Private Profits, Public Costs

While Democratic leaders in the U.S. House agreed to a national energy strategy that raises taxes on oil companies, at least one Midwest Republican is pushing an amendment to the plan that would eliminate a specific federal tax break for gas producers that pollute America's Great Lakes.

The proposal, spearheaded by Illinois Congressman Mark Kirk, is the latest move to pressure oil giant British Petroleum to rethink its plan to pump increasing amounts of ammonia, solid waste, and possibly mercury into Lake Michigan as part of a $3.8 billion project to expand the company's refinery in Whiting, IN.

It comes as restoration of degraded Great Lakes waters and waterfronts rises as a top economic and environmental priority across the Rust Belt region.

"If BP does not protect Lake Michigan, then Congress should step in and provide protection," Congressman Kirk said. “My amendment to the House energy package will deny capital expense tax credits to any refinery that increases net pollution into the Great Lakes."

Just how much BP stands to gain through the federal tax credit to encourage increased refinery capacity remains unclear. But the company also reportedly received financial support from the State of Indiana to move forward with the Whiting expansion. The Indiana Economic Development Corporation offered BP a significant incentive package last year, according to a September 20, 2006 report by Inside Indiana Business. Those incentives included up to $450,000 in training grants and approximately $1.2 million in tax credits based on job generation and capital investment.

What's more, Indiana Department of Transportation and Indiana Department of Workforce Development offered to provide additional incentives for infrastructure improvements and worker training.

BP reported nearly $7.4 billion in profit for the second quarter of 2007 alone. But the company, which markets itself as a progressive environmental leader, continues to resist calls for reasoned investments in technology and water treatment infrastructure that would clean up its waste water and help protect, rather than steadily degrade, water quality in the nation's largest source of fresh surface water. So the expansion plan, and its proposed pollution, continues to attract national interest, most recently in the New York Times.

Congressman Kirk said, as proposed, the expansion plan raises all sorts of expensive environmental and economic questions for taxpayers. Closing one Lake Michigan beach due to bacteria contamination, for example, can cost local communities anywhere from $7,900 to $37,000 per day, Rep. Kirk's office said.

"If commonsense does not prevail," Rep. Kirk said, "Congress will consider removing federal benefits from any company that plans to increase pollution in the Great Lakes. Taxpayers should block benefits to companies that poison Lake Michigan.”

The New (Water) Economy

Two very different ways of harnessing water to power economic growth gained strength last week in the Great Lakes region - one through a Michigan Supreme Court decision, the other through the refreshing art of entrepreneurship in Wisconsin.

Both ventures see spectacular global market potential. But one approach is fresh and dynamic. The other is tired and played out.

One approach promises to vitalize and transform the regional business model for the knowledge economy. The other maintains a modern day toe hold for the ancient economic development principles of the 19th century.

One approach is about taking risk, making bold decisions, actively shaping a new destiny, and innovating the jobs and companies of the future. The other is about closing your eyes, crossing your fingers and hoping - just hoping - that the good 'ole days will return.

Put simply, one approach is about tomorrow. The other is about yesterday. Which is which? You decide.

Nestle Waters won the right to continue mining, bottling, and selling Michigan's clean fresh ground water when the state Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday, July 25, 2007, that citizens lack the standing to raise basic questions about how the multinational corporation's pumping might affect nearby lakes, streams, and wetlands.

The decision, and the company's ongoing expansion in the Great Lakes State, stregthens the frontier mindset that Michigan's water resources are inexhaustible. This attitude about abundant natural resources led the state’s residents and leaders to promote rampant clearcutting in the Lumber Baron era, which left entire ecosystems and the human communities that came to depend on them in shambles. It also fueled the careless killing that decimated the passenger pigeon and led to the extinction of native game fish such as the grayling. The recipe for these disasters - insatiable demand and careless exploitation - was the same then as the current trend in global water markets.

Global consumption of water is doubling every 20 years, more than twice the rate of human population growth. According to the United Nations, more than one billion people already lack an adequate supply of fresh drinking water. And an estimated three billion people will be living in water-stressed countries in 2035, according to research by the World Bank.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin - which kicked Nestle out several years ago - is now taking a dramatically different approach to confront the situation. Business leaders in Milwaukee recently held a conference to call attention to the growing global market for new technologies that cleanup, conserve, and sustain increasingly scarce fresh water supplies. Their overarching goal is to leverage new policies, research efforts, and venture capitol to grow water-based businesses and help the state economy accelerate its transition from the Industrial Era to the Digital Age.

