Fans of the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, or Detroit Tigers were happy to see Brad Radke retire prematurely in 2006. But now there's a new Radke on the scene. His name is Roger Radke. He's the president and CEO of Siemens Water Technology. And he recently gave business leaders in Milwaukee a big morale boost when he said "Wisconsin easily is the most important state for us in the U.S."
Water Tech, like renewable energy, is a multi billion dollar global business growing faster than many markets on the planet. And the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a smart feature on the significance of Mr. Radke's statement to the Milwaukee region.
But it's the final two sentences of that article that should capture the undivided attention of entrepreneurs, politicians, economic development officials, and the blue-, white-, and green-collar workers across the greater Great Lakes region
"Asked if the global water industry has its own Silicon Valley yet, Radke said he doesn't know of any. That title, he said, remains up for grabs."
The power of that statement alone should immediately elevate water tech as one of the biggest economic opportunities for cities, states, and the region in this century. But so far Cleveland appears to be the only one paying attention. Clearly now is the time to step up to the plate.
But if the Milwaukee suburb was really serious about using less water there's a case to be made that the community could likely delay or possibly even avoid the expense of extending a new pipeline to Lake Michigan.
More effective plumbing fixtures, leak detection and repair, and water metering are some of the strategies that cities like Seattle and Santa Monica have employed to keep water demand essentially unchanged even as the population grows. The moves also helped reduce municipal costs, support innovation, and maintain the vigor of natural supplies.
Yet, even as it debates a promising water-saving fee schedule, New Berlin illustrates the reflex in the greater Great Lakes region is to continually find new sources, add more pumps, construct ever-larger pipelines, and withdraw ever more water.
And, across the region, transportation officials show signs of resisting ideas that work toward improving access for pedestrians and bikers, integrating mass transit options, and enhancing urban character.
What's at stake is the sustainability of Great Lakes cities and their ability to boost economic competitiveness, safeguard ecological assets like clean air, and promote social equity for a diverse citizenship with a variety of needs.
The latest example comes from Cleveland, where city leaders and residents have a plan to transform the West Shoreway from a high-speed highway into a 35 mph tree-lined street that reconnects C-town with the Lake Erie waterfront, one of its more important assets in the race to attract top talent and compete in the 21st century. But state transportation officials recently threw the whole project into limbo claiming 1) it costs too much and 2) interferes with the flow of auto traffic.
Cut to Grand Rapids, MI, where the state department of transportation is, bridge by bridge, lane by lane, and year by year, steadily executing a complete reconstruction of the I196 expressway which divides a revitalizing neighborhood from a growing biotech business hub in the heart of downtown.
Residents advocate the project must comply with the city's new master plan, and return basic urban assets like human-scale lighting, wide sidewalks, and bike lanes on over- and underpasses. But, at a public meeting Thursday January 24, state officials repeatedly lamented limited funding to design and construct a superior roadway.
And, around Lake Michigan in Milwaukee, residents and city leaders there continue to argue for a public transit commuter rail line as part of a $1.9 billion rebuild of I94. But guess what? State officials say that there's no money to do it.
Money is not the issue. The Cleveland project is estimated at $65 million. The Grand Rapids project was pegged at $375 million in 2005. The cost will most certainly escalate as the construction timeline pushes past 2012. The Milwaukee project is slated to cost $1.9 billion.
So money is available. The issue is the outdated pattern that guides the spending. Wider highways have priority over more diversified investment in a variety of transportation options. Pedestrians and bikers take a back seat to the automobile. Chain link fencing and 30-foot concrete walls take precedence over urban views and vibrancy.
From Ohio to Michigan to Wisconsin, these three road battles confirm state government is following a profoundly misguided 20th century investment strategy that, in the long run, hampers the region's ability to rebuild its cities and transition from the Industrial Era to the Digital Age. And we're all paying for it.
Check out this sampling - and it is just a sample - of recent headlines:
Cleveland, Windy City?
Cuyahoga County Approves $1 Million to Study Wind Turbine Project
Getting U.S. Back on the Wind Power Track
Ohio's Energy Goals
Study Finds Strong Winds Off Lake Erie
"We just want our jobs," Mr. Bartlett said [emphasis added]. "If they said they would quit outsourcing that would put us at ease. We haven't heard that from anybody."
Buck up Michigan.
Bottom line: all of the candidates failed to articulate an urgent yet practical agenda for investing in people, stirring innovation, rebuilding cities and schools, and restoring the environment. That's what America's heartland needs to kick this Rust Belt funk.
The results in the Great Lakes State keep Democrat Hillary Clinton's candidacy in limbo. With half of the polls reporting at this hour, Sen. Clinton's support hovers around 50 percent. But, interestingly, 39 percent of Democrats cast 'uncommitted' votes. Who are they waiting for? Barack Obama or John Edwards, neither of whom put their names on the ballot this go around? Maybe Al Gore? Michael Bloomberg?
