Rendell Energizes Pennsylvania

In a bid to generate jobs, slash energy costs, protect the environment, and strengthen national security by decreasing America's dependence on foreign oil, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell recently unveiled an ambitious energy agenda targeting conservation and innovation.

"The clean energy sector is one of the fastest growing parts of the U.S. economy and I am determined to put our state in the forefront of this coming economic renaissance," Gov. Rendell said in a recent press statement. "Making strategic investments through the new Energy Independence Fund we will leverage private capital to generate $3.5 billion in new investment and create 13,000 new jobs."

Gov. Rendell is the latest chief elected official in the greater Great Lakes region to spur the region's transition from the Rust Belt to the Blue Belt by embracing a broad-based, modern energy strategy. PA already is home to one of the world's largest solar companies.

A Future With Wind

Harold Titus, superintendent of the Carsonville-Port Sanilac school system in Michigan, recently proposed an intriguing strategic initiative to simultaneously produce electricity, reduce his organization's operating costs, and better prepare students for the knowledge-driven jobs of the new economy.

By erecting wind turbines, Titus suggests his school district can supplement its energy needs and launch an alternative energy curriculum that prepares students with cutting edge science and math skills, according to a recent report in Port Huron's Times Herald.

Titus estimates his proposal could cost as much as $400,000. But it could open a world of opportunity for students in the small Great Lakes town.

"In the long term, the next generation will be doing things with energy that my generation never thought possible," Titus told the Times Herald.

Photo courtesy of Mackinaw Power.

Opposite Michigan

Episode 86 of Seinfeld is titled The Opposite. To summarize the episode, first aired in May 1994, slow-witted George Constanza decides to do the opposite of all his instincts in an effort to turn his dismal life around. Instead of lying all the time, he decides to tell the truth. Instead of doing nothing, he decides to do something.

Elected leaders in Michigan should catch a rerun, because a majority of their actions intended toward good judgement these days seem to be exactly the opposite of what the Great Lakes State needs to do.

The most recent case in point comes courtesy of the state Senate. A growing number of civic leaders argue that MI must ramp up attention to schools, health care, and basic infrastructure like roads and rapid transit to boost competitiveness in the global economy.

So what did the Senate do last week? Propose another round of deep cuts to education, health services, and transportation. That's just the latest example of the state's backward tendencies that are increasingly out of synch with common sense.

The state bets big on biotech as a new economy industry yet bans cutting edge stem cell research. Political dialogue is intensely partisan and divisive instead of cooperative and bipartisan. Widening roads and highways in central cities instead of calming traffic and adding new public transit options. Cutting taxes instead of boosting public investment in people and places. Fearing China as an economic enemy rather than embracing one of the world's largest emerging markets as a lucrative business opportunity and partner. The list goes on and on.

Opposite George suddenly landed a girlfriend, moved out of his parents house, and secured a glitzy job with the New York Yankees.

What can Opposite Michigan achieve?

Clean Energy Venture My Ass

Michigan, along with many of its Great Lakes neighbors, is at a turning point in terms of how it generates and uses energy, as Curt Guyette skillfully brings to light in the latest edition of Detroit's Metro Times.

Either get on with an aggressive pursuit of the fuels of the future - the widely diverse energy sources of the Blue Belt - or remain chained to the power supplies of the past - and risk reinforcing the Rust Belt brand.

Michigan talks a big game about pushing the boundaries of energy innovation, generating clean, green 21st century knowledge jobs, and building a much more modern, sustainable, and fiscally responsible economy powered by wind turbines, solar panels, and other alternatives to polluting fossil fuels.

But, behind the scenes, it's basically business as usual. Consumer's Energy wants to build a new smoke-belching coal-fired power plant in Bay City, MI. DTE plans a new nuclear plant in Monroe City, MI. And the Wolverine Power Cooperative, a consortium of five energy providers, is doing its part to keep the obsolete 20th century energy agenda alive by putting the pieces in place to build its own coal plant in Rogers City, MI.