"There are companies that haven't started yet, and we don't even know them yet, but they will be successful," said Paul Jones, CEO of A.O Smith, which manufacturers water heaters. "They have to start somewhere. Why not here?"

The greater Great Lakes region can certainly support a vibrant water bottling industry under the appropriate rules and regulation. But the recent activity in Wisconsin confirms there's a spectrum of water-related businesses coming online in the 21st century, from the water miners to the water savers. The challenge for Great Lakes society is to determine which industries are sustainable and add the most value to a modern day development strategy. The next move is to align the related state policies and economic development incentives accordingly.

Indiana Clings Tight to Rust Belt Ways

The economic benefits of expanding British Petroleum's refinery on the southern shore of Lake Michigan include thousands of jobs - most of them temporary construction work - and more gas.

But the dramatic environmental costs of the increasingly controversial proposal continue to be exposed. And with each breaking story the proposed project falls further and further out of alignment with any reasoned agenda to promote a 21st century development strategy for the greater Great Lakes region.

After breaking the story that the State of Indiana relaxed discharge regulations on ammonia and solid waste for the company's expansion plans in Whiting, the Chicago Tribune now reports state officials also intend to exempt the global oil company from rules to limit mercury protection. (This at a time when fish in a majority of the lakes across the region come with consumption advisories due to decades of heavy mercury pollution).

There's a consensus emerging across the region that clean, healthy waterways are essential to promote a high quality life, attract and retain young workers, and compete in the knowledge economy. So restoration of the Great Lakes, not gradual and ongoing degradation, is the new goal.

That's why activists are circulating petitions against BP's proposal.

That's why Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich called on Indiana to reconsider its decision.

That's why the United States House of Representatives, in a 387-26 vote, called on Indiana to reconsider its position.

And that's also why a broad, bipartisan, and growing coalition of Great Lakes lawmakers are showing up on beaches, the nightly news, and You Tube to push back against the proposal and promote a more sustainable business model.

"British Petroleum has plenty of money to spend to do this right," Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin says in the above You Tube post. "In the last three years this oil company has had profits of $60 billion. They've got enough money to put the wastewater treatment plant in place to make sure that this lake is protected."

Meanwhile, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels finally broke his silence on the matter only to say that his state will stick to its guns. The refinery expansion means jobs and cheap gas, he said, and Indiana will stand by its decision to allow the BP refinery to increase pollution because it complies with state law.

And therein lies the central challenge. BP's expansion plan and the stunning disregard for environmental cleanliness on the part of state and federal regulators certainly are troubling. But the real source of the problem is Indiana's outdated water law and, according to higly respected environmentalist Lee Botts, the public's overall lack of interest in changing it.

Transit Time in Michigan

After a parade of young white guys testified about the urgent need for modern public transit in Michigan cities, one middle-aged white guy joined the cause.

"Transit in Michigan has found its time," said state Representative Tom Pearce, a Republican from suburban Grand Rapids, at the July 25 meeting of the House Public Transit Subcommittee in Lansing. "There was a time when we were the auto capitol of the world. But we've come to a point where the costs of gas, insurance, car maintenance, environmental concerns, the inability to get people to work....all these things are coming together. It's in our best interests to get more serious about public transit."

The statement is important because, as cities across the nation invest in modern mass transit to boost competitiveness in the knowledge economy, elected officials in Michigan continue to stick to the 1950's roads-only transportation approach.

But Rep. Pearce's comments illustrate that even conservative policymakers are beginning to see not only the flaws in that narrow investment agenda but also the strategic value in expanding mobility options like busses, street cars, and light rail.

His comments came after months of public testimony before the House Public Transit Subcommittee delivered a strikingly consistent message: public transit is key to propel modern economic growth. Not surprisingly, the messengers more and more are coming from the educated and creative crowd of 20- and 30-year olds who have experienced vibrant cities like Chicago, San Francisco, and Denver but have chosen to make their home in the Great Lakes State. Here are some excerpts of recent testimony before the subcommittee:

Eric Tungate, the 30-something director of economic development for the City of Hamtramck, testified on July 25, 2007:

"Life has been reduced to a simple equation," he said. " No car equals no work and no play."

