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Study: Cleanup Would Boost Rusty Economy

But Great Lakes congressional delegation ignores shoreline restoration proposal

June 7, 2007 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Andy Guy/MLUI
  Can America’s rustbelt become the Third Coast?

GARY, Ind.—39,000 jobs. 60,000 new residents. And $39 billion in increased economic activity.

That's what investing in the revitalization of Lake Michigan's despoiled and depressed southern shore can do for Gary, Hammond, Whiting and other waterfront hubs in northern Indiana by 2040, according to a recent study by the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority (NIRDA).

The study, published in January, is the most comprehensive analysis yet of the economic advantages that could accrue to lakeside metropolitan areas in the Midwest that target public and private spending on environmental restoration and urban redevelopment. It comes as Indiana and neighboring de-industrializing states like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin struggle to shed their Rust Belt images, retain and attract talented young workers, and transform an outdated economy to compete in the 21st century.

"We need jobs in northwest Indiana," Tim Sanders, executive director of NIRDA, said in an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. "And we must focus on improving our quality of life if we intend to grow new industries in today's global economy. Revitalizing the Lake Michigan shoreline is a critical part of the effort to make our region more attractive and competitive."

But indifference and a bad case of sticker shock are delaying the passage of a bold piece of federal legislation that could greatly accelerate not only northwest Indiana's transformation from a gray and declining steel center to a greener and more prosperous metropolitan region, but the revival of many other Great Lakes Rust Belt cities, too.

The federal proposal, known as the Great Lakes Restoration Collaboration Implementation Act, would restore America's Great Lakes by providing $20 billion in public funding for waterfront cities like Gary—as well as Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Milwaukee, and other moribund metropolises along Great Lakes shorelines. The funding would speed the cleanup of polluted industrial sites, modernize aging sewer infrastructure, and rehabilitate sensitive coastal areas.

The proposalwas introduced last March for the second time in two years, but has yet to see significant congressional action. It has even failed to stir much interest among many federal lawmakers from the Great Lakes states it would help. The $20 billion price tag has caused quite a few elected leaders to view it solely as a big-government environmental cleanup effort.

Yet the recent NIRDA study reveals that fully funding the federal restoration strategy would generate serious, timely, and long-lasting returns for one of the most important but troubled regions in the United States. In fact, the study suggests that the benefits of implementing the proposed Great Lakes restoration plan far outweigh the costs, generating a return on investment for cleaning up northwest Indiana alone that would more than cover the $20 billion price tag for restoring the entire Great Lakes Basin.

Consensus for Success
Economists agree that clean, fresh water and vibrant, accessible waterfronts are one of the Great Lakes region's greatest assets. In the Industrial Era, these assets gave rise to new ventures like auto manufacturing in Detroit, shipping in Cleveland, and steel production in Gary. But today those 20th-century industries are downsizing, while the waterfronts they anchored are strewn with polluted and vacant property, unreachable beaches, and crumbling public infrastructure.

In the past few years, Great Lakes leaders have forged a consensus about the need to redefine the region's identity and purpose in the global marketplace. Those leaders are searching for innovative strategies that would enable the region to lure talented workers, attract high-tech companies, generate good paying jobs, and remain competitive in the knowledge economy. Almost universally, those leaders have seen that environmental restoration and cleanliness—particularly waterfront revitalization—are essential components of economic success in the Digital Age.

"Northwest Indiana has a beautiful shoreline," said Mr. Sanders, a former official with the Indiana Economic Development Corporation. "It is how we sell the region to employees and companies looking for choice locations."

So leaders in northwest Indiana want to execute what they call the Marquette Greenway Plan. The plan, which the NIRDA study evaluated, would consolidate the area’s shrinking waterfront steel industry, reclaim and remediate significant tracts of underutilized Lake Michigan shoreline property, and develop lakeside trails, condos, restaurants, and shops. The overarching goals of the plan, which calls for some $8.4 billion in public and private spending by 2029, are to open up 75 percent of the 45-mile shoreline for public use and ultimately reverse the region's economic decline.

The NIRDA study found that just one aspect of the Marquette plan—extending the public beach, enhancing parks, and developing new commercial opportunities in the City of Portage—could leverage some $652 million in private investment, generate 6,000 new jobs, and attract a projected 117.6 million visitors to the region by 2029. The study also found that building a major marina and adding a series of residential and commercial projects in the City of Whiting could attract some $218 million in private reinvestment and more than 14 million visitors over 30 years.