The Coop has purchased more than 400 acres to construct the plant on the shores of Lake Huron.

In a move widely regarded as the first step towards securing the necessary state permits, Coop leaders presented their so-called Clean Energy Venture to the Michigan House Energy and Technology Committee last February.

They've secured a firm to design and engineer the monument to Industrial Era ideas.

And now they're working to the seal deal on some nearby airport land and erect an air quality monitoring station.

MI Governor Jennifer, who pins the state's furture prosperity in part on its ability to lead the nation in energy innovation, has said little publicly about the Rogers City proposal. But moles in Lansing, the state capitol, say "she enthusiastically supports it" because it means jobs. So does assembling wind turbines, and adapting inefficient buildings with modern energy-smart technology.

Taking the pro-coal stance threatens not only to confirm Gov. Granholms lofty energy ideas as empty rhetoric, but also slow Michigan's much need turn toward modernity and 21st century prosperity.

Legislating, and Educating, for the Future

Few elected leaders in D.C. understand the importance of rigorous math and science training to America's future competitiveness and prosperity better than Rep. Vern Ehlers, a UC Berkeley trained nuclear physicist.

So it's not surprising to see the Republican from Grand Rapids sponsoring a series of bills to boost the standards of math and science education for the nation's young people.

One bill would provide incentives for to encourage stronger math and science training in elementary and secondary schools.

Another bill would bolster marine and freshwater research to control and eradicate invasice species and restore environmental systems.

Yet another bill would more closely assess the progress students are making in their math and science studies.

"Science, technology, engineering and math subjects are directly tied to our national economy and we must do all we can to ensure that all our students are equipped with at least a basic understanding of STEM subjects,” Congressman Ehlers said in a recent press release.

Dr. Ehlers also is a stronger supporter of ramping up public investment in rapid public transit to stem traffic congestion and reduce oil consumption. He's also a leading advocate for restoring unique environmental systems like the Great Lakes.

Did I mention this guy is a Republican, and that he represents one of the more conservative districts in the nation. A review of his impeccable and reasonable record reveals just how far the national conservative movement is off track.

End or Beginning

If the future of Great Lakes society depends in part on reanimating the spirit of industrial innovation, embracing clean energy, and renewed environmental conciousness, then last week was not a good week for the campaign to transform the Rust Belt into the Blue Belt.

A quick news analysis reveals the region as a whole continues to move much too slowly towards deploying the basic infrastructure of a modern economy. Even more troubling, some decision makers seem content on perpetuating the outdated practices of a waning industrial era, rather than shaping a new destiny defined by creativity, determination, growth, and prosperity.

We begin in Kalkaska, MI, where 'Officials Hope to Woo Water Bottlers,' according to a recent headline in the Record Eagle. Apparently the good ole boys in Northern Michigan still think economic development is about attracting companies that mine natural resources from the ground, rather than luring modern businesses and retooling the workforce to generate new ideas for a global knowledge economy.

"A lot of those oil-field boys could kind of cross over. Instead of pumping oil, pump water," said John Wheeler, a local official."

"Is this the 21st century Michigan we want," asked David Holtz of Clean Water Action.

Jumping over to New York, the Hamlin Town Board approved a one-year moratorium on new energy producing wind turbines. "This moratorium will give our committee time to thoroughly discuss the facts without the fear of a developer coming in tomorrow," Supervisor Denny Roach told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Granted, the move buys time to write a responsible wind power policy. But it shouldn't be driven by fear. Wind is increasingly regarded as a no-brainer when it comes to diversifying America's energy portfolio, protecting air quality, and generating modern jobs. The market, not part-time local officials, will determine if Hamlin is a good place to generate wind energy. Government should serve as a catalyst, rather than a barrier, for that private investment.

On to Waukegan, IL, where the effort to restore the harbor, add hundreds of millions of dollars in property value to the tax rolls, and revitalize the community is threatened by Gov. Blagojevich's budget proposal, which cut $4 million in state matching funds for the approx. $36 million project.