"Transit is the single most important aspect of improving our economy in metro Detroit," Mr. Tungate added. "An effective mass transit system is one of the tools we can use to get back the college graduates we have been losing for the last 30 years to Chicago, New York, and Boston."

Conan Smith, 35, and Luke Forrest, 29, both of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance, testified on June 27, 2007:

"Public investments in transit are direct infusions to regional economies by creating jobs and reducing travel costs," they said. "More importantly, transit spending catalyzes additional investment, both public and private."

Even yours truly, the 32-year-old Great Lakes Guy, was invited to testify yesterday by state Rep. Marie Donigan, the Democrat from Royal Oak, MI who chairs the subcommittee. Here's my opening statement:

"Serious investment in modern mass transit is no longer an option for Michigan and its cities. A number of people in our state still view mass transit projects as these wild experiments using unproven machinery that threaten to bust government budgets, crash private property values, and interfere with auto dependence. But the reality is that thoughtful planning for and investment in modern public transit is both a path to, and a requirement for, strengthening Michigan's competitiveness for the 21st century."

You Tube. You Decide. Round 1.

In a sign of the times, the Democratic candidates fielded questions from YouTube Nation live last night on CNN. The event was entertaining and thought provoking and two candidates stood out with basic elements of a reasoned 21st century agenda - both wrapped around energy innovation - that could help reverse the decades of decline in the Rust Belt.

Interestingly, the candidates both hailed from Great Lakes states and their specific responses referenced above were prompted by questioners located in Great Lakes states.

Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio became perhaps the first candidate to use the term 'sustainability' in the 2008 campaign. In response to a question about climate change - posed by Greg in Minneapolis - Rep. Kucinich said America needs to move away from reliance on coal and oil and move more aggressively toward wind, solar, and other alternatives.

"That's the basis of my Works Green Administration," the congressman said, "Where we take a new approach to organize the entire country around sustainability and conservation."

New York Senator Hillary Clinton struck a similiar theme with one of the more provocative comments delivered during the event. In response to a question about the possibility of expanding nuclear power to combat climate change - posed by Shawn in Ann Arbor, Michigan - Senator Clinton said alternative energy sources, fuel efficiency for cars, and energy efficiency for buildings all are important strategies for America's energy agenda.

But the bottomline, she said, is that the nation needs to get back to basics.

"It's time we start acting like Americans again," Sen. Clinton said. "We can solve these problems if we focus on innovation and technology."

"This issue of energy and global warming has the promise of creating millions of new jobs in America. So it can be a win-win if we do it right," she added.

Overall, the Democratic candidates failed to articulate a comprehensive agenda to reinvigorate the greater Great Lakes region. There was far too few ideas about revitalizing urban areas, investing in mass transit, reestablishing the national commitment to higher education, or restoring the globally unique environmental assets of the Great Lakes ecosystem.

What's at stake is key swing states like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. And the Republican candidates confront You Tube Nation on September 17, 2007.

Prayer Time for the Great Lakes

Despite a desert landscape, limited water supplies, and the fastest population growth rate in the nation, Arizona is not looking to tap Great Lakes water as the region's environmentalists and elected officials fear, Governor Janet Napolitano declared at a press conference in Northern Michigan over the weekend.

But that doesn't mean Great Lakes leaders can relax efforts to improve water resource stewardship. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

Governor Napolitano's words actually should motivate the region's policy makers, industry leaders, and activists to raise the level of debate and accelerate efforts to establish a future-oriented water policy for the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world. The region's competitiveness depends on it.

You see, Arizona has launched a comprehensive economic development plan to invest in water-tech innovation, tap the increasingly lucrative water conservation business, and generate thousands of jobs in addition to sustainable supplies of fresh water.

Gov. Napolitano is paying attention to Colorado River water. But instead of building pipes and pumps to divert vast amounts of H2O from neighboring states and regions, the Grand Canyon State is also focused on a strategy - with clear goals, specific objectives, and startup funding - to cultivate new ideas that advance the science of resource management, commercialize cutting-edge water friendly equipment, and deploy the new technology not only in Arizona but around the world.

Beyond securing water supplies for local growth, the overarching goal is to attract high-tech companies, generate good paying jobs, lure talented workers, and boost competitiveness in the knowledge economy.

