping budget deficit. And the governor, who is a Democrat, says that will require a mix of spending cuts, government reforms, and revenue increases. Few Republicans in the house stood to applaud the governor's proposed "tax changes."

Raising the gas tax is a logical and strategic move, considering Granholm's commitment to energy conservation and innovation. But will she have the courage to propose it? Stay tuned.

Chicago Makes Sustainability Grade

The City of Chicago received a grade of 'B' on its 2007 Green Report Card, compiled by Concious Choice magazine.

The city was awarded high marks for efforts to cleanup the Chicago River, promote organic foods, expand parks, and embrace green building practices. But the magazine found room for improvement in the campaigns to improve overall air quality, expand recyling, and build a world class transit system, which received grades of F, C, and B- respectively.

Grades aside, the fact that the media and civic leaders are tracking progress against a list of sustainability goals is impressive on its own. Not many cities around the rusty Great Lakes can credibly make that claim. Even as the successful cities demonstrate that the push toward green building, design, and innovation is a critical component of 21st century prosperity.

Minnesota's Energy Revolution

With the wind and ethanol industries generating thousands of jobs in Minnesota, state Senator Ellen Anderson is advancing a proposal that would require energy companies to derive 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2025, according to a recent report from Minnesota Public Radio.

According to the report, the Senate Committee on Energy, Utilities, Technology and Communications unanimously passed the bill, which is supported by a rare coalition of environmentalists, utility companies, the state Chamber of Commerce, as well as a group of Senators and Governor Tim Pawlenty. Gov. Pawlenty champions alternative energy as a strategic move to modernize Minnesota's economy, reduce America's dependence on foreign oil, and conserve his state's unique environment.

"I think we just experienced a revolution in Minnesota," Senator Anderson told MPR. "This is a very strong bill that would lead the nation in terms of its requirements for new renewable energy and for wind energy."

With the legislation likely to pass, Minnesota is poised to become the clear-cut leader of alternative energy innovation in the greater Great Lakes region, if they're not already there.

Skills that Work for Florida

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was sold as an environmental rehab project to reverse decades of ecologicial decline in South Florida. But, as it moves from concept to implementation, the $8.4 billion public works project is becoming an economic development program for the state.

Officials have organized a workforce and small business development initiative around a select group of major construction and restoration projects that will cost approximately $1.6 billion to complete over the next four years.

Led by the South Florida Water Management District, restoration managers are 1) developing a database of minority- and locally-owned businesses to connect the global companies leading the construction with the Florida businesses that have the materials, laborers, and skills and 2) working with community colleges to train people in construction and heavy equipment operation.

One community college also is developing a program to train workers in more white-collar type jobs, such as computer aided construction site design and environmental science.

"Once these projects get up and running, we wont be able to train people fast enough," Alvin Jackson, a private consultant contracted by SFWMD to organize the community outreach, told me in an interview yesterday. In all, eight accelerated restoration projects will generate 4,000 jobs opportunities for local workers.

The workforce development program is pushing back on rampant unemployment in rural South Florida, and its becoming a nationally unique model for how public investments in environmental restoration can deliver greater economic opportunity to every day people.

When will leaders in the economically depressed greater Great Lakes region take notice?

Florida Everglades Restoration Generates 4,000 Job Opportunities

Florida officials are accelerating several public works projects to advance restoration of the Everglades, generate as many as 4,000 immediate job opportunities, and strengthen the local economy particularly in the state's rural areas, where unemployment rates can reach as high as 23 percent.

The Everglades Agricultural Area project, for example, a 22 square mile, $480 million reservoir, will take four years and approximately 350 workers to build. And that's just construction workers. The count doesn't include the engineers, designers, scientists, architects, and staff support assembled to build what will be the largest earthen water reservoir in the nation, and perhaps the world.

Same thing with new reservoir in Hendry County: 135 jobs. An impoundment in Broward County: 185 jobs. A canal in Dade County: 110 jobs. The list goes on, all the way to 4,000 job opportunities.

"Our goal is to hire and employ as many people as we can from the 'Glades community," Bob Ainslie, a construction director at Parsons, the firm managing the EAA project, told me in an interview today.

Similiarly, Great Lakes restoration will involve heavy labor along miles of sewer line, riverbanks, and shoreline. And, considering job creation is a top priority across the greater Great Lakes, one wonders when the region's governors, legislators, and economic development official will seize on the plan to restore the Great Lakes as a key component of their economic restructuring plans? So far, the connection hasn't been made.