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Conference: Better Great Lakes, More Great Jobs

Restoration would spur long-range growth

September 2, 2005 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Bruce Giffin

The proposed $20 billion Great Lakes restoration project would restore polluted industrial sites, fight invasive species, and also help cities like Birmingham, Mich., prevent erosion and improve water quality and flood control.

No one has a truly accurate tally. But a multi-billion dollar proposal to restore the Great Lakes would generate hundreds of thousands of jobs in a region of the United States hit hard by globalization and unemployment, according to expert observers. They add that a properly designed restoration could also lead to much longer-range job development, too.

The draft Strategy to Restore and Protect the Great Lakes, introduced by state and federal officials in July, lays out a $20 billion plan to, among other goals, clean up dozens of heavily polluted waterways, rehabilitate a half-million acres of wetlands, renew miles of shoreline, and stem the spread of invasive species in the world’s largest freshwater ecosystem. The project would require tens of thousands of construction workers, engineers, scientists, computer technicians, and other support staff, according to consultants and industry professionals who spoke with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service.

“If this effort was fully funded, it would have a significant impact on employment in the public and private sector,” said Dr. Michael Donahue, the former chief executive officer of the Great Lakes Commission, who now serves as vice president at URS Corporation, a global consulting firm. “But the bigger question is, how many jobs will be created once restoration is complete?”

Sobering ecological issues have long been at the center of environmentalists’ push for cleaning up and protecting the Great Lakes. But now other policy experts have begun stressing that the initiative is necessary if the region is to kick aside its Rustbelt image, reverse unemployment trends, retain existing businesses, and lure new ones. They see a full-scale Great Lakes restoration as the cornerstone of a broader strategy to leverage new private investments and enhance the region’s ability to compete in the global economy. And, they add, the federal lawmakers should cease viewing the cleanup merely as a traditional public works project and start seeing it as long-term economic development.

Prominent business leaders will discuss that emerging idea at the first annual Great Lakes Restoration Conference, which takes place next Wednesday and Thursday, Sept. 8 and 9, in Grand Rapids, Mich. The conference is organized by Michigan United Conservation Clubs and sponsored by a regional coalition of environmental groups. The two-day event, which also involves lawmakers, state and federal officials, and leading environmental experts, focuses heavily on building support for the basin-wide proposal.

Ecology’s Economy
James Hackett, the president and CEO of Steelcase Inc., an international furniture company, will speak about Great Lakes restoration as a way to strengthen economic competitiveness. And Storm Cunningham, executive director of Revitalization Institute, an international alliance of businesses, nonprofits, and civic leaders, will describe how the draft strategy to clean up the Great Lakes waterways is part of what he calls “the restoration economy.”

In an interview, Mr. Cunningham said that, worldwide, human development is trending towards a more profitable approach that rejects sprawling growth in favor of more sustainable redevelopment. Mr. Cunningham says that restorative development is a vibrant new economic sector that generates well over a trillion dollars in activity around the world annually. He predicts the industry ultimately could be more rewarding than the Internet and e-commerce.

“Money spent on renewing the capacity of what you have is the best possible investment you can make,” Mr. Cunningham said. “It’s a proven fact that a dollar spent restoring an old building creates more jobs than a dollar spent constructing a new one. We know that one dollar invested in cleaning up brownfields returns about $1.50 in private investment. And I suspect that $100 million invested in restoring the Great Lakes will create more jobs and long range opportunity than $100 million spent on new shopping malls or subdivisions.”

Those who study the Great Lakes say that the environmental need for their substantial restoration is clear: Toxic contamination has led to degraded water quality, habitat loss, and fish consumption advisories on most of the region’s inland lakes and rivers. Coastlines and beaches are regularly closed due to pollution. And the steady march of poorly planned development away from urban centers continues to alter the natural hydrology of the connecting wetlands, streams, and other waterways that ultimately replenish the waters of the Great Lakes.

At the same time, much of the region is also wrestling with tremendous economic challenges that are, in many ways, related to its environmental decline. Traditional economic powers like Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan rank among the nation’s worst in unemployment. Major metropolitan centers like Cleveland, Detroit, and Gary, all of which sit on promising but neglected lakefronts and riverfronts, lack the quality of life necessary to lure talented workers and modern companies. More broadly, the entire eight-state region is struggling to shift from the old, coal-powered, 20th-century Industrial Era to the 21st century’s high tech, digitally based economy.

New Jobs, New Skills
Besides wetland, shoreline, and waterway remediation, the restoration plan also recommends more than $173 million annually for five years to fight exotic species; an additional $288 million annually to rehabilitate fish and wildlife habitat; and $750 million to clean up toxic contamination. All of these hefty expenditures would pump up demand for new technologies and skilled laborers and put people to work in job-starved states like Michigan, which leads the nation in unemployment.

For example, the federal government alone could generate some 350,000 jobs throughout the region by following the plans’ recommendation to earmark $7.5 billion for repairing outdated sewer systems, according to Joan Buhrman, spokeswoman for the American Society of Civil Engineers. State governments could generate tens of thousands more employment opportunities if they chipped in the recommended $6.2 billion in matching funds for the infrastructure overhaul.

“If we’re talking about billions to restore the Great Lakes, and that money is placed locally, in local companies to cleanup polluted brownfields, local companies to repair infrastructure, local companies to carry out habitat restoration, you’re not only creating jobs with direct expenditures,” Mr. Cunningham said. “You’re developing new technologies and building skills in people that are in great demand and can be exported globally, especially in light of the world’s water dilemma.”

“This Great Lakes restoration proposal could make the region the Silicon Valley of the restoration economy,” he added. “Right now, that does not exist.”

Al Gray, executive director of the National Society of Professional Engineers, agrees that such a project would give the entire region a running start toward all sorts of jobs.

“The work that would have to be done on a project of this magnitude will require a tremendous amount of engineers, construction workers, computer technicians, geologists, supervisors, and related personnel,” said Mr. Gray. “We’re talking about thousands of highly trained professionals and likely tens of thousands of other workers to provide support. That [restoration plan] would have a tremendous affect on employment across a variety of sectors.”

Immeasurable Benefits
But in Washington D.C., far away from unemployment lines and sewage-soaked beaches, lawmakers take a markedly more traditional and, to some, less creative view of the proposed $20 billion public expenditure. These elected officials acknowledge its potential to create short-term jobs, help long-established industries like tourism and shipping, and improve a threatened ecology. But most have yet to publicly promote the restoration plan as a long-term economic strategy for the nation’s downtrodden heartland. Restoration supporters fear that what they see as a lack of outside-the-box thinking by Congress will lead the current plan to the same fate as similar, past initiatives: Shelved and unfunded.

“Any jobs created [by the restoration spending] would certainly be a tremendous benefit,” said Jeff Sadosky, spokesman for Senator Mike DeWine, a Republican from Ohio. “But this effort is looked at more as an environmental issue.”

Part of the reason many federal lawmakers have yet to broaden their view is because no hard data or other evidence exists to support a serious economic argument for Great Lakes restoration. Consultants and economists interviewed for this report agreed that such a study could provide valuable information to help bolster the case for a fully funded restoration program. And all agreed the potential to create jobs now and for the future is almost immeasurable.

Andy Guy directs the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Great Lakes project. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.

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