"The advantage we have as a desert state is that we have always managed water," Gov. Napolitano said at the press conference in Traverse City to kickoff the annual meeting of the National Governors Association.

"Where innovation is concerned," Gov. Napolitano added, "we're looking at new ways of conservation and new technologies that can be employed so that, even as our population grows, we are able to manage our water accordingly. And that does not mean taking it from the Great Lakes."

"Amen sister," replied Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, reminding Midwest citizens to say a prayer for a similiarly visionary strategy to leverage the Great Lakes water assets and expertise to drive growth. The region's leaders rarely, if ever, use the words 'innovate' and 'Great Lakes' or 'water' in the same sentence. For many of them, the intersection of Great Lakes policy and economic development policy is defined narrowly as tourism or sport fishing.

Meanwhile, states like Arizona demonstrate how economic competitiveness in the 21st century can be shaped by researching, developing, and deploying new ideas as opposed to the 20th century model of extracting and exploiting natural resources.

At least as far as water is concerned, that way of thinking remains slow to catch on in the Great Lakes Basin, where the bottled water industry is rapidly expanding and activists, policy makers, and media focus almost exclusively on protectionist treaties while ignoring the potential for world-changing ideas, products, and services that propel more globally sustainable water use.

IN Gov. Mitch Daniels MIA on BP

Seemingly everyone with a pulse has something to say about the State of Indiana's questionable decision to permit BP to dump some 1,500 pounds of ammonia and nearly 5,000 pounds of solid waste every day into Lake Michigan.

Everyone, that is, except Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Five days after the Chicago Tribune blew the story wide open the governor has yet to respond. Meanwhile, a growing coalition of Great Lakes leaders are trying to understand how the region balances its economic and environmental goals.

State Representative Scott Pelath, a Democrat from Michigan City in Northeast Indiana, yesterday called for an investigation into the decision to allow the dramatic increase in water pollution.

US Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, fired one letter off to BP CEO Tony Hayward urging the company to reconsider its risky position; and another letter off to Ben Grumbles, a top water cop at the US Environmental Protection Agency, asking a lengthy list of questions, such as, what is the cumulative environmental effect of dumping an additional 578,160 pounds per year of ammonia into the Big Lake?

Sen. Durbin, in fact, is part of a large bipartisan group of federal elected officials that have joined forces to urge federal regulators to block the state permit.

"We need to embarrass the BP leadership to do the right thing," said US Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois. "In my book, BP, which tries to market itself as an environmentally friendly company, now stands for 'Bad Pollution.'"

The City of Chicago, led by Mayor Richard Daley, one of the more vocal advocates for boosting Great Lakes stewardship, has hired a consultant to review the whole deal.

And scientists, mayors, and windsurfers as far away as Grand Rapids, MI are speaking out on the issue.

But not Gov. Mitch Daniels. As the controversy swirls, the governor has yet to issue a public statement. And apparently he's said very little on the matter since September 2006, when he praised the $3+ billion project for generating 2,500 temporary construction jobs and 80 permament jobs.

“We appreciate BP’s choice of Indiana for this massive, landmark project," the governor said. "In capital investment this is the largest we’ve had, and more construction workers will be hired for this project than to build the new Indiana Stadium and Convention Center.”

“The eyes of the whole state are on Northwest Indiana, as they should be" he added. "This marks another huge step in Indiana’s economic comeback.”

Indeed, the eyes of the entire greater Great Lakes region are now on Indiana. And Indiana is speechless.

Proof Positive in Muskegon, MI

Been tearing through this computer in search of those two-year-old pictures of Muskegon's black barrels since last Friday, when I took on the city's troubling and sluggish waterfront redevelopment effort.

Well, I finally found the photo. Hopefully this scene doesn't become an annual feature at Great Lakes Guy.

TC Thinks Big, MI Goes Fishing

Traverse City, Michigan's new waterfront redevelopment plan contains some truly visionary ideas. Establishing a new lakefront 'town square' with plenty of open space for festivals, concerts, and lounging. Expanding the marina, volley ball courts, public art scenes, and beaches. And burying the 4-lane Grandview Parkway below grade to reconnect the central business district with the beautiful shores of Grand Traverse Bay.

Indeed, like Chicago, Cleveland, and other Great Lakes cities, Traverse City's new plan recommends serious investment in paradigm-shifting projects to maximize the value of the waterfront, elevate the quality of the place for residents and tourists, and strengthen competitiveness in the global knowledge economy.