The Michigan vote also thrusts Mitt Romney forward as the latest Republican frontrunner. Saul Anuzis, chairman of Michigan's Republican Party, is on the national airwaves saying the impending victory is due, in part, to strong turnout among conservative voters. Yet Romney's support appears soft here in the West Michigan region, the state's conservative seat, where I'm tuned into the returns.
Gov. Romney was born in the Great Lakes State. His father was governor. And he got off a campaign line that no doubt appeals to Michiganders when he said, "Washington politicians look at Michigan and see a rust belt. But the real rust is in Washington."
But, like tens of thousands of others, he left the state for a bright career somewhere else. Now he's come back claiming to be the answer. And he's pulling just 39 percent of the vote.
On the Republican side, voters also gravitated toward John McCain and Mike Huckabee, both of whom talked more passionately, genuinely, and realistically about rebuilding the economy and what the nation needs to do abroad, according to some exit polling.
On to Nevada and South Carolina....................
But that didn't stop the Republican presidential candidates from delivering a message of hope and optimism as they stump for primary votes in the Great Lakes State. What all the campaigns seemed to lack, however, was a targeted agenda of action items designed to get the state back on track.
Michigan native Mitt Romney, in what many pundits call a must-win situation, said "the nation needs Michigan to succeed. Because if Michigan can't make it, then America's got real challenges down the road."
But it was Senator John McCain and Governor Mike Huckabee who seemed to rhetorically rise above Michigan's temporary economic hardship most sincerely and effectively with an appeal to the state's greatness.
Gov. Huckabee said America has a duty to help Michigan regain its footing.
"There was a time in this country when Michigan was the centerpiece, the heartland, of what Franklin Roosevelt called the 'Arsenal Democracy' where, it wasn't just about building cars," Gov. Huckabee said. "It was about building the capacity to defend this nation. Had it not been for Michigan, we would not have won World War Two because it was out of the manufacturing mindset that was headquartered here that we understood how to build our tanks, our airplanes, our jeeps. Had we not had that capacity, we might not have the freedom that we have here today. This country owes Michigan a lot for its freedom."
"Michigan helped save America," Gov. Huckabee said. "Now it's time that America help save Michigan."
John McCain sounded a strikingly similiar theme in his speeches: "The best and most productive workers in the world reside in the state of Michigan, my friends, and they can compete with anybody," he said.
The questions for the candidates - Democrats, too - is 'where's the beef?' How, specifically, does Washington, D.C. propose to move Michigan more quickly toward modernity?" It will take more than tax cuts and worker retraining programs to make the state - and, by extension, the nation - a force in the 21st century.
TWO: Illinois approves a new coal plant which won't come on line until 2018.
ONE: Cleveland aims to be a wealthy wind energy entrepreneur.
TWO: To cool a new coal plant, We Energies proposes to suck and spit back 2 BILLION gallons of Lake Michigan water every day.
ONE: Muskegon, MI dreams of becoming a working and wealthy wind energy entrepreneur.
TWO: Michigan House Speaker Andy Dillon, a Democrat, reveals building a power plant is a top priority in 2008.
ONE: Coal or wind, Andy?
And Mayor Carty Finkbeiner recently bulldozed Toledo's 300th vacant house.
But restoration and reconstruction will be the compelling theme for America's Great Lakes region in 2008. Not degradation and deconstruction.
Clearly, we still face historic economic, environmental, and social challenges at the outset of the New Year. But the negativity is tired. A healthy society can only worry so much about factory closings, polluted waterways, partisan gridlock, and other troubling trends. At some point more positive pursuits are in order.
What's wired these days is transcending the hardship with fresh ideas and opportunities, partnerships and coalitions, specific solutions and, more and more, action. That's why, I predict, this will be a good year for the campaign to revitalize the economy, ecology, and civic spirit in the Great Lakes region.
Sure there will be bumps along the way. Pay attention to the alternative energy debates maturing in Ohio and Michigan. But signs big and small continue to prove the ship is turning in a more promising direction. Not sinking.
Cooperation and rejuvenation in long-divided and decaying Detroit.
Innovation and job creation in deindustrializing Cleveland.
Environmental and urban restoration in grimy Toledo.
And around Gary.
In other words we're building something new here. Something bigger and better and light years more profitable than the assembly line. We just have to push aside a few more outdated ideas, practices, prejudices, and buildings to take another leap forward.
"We have a demolition plan," said Buffalo Mayor Brown. "In some cases, we will be able to demolish enough of these structures so we can add new infrastructure."
And polling reveals people there see progress.