The out-of-touch move comes amidst mounting consensus that restoring the Great Lakes and its globally unique tributary waters is one of the most important things the region can do to wave bye-bye to its Rust Belt image, attract talented workers, and compete more effectively in the global economy.

Indeed, rather than illustrating the beginning of a bold new era for the greater Great Lakes, last week more characterized the ineffectual leadership that's slowing the region's return to economic, cultural, and environmental primacy.

Governors, Media Fail Great Lakes

Well, another Great Lakes Day in the nation's capital is in the books. And by most measures the event was a success. With two glaring exceptions:

First, not one Great Lakes governors made it to Washington this past week to join the growing movement of citizens, business leaders, mayors, and Congressional lawmakers in the push for a major investment in Great Lakes restoration. That raises significant questions about the strategy state-level leaders are employing to rebuild the economic and cultural power of the greater Great Lakes region.

The public works project would not only rehab a globally unique aquatic ecosystem. It would also position the region's sinking economy for a return to glory in the 21st century. Still, Pat Quinn, the Lt. Governor of Illinois, was likely the highest ranking state-level official to publicly participate in the proposal's promotion.

Second, the mainstream media coverage of the two-day event, and the reintroduction of federal legislation to launch the Great Lakes cleanup, is bordering on a negligent betrayal of the civic interest. Dave Dempsey, one of the senior statesmen of the region's environmental movement, nails it on the head today when he calls out the Toledo Blade for referring to proponents of Great Lakes restoration as 'vested interests.' "Hadn't realized that clean air and water were vested interests," Dempsey writes. "They seem pretty universal."

Click here to read the Blade coverage.

The Grand Rapids Press took it a step further, running a brief story titled 'Great Lakes Advocates Cry for Help.'

The Battle Creek Enquirer takes a more responsible tact in its op-ed.

These two realities - the governors absence and the media's contempt - mean one thing for restoration supporters: there's a ton of work yet to do to build support for and pass perhaps the most important piece of public policy in the region's history.

[The picture above was taken beside the Buffalo River, in downtown Buffalo, NY]

Congress Opens Round Two on Great Lakes Restoration

For the second time in two years, Great Lakes Congressional leaders today introduced legislation to implement the Strategy to Restore and Protect the Great Lakes. But don't expect the $20 billion proposal to move in 2007. It's all about building momentum for next year, and using the issue to size up candidates in the looming presidential election.

The plan would launch a historic environmental rehab project. It aims to refurbish the Rust Belt image by cleaning up contaminated waterways, eliminating sewage spills, stopping invasive species, rehabing wetlands, and other laudable environmental goals.

But it's much more than a 20th century style environmental remediation effort. It can also serve as a direct response to the region's dismal economic woes. The plan would generate tens of thousands of jobs in the flattened Midwest, accelerate urban revitalization in some of the nation's most decrepit cities, spur innovation and modern industry, and position the greater Great Lakes region to compete and win the global knowledge economy of the 21st century.

Looking at it that way, the $20 billion plan looks less like a big unreasonable government expense and more like a crucial investment that will reap huge returns for a major economic and cultural center of America. That makes Great Lakes restoration an attractive initiative for the herd of civic leaders vying to win competitive states like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin and become the next president of the United States.

"There's a 127 electoral votes in the Great Lakes region," IL Rep. Mark Kirk, a cosponsor of the latest bill, said in today's press conference. "So this is a great issue to raise with every man and woman running for president."

"Every four years a presidential election comes about," said IL Rep. Rahm Emanuel, another cosponsor, "and every four years people start talking about battleground states. The battleground states this time around is the Third Coast in America called the Great Lakes. And if you align your policy with the politics great things can happen."

A Vital Conversation Starter

Here in Washington DC yesterday the Brookings Institution held a legislative briefing on a sweeping strategic agenda to restore the economic, environmental, and cultural strength of the flattened Great Lakes region. The only problem: no lawmakers showed up.