So what's the first thing a State of Michigan employee seizes on when asked to react to this bold new vision for the city's future? Fish cleaning stations. That's right. Fish cleaning stations.

"Ports that have these fish-cleaning stations are really popular,” Todd Kalish, a representative of the state Dept. of Natural Resources told the Traverse City Record Eagle. "If you don't have an adequate place to clean them you have to take them home and clean them on your kitchen table."

Don't get me wrong. Fish cleaning stations can be an important waterfront amenity, particularly in places like Northern Michigan where fishing is a boon to the local spirit and economy.

But it's pretty low hanging fruit. The redevelopment bar must be much higher if waterfront cities want to take full advantage of their unique assets. That's especially true for state leaders who control significant spending decisions that often times determine whether local communities like Traverse City realize the full potential of their grand plans.

Kalish, by the way, reportedly was quick to point out that his agency lacked the funding for the fish huts. And that points to the larger pressing problem for state government in Michigan today.

State leaders are so caught up in partisan bickering, budget fights, and ideology they can't even dress up one of the state's more popular summer hot spots with a table and a garbage can for fish guts.

Nevermind prioritizing a strategy to safeguard, enhance, and leverage the state's most valuable natural asset: the Great Lakes

Generating Green Power, and Jobs, in Ohio

Ohio could generate some 2.2 million new jobs and stimulate an estimated $220 billion in economic activity by 2030 if government made an aggressive push to promote energy innovation, economist Roger Bedzek reports in a study highlighted last week in Cleveland.

The study, presented at the American Solar Energy Society's annual meeting, also provides the clearest analysis yet of how many jobs linked to renewable energy and energy efficient equipment currently exist in Ohio.

The green power sector already directly employs more than 208,000 people in the state of Ohio designing wind turbines, for example, or brewing ethanol. Another 503,000 in the state are indirectly employed manufacturing energy efficient products such as insulation, cars, and household appliances. In total, Bedzek's report reveals that the industry accounts for $50.9 billion in economic activity statewide.

Those are encouraging statistics for a state that has shed some 233,000 manufacturing jobs in the past 10 years. And progressive civic leaders in Ohio hope the report motivates the state Legislature to finally adopt a Renewable Portfolio Standard, a regulatory policy that requires increased energy production from wind, solar, and other renewable sources.

To date, five Great Lakes states - Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania - have adopted an RPS or other voluntary goals to boost renewable power generation. Twenty-four states across the country currently have adopted RPS policies, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

But Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio have yet to formalize specific goals for deploying alternative energy. And forget for a moment curbing climate change and fighting terrorism with a smarter energy policy. Bedzek says the lack of leadership and inaction puts at risk Ohio's ability to generate jobs, stimulate high tech industries, and compete successfully in the global knowledge economy.

“Energy efficiency and renewable energy is a realistic target for job creation in Ohio,” says Roger Bezdek, president of the research firm Management Information Services. “They include many jobs that require associate’s degrees, on-the-job training, or trade certifications and which pay high wages.”

Observations in Muskegon, MI

The little green stickers that dot this menacing pile of black barrels, which sits on an empty lot 100 yards from the edge of Muskegon Lake, declare "Non Hazardous Waste." Still the stockpile represents the challenge confronting the City of Muskegon's cleanup and urban revitalization project.

Not only is the effort progressing far too slowly - the photo at right was taken last night, but I took pictures of similiar black barrels in this exact spot approximately two years ago - there are also numerous signs to suggest that the redevelopment and reinvestment that's now underway will struggle to yield a truly vital waterfront city in the near future.

To be certain, Muskegon has made some bold moves. Community leaders demolished an out-of-place indoor shopping mall and are now rebuilding some 23 acres of the central city from scratch. They've installed innovative traffic circles to help ease the flow of traffic and promote pedestrian activity when the new downtown is complete. And, like numerous Great Lakes cities, they've recognized the unique value of their waterfront and begun to reclaim it for new businesses, housing, and public use.

But the overall style, character, and organization of the new development that's taking shape on the grounds of the city's largest lakefront project - Edison Landing - struggles, at least so far, to compliment, leverage, or enhance the beauty of Muskegon Lake. What's at stake is nothing less than the strength of the city's long-term prosperity and sustainability.