The study added that expanding parks, cleaning up brownfields, and building condos, restaurants, and recreational services in the City of East Chicago could stimulate $413 million in private reinvestment and generate some 2,000 jobs. The study found similar payoffs for similar cleanup efforts in Gary and Hammond, as well as on large tracks of land owned by Mittal Steel Company and United States Steel Corporation.

"The development of the Lake Michigan shoreline in northwest Indiana will reduce environmental contamination, increase the quality of life for residents, and produce economic benefits far in excess of the funds needed for the investment," the NIRDA study states. "Project constraints are time and money."

Missing an Opportunity
The Great Lakes restoration plan languishing in Congress could help northern Indiana officials overcome those obstacles. But the proposal is attracting scant political support from across the nation and from Midwestern lawmakers. To date, only 53 of the 141 political leaders elected to represent the people of the Great Lakes in Washington, D.C., have signed on to support the restoration plan.

Ironically, the lack of interest comes even as the greater Great Lakes enjoy a rare instance of influence on the national stage. The November 2006 election catapulted six of the region's Democratic congressman into prominent leadership positions.

  1. Wisconsin Representative David Obey now chairs the powerful appropriations committee.
  2. Minnesota Representatives James Oberstar and Collin Peterson respectively chair the transportation and infrastructure committee and agriculture committee.
  3. Michigan Representatives John Dingell and John Conyers respectively chair the energy and commerce committee and judiciary committee.
  4. New York Representative Louise Slaughter chairs the rules committee.

Combined, these committees have the power to advance a wide array of policy and spending initiatives that benefit the economy and environment in the Midwest. But only three of the new committee chairs publicly support the Great Lakes restoration legislation. Representatives Obey, Oberstar, and Peterson have yet to sign on.

Another congressman from the region, Pete Visclosky of Indiana, illustrates the restoration campaign's struggle to gain traction among elected officials. Representative Visclosky, a Democrat, is a vocal advocate for building a more modern economy in his state. He has secured federal funding to stimulate high-tech business, and worked to expand public transportation options and revitalize cities in his northwest Indiana district.

He's also one of the few Great Lakes leaders to publicly recognize the importance of environmental restoration to his region's future competitiveness. In 2003, Mr. Visclosky, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, officially introduced the Marquette Greenway Plan, which has been a pet project of his for decades. Yet he has yet to sign on as an official sponsor of the Great Lakes restoration legislation, which could trigger tens of millions of dollars in public funding to achieve the Marquette Plan's widely supported goals.

Representative Visclosky's office did not to return several phone calls and emails seeking comment for this report. According to organizers of a campaign favoring the federal Great Lakes restoration act, however, Mr. Visclosky’s lack of official support for the legislation likely reflects the competing demands on the congressman's time and attention.

No Opposition, but Little Support
Observers say that the lack of support among Washington’s Great Lakes delegation for a comprehensive regional cleanup plan is slowing the drive to regenerate the region's natural beauty and reinvent its economy for the 21st century.

"No one has really expressed opposition to Great Lakes restoration," said Chad Lord, director of the National Parks Conservation Association’s Great Lakes campaign. "In fact, we have several conservative lawmakers supporting the proposal, which highlights the increasingly clear linkages between clean lakes, a strong economy, and a unique way of life."

"[The lack of support] is probably more a reflection of how Congress works," Mr. Lord added. "Members are focused on a number of issues, particularly the war in Iraq, right now. And it takes time read these kinds of big, expensive bills."

Meanwhile, back in the basin, the constituency for a major public works project to restore the Great Lakes continues to grow, particularly within the business community. Armed with new data about the economic benefits of rejuvenating the Lake Michigan shoreline, Tim Sanders of NIRDA said his agency is adding staff and intends to take a closer look at the restoration proposal.

"We're getting over the idea that the steel mills will employ 30,000 people," he said. "And we're coming to understand that economic growth is tied to quality of life these days. That's a real change in attitude around here."

Journalist Andy Guy directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Water Works project and writes about Smart Growth issues from Grand Rapids. He is also managing editor of Rapid Growth Media and maintains a blog at http://greatlakesguy.blogspot.com/. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org

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