Representatives of the Canadian Consulate were in attendance. Staff from the major research universities like Michigan and Ohio State participated in the discussion. Even the City of Chicago sent an intern.

But only a handful of lawmakers - MI Representatives Tim Wahlberg, Bart Stupak, Vern Ehlers, and John Dingell; WI Rep Steve Kagen; NY Rep Jim Walsh; and Senators Stabenow (MI), Brown (OH), Coleman (MN), and Durbin (IL) - dispatched staff to take notes on a summary of The Vital Center: A Federal State Compact to Renew the Great Lakes.

The report lays out an ambitious, reasoned, and doable agenda to invest in the human potential, central cities, ecological health, and economic might of the greater Great Lakes.

The office of US Congressman Peter Hoekstra, from Holland, MI, is 85 paces from Room 2218 in the Rayburn House Office Building, where Brookings presented the report's recommendations. Still, not one member of the Representative's staff made the short walk down the hall to sit in on the presentation.

Likewise, Indiana Reps Steve Buyer, Mark Souder, and Donald Manzulla; New York Reps Edolphus Towns, Jose Serrano, and Michael McNulty; and Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson also all have offices on the same floor of the building where the briefing was held. But not one engaged the discussion.

The Brookings report reveals the people of the Great Lakes are coming together around a compelling plan to transform the Rust Belt into the Blue Belt. Business leaders are talking with environmentalists. University presidents are talking with mayors. And the governors from the region's individuals states are hitting the same points - jobs, education, innovation, quality of life - in their major speechs.

More and more, civic leaders across the mega-region recognize they share common goals and a unified agenda. Eventually, they'll look for political leadership that's engaged in, and understands, the dynamics of the debate.

Great Lakes Believe It or Not

Michigan is transitioning its policies to compete in the knowledge economy as quickly as any state in the union, and all of the Great Lakes states are steadily moving towards economies based on info tech, innovation, and globalized markets, according to the 2007 State New Economy Index.

But at least one high-ranking Michigan official was skeptical of the results. It seems the news has been so bad, for so long, in the Rust Belt that folks don't recognize - or don't want to believe - a bit of good news when they hear it.

"The ultimate measurement is whether people are coming into Michigan and investing dollars and creating jobs," US Representative Pete Hoekstra, a Republican from Holland, MI, told the Detroit News. "For the report to have any credibility, you would expect that Michigan would start to excel in terms of certain measurements - employment and investment. And we're not seeing either.".

He went on to say that the people he represents are "very, very pessimistic about the future of the state."

But the 2007 State New Economy Index, authored in part by the Kauffman Foundation, gives reason for optimism. To gauge state preparedness for the Digital Age, it measures factors such as the number of entrepreneurs who start companies; the number of new patents issued to inventors; and the number of firms that rank among the fastest growing in the nation. It even considers manufacturing competiteveness.

Frankly, the results for the greater Great Lakes are rather impressive for a region that was all in on the Industrial Revolution and is now scrambling to be more dynamic, global, collaborative, innovative, and adventurous in the 21st century. New York and Minnesota scored #10 and #11, respectively. Both moved up several spots since the release of the last Index in 1999. Michigan made a bigger jump toward an innovation economy than any US state, up 15 spots to #19.

Illinois and Pennsylvania ranked #16 and #21 respectively. And Ohio, Wisconsin, and Indiana came in at #29, #30, and #31.

Some states lost ground within the pack. Colorado, for instance, fell six spots to #9. Arizon dropped out of the top 10 all the way down to #22. But not a single Great Lakes state fell in the rankings. All pushed their way up.

Employment growth and state per capita income - the ultimate measure of economic success - still lag the nation. But the report - if you believe it - reinforces the idea that the Great Lakes Region continues to move from smokestacks to laboratories, and from the Rust Belt to the Blue Belt.