Perhaps most notable, there's more land area dedicated to parking lots than there is to office or retail space combined. In fact, nearly 43 percent of the total developable land appears to be reserved for car storage. That's a sure-fire way to suck the energy and attractiveness right out of the entire area.

The project is low-density for urban redevelopment and half-hearted mixed use, with homes, businesses, and institutions close but still separated. There's no apparent attention to permanent mass transit. And the law offices of Parmenter O'Toole, one of the shiny new outposts of the development, basically recreates the 20th century problem of buildings and cities turning their backs to the waterfront. In short, the area at this early stage in the project feels like developers are transplanting a suburban office park into an aspiring urban area.

There are a few signs of the new kinds of forms and investments needed to boost ecological health, social well being, and economic competitiveness in the 21st century. Two institutions that now anchor the lakefront - the Annis Water Resources Institute and the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center, both of Grand Valley State University - represent the hubs of higher learning necessary to churn out top talent, develop new ideas, and compete in a knowledge economy.

The immediate lakefront area is reserved for a solid pedestrian walkway, recognizing that waterfronts are most valuable when people are attracted to and using them. And the handful of condos that have been built, while only two levels tall, are full of windows, complete with slick walk out decks, and water facing.

Overall, Muskegon's long and expensive journey of redevelopment is underway, albeit slowly and with some cause for concern. But if the waterfront is a key asset on which the city hopes to build, they can start today by cleaning up those black barrels, as well as the nearby piles of cement blocks, rotting telephone poles, tree limbs, and old docks.

This is a Great Lakes waterfront. Not the dump.

Living Roofs and Wages

John Scholten says business is booming at LiveRoof, a new division of Hortech nursery that specializes in designing, growing, and delivering the innovative plugs of mature plants required to build modern green roofs.

The company, which is based in Spring Lake, MI, just minutes east of Lake Michigan, illustrates the kinds of entrepreneurs and business opportunities the Great Lakes region could cultivate by formalizing green building practices and incentives in state and local ordinances and investing more heavily in environmental protection and restoration.

"They were originally hiring one sales specialist to get this thing up and runnning," Scholten told me today. "But three people applied for the position and they ended up hiring all three."

"It turned out to be the right move," Scholten added. "If it was just me I'd be fried."

It's no surprise business is brisk. The idea of selling a better green roof comes as progressive leaders around the world search for smarter ways to manage rising energy, construction, and building maintenance costs, protect air and water quality, and promote sustainable development in their communities.

Green roofs can reduce heating and cooling expenses, improve storm water management, help filter pollution, and decrease maintenance and roof replacement costs, according to Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, a nonprofit industry association working to promote the vegetated roof concept throughout North America. The group also says green roofs can help minimize greenhouse gases as well as increase worker productivity and decrease health care costs as employees benefit from exposure to the natural environment. What's more, installing green roofs helps to create jobs for a variety of suppliers and manufacturers, contractors and landscapers, and nurseries like Hortech.

John Scholten is proof of that. The idea for his eventual position and the LifeRoof venture was first planted when Ford Motor Company approached Hortech, a respected grower of ground cover, particularly low maintenance drought resistant plantings, about growing some 250,000 plants for what, at the time, was one of the largest green roofs in the world to be built atop the company's River Rouge facility.

The roof, so far, has proven a resounding success. (It's attracting ecotourists to an automobile assembly plant in Detroit.) And it wasn't long before Chicago was calling for help on a similiar project.

Long story short, Hortech recognized early on the emergence of a promising niche market and the opportunity to lead it. So they've innovated what the company refers to as the "first prevegetated modular green roof system developed by growers and specifically designed to grow plants on a rooftop environment." That's a fancy way of saying they came up with a way to grow sizeable chunks of plants at a nursery and deliver them to the construction site ready to install. Piece 'em together and, presto, green roof.

Despite the lack of public policies to take advantage of many the economic and enviromental benefits of green roofs, Hortech sees rapidly rising demand for the technology and they're positioning to tap what could be a highly lucrative industry.

"We just bought another 30 acres," Scholten said. "And we've got an option on 60 more."

Willkommen. But What About D.C.

Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm announced yesterday she'll travel to Sweden and Germany later this summer on a mission to bring jobs and investment back to the dispirited Great Lakes State.

Certainly these sorts of foreign trade trips can lure some employment opportunities and raise Michigan's profile as an active player in the global marketplace. But if Gov. Granholm seriously aims "to go anywhere and do anything" to jumpstart Michigan's economy, she should immediately book a flight to Washington D.C.

Federal legislation is languishing there that, if passed, could immediately generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, program billions in public spending for much needed infrastructure projects, overhaul the region's Rust Belt image, and ultimately position the upper Midwest to compete in the 21st century.

I know, I know: everybody in Michigan has an opinion on where Gov. Granholm, a Democrat, should go these days.

Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis says, "if the governor wants to go on a ‘real’ jobs mission, she should travel to other [U.S.] states to convince the hundreds of companies that have left Michigan on her watch to come back."

Detroit News Columnist Daniel Howes says Granholm should head to China and tap money in what he calls the "biggest new frontier in the global auto industry."

Gov. Granholm says previous trips to Germany and Japan have returned more than $302 million and 2,300 new jobs to Michigan. Every bit of that is important for a state struggling with one of the nation's highest rates of unemployment.

But those stats represent a small return compared to what Michigan could gain from passage of the proposed Great Lakes restoration legislation stalled in Congress. The $20 billion proposal would have a direct, deep, and lasting effect on the state and region's dismal economic situation.

The proposed $7.5 billion or so in proposed federal funding alone could establish some 350,000 short-term construction jobs. The public works project would also accelerate urban revitalization by luring private investment to reclaimed river- and water-fronts; enhance a globally unique quality of life that's essential to attracting top flight talent; and spur new industries in water technology and stewardship, a booming $300 billion global business.

The vast majority of Great Lakes and national leaders, however, view the proposal simply as a one dimensional, big government, environmental cleanup effort supported by tree huggers, recreational boaters, and fishing enthusiasts. They don't view it as an essential component of a modern development strategy that will return measurable fiscal results. So it's failed to gain much traction since its introduction in December 2005.

If Gov. Granholm truly wants to position Michigan strategically for prosperity in the Digital Age, she should add D.C. to her travel schedule, and officially introduce the economic case for restoring the Great Lakes.

Trains, Not Truck Stops, Drive Competitiveness

Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist took to the pages of the Chicago Sun Times yesterday with an editorial missive arguing that the White City's competitiveness - and perhaps its Olympic bid - is at risk because Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and the state Legislature aren't investing aggressively enough in public transit.

Mayor Norquist makes a brief but compelling case that global cities like New York, Shanghai, London, and Dubai are on track to outpace Chicago in the race to provide convenient modern mobility options, erase urban blight, lure the top talent, and connect them effortlessly to jobs.

If the mayor's words come as a wake up call to Chicago, they're a punch in the gut to the rest of the greater Great Lakes region.

Forget, for a moment, midsized cities like Grand Rapids and Madison, although that's where much of the innovation and progressive thought is brewing. Larger hubs like Cleveland, Buffalo, and even Lundquists' Milwaukee have only begun to provide the most basic levels of mass transit service. And Detroit, the alleged epicenter of mobility technology, has yet to even lay its first mile of track for light rail or streetcar.

If Chicago is in trouble with a transit system second only to New York and unrivaled in the Midwest, as the mayor suggests, what does that mean for the dozens of communities in the region who still wrongly believe, at some fundamental level, that mass transit costs too much and won't work?

How can they realistically expect to compete with the Salt Lakes, Denvers, and Portlands of the world who have built, and already begun to expand, alternatives to autos, highways, and parking lots.

To be certain, the greater Great Lakes region's future economic, environmental, and social wellbeing depends a great deal on a spectacular shift in thinking about how we move people around. And by most accounts that shift is far too slow in coming. Even, apparently, in seemingly pro-transit places like Chicago.

"Instead of positioning Chicago to compete with London, New York and Tokyo in ensuring efficient, predictable transportation to and from its employment core," Mayor Lundquist wrote, "the state seems more interested in competing with Detroit to see which region makes a better truck stop."

"Imagine fast and on-time service on all the L and commuter lines," he added. "Imagine the Circle Route speeding up north-south travel and new Amtrak routes to Rockford and Peoria, strengthening inter-city economic linkages. Imagine high-speed rail to all the major cities of the Midwest. The yields on these investments are a state and region that are more attractive to people and commerce."

Mayors Prepare To Pitch Conservation

In a bid to strengthen their standing as the most vocal champions of innovative strategies to sustain the Great Lakes, mayors representing cities from across the Upper Midwest will use their annual conference in Grand Rapids, MI later this week to make "a major announcement" about water conservation and the importance of maintaining the quality and quantity of the region's increasingly valuable fresh water supply.

One source familiar with the the announcement, which is scheduled for a lunch time press conference this Thursday, said it will be based on the Water Conservation Framework, a voluntary program organized by the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Cities Initiative to reduce water use in the region's urban areas. Under the program, cities set conservation goals and work to reduce their water use 15 percent below 2000 consumption levels by 2015.

Nearly 30 Great Lakes cities and towns - including Chicago, Toronto, and Grand Rapids - already have embraced the program. One reason is environmental: just one percent of the total water in the Great Lakes supply is renewed each year, demand is rising regionally and globally, and there's growing awareness that robust water supplies are essential to the region's distinct ecology and quality of life.

But another reason for the push is economic. Tight budgets also have progressive local officials thinking differently about water supply planning. As the costs of maintaining public water and sewer service escalate, astute leaders have begun to shift the focus away from an exclusive reliance on building more pumping plants and larger water mains and toward making existing systems more water-efficient.

The strategy helps smart municipalities reduce costs, support innovation, delay or even avoid capital projects, and maintain the vigor of natural water supplies. Consider the following:

  • Beginning in the late 1980s, the Delaware River Basin Commission in New Jersey pursued an aggressive, comprehensive water conservation program. Based on water metering, leak detection and repair, and more efficient plumbing fixtures, the program lowered per capita water use by as much as 15 percent. The commission estimates that the water savings from low-flow toilets alone avoided $300-$500 million for new water supply and wastewater treatment facilities.
  • Santa Monica’s Baysaver Plumbing Fixture Rebate Program, started in 1989, reduced water use by 15 percent and cut sewage flows by 16 percent. The program saved the city $6 million in about ten years; local officials estimate a $2 return for every dollar invested in the program.
  • Leak repairs and water-saving fixtures installed at a 60-unit low-income housing development in Houston slashed water consumption by 72 percent. The $22,000 project cut the complex’s monthly water and wastewater bills by about 80 percent, paid for itself in little more than three months, and will permanently save the development $6,800 a month in water and sewage bills.
  • From 1980 to the mid 1990s, the number of Seattle Water Department customers grew by 20 percent. But metro area water needs essentially remained unchanged. With a modern plumbing code, rates designed to encourage conservation, and other programs, Seattle saved approximately 14 million gallons of water per day through the 1990s, and will save 21 million gallons more per day this year.

There are similarly significant opportunities throughout the Great Lakes. For example, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department hemorrhages $23 million and 35 billion gallons of treated drinking water each year due to aging and leaking infrastructure, according to a July 2002 report in The Detroit News.

Metro Grand Rapids leaks some 2 billion gallons of water per year at a cost of approximately $3 million, according to a recent report in the Grand Rapids Press.

Ironically, Great Lakes residents fear that it's the parched people of distant lands like Arizona, California, and Asia who want to build gigantic pipelines or send tankers and siphon off the Great Lakes. But, plainly, the most immediate challenge facing the region’s waters is much closer to home.

Instead of scrutinizing and managing current demand, basin communities reflexively tend to rely solely on finding new sources of water, adding more pumps, constructing ever-larger pipes and purification stations, and withdrawing ever more water.

That old way of thinking, in part, is likely why Highland Township near Detroit decided to drill two new supply wells; why the suburb of New Berlin continues to pester Milwaukee for more water; why some local officials want to punch a new pipeline through the globally unique Saugatuck Dunes; and it's the principal reason why more visionary Great Lakes leaders continue to push for a common set of standards to guide future water use decisions.

Whatever they say this Thursday, the mayors announcement will almost certainly aim to push back on the prevailing attitudes, call attention to the costs of profligate water use, and promote a more sustainable approach.

“We need to do more to conserve water and use it efficiently,” said Toronto Mayor David Miller. “As mayors we need to encourage cities and towns to develop initiatives such as those in Chicago and Toronto that promote water conservation.”

Let Freedom Ring

Taking a few days off to celebrate our nation's independence. Back next week. And remember, in the words of former President Bill Clinton, "There is nothing wrong in America that can't be fixed with what is right in America."