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Everglades to Great Lakes: Think Two Shades of Green

Florida’s huge restoration helps economy, too

February 28, 2007 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Andy Guy/MLUI
  The federal money for restoring the Everglades is also stimulating job growth in south Florida.

PALM BEACH COUNTY, FLA.—Mechanics, pipe fitters, and iron workers. Masons, carpenters, and construction contractors. Electricians, explosive experts, and heating and cooling specialists. Dump truck drivers, crane operators, and general laborers: When the State of Florida accelerated the Everglades restoration plan, it ignited a job fair.

The $8.4 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, was originally sold as a strategy to reverse decades of ecological decline in an expansive subtropical marshland that, like the Great Lakes of the Midwestern United States, is one of the most extraordinary and most threatened aquatic ecosystems in the world.

But the plan is having a profound economic effect as it moves from concept to implementation. The restoration effort has begun to drive workforce development, expand opportunities for local suppliers and small businesses, and put people to work, particularly in depressed rural communities like Belle Glade and Pahokee, where unemployment rates can exceed 20 percent.

"This makes a tremendous difference in my life," Darious Lane, Jr., a 21-year-old South Bay resident now working a full-time job constructing a reservoir, told the Palm Beach Post. "I have a 10-month-old son. I can give him what he needs. I can help my mother. And I just bought my first car: a 1995 Chevy Impala."

In total, Florida officials expect to establish as many as 4,000 short-term construction and support jobs during the next three years by executing eight of the 64 total projects planned to restore the Everglades. And that is just the blue collar labor. The figure does not include the army of scientists, consultants, teachers, policy wonks, architects, real estate agents, and other white collar professionals that have planned, designed, financed, and otherwise begun to advance one of the largest environmental rehab initiatives in the nation's history.

A public works project to restore the Great Lakes would be even bigger and, in theory, generate thousands more job opportunities in economically depressed and under-employed states like Michigan and Ohio. First proposed in December 2005, the Great Lakes cleanup would revitalize fish and wildlife habitat, eliminate sewage dumping, speed the cleanup of polluted waterways, and combat the threat of invasive species in the world's largest supply of fresh surface water.

Federal lawmakers from the Midwest are expected to reintroduce legislation in Washington on March 6, 2007 that, if passed, would launch the Strategy to Restore and Protect the Great Lakes. As in Florida, this restoration proposal presents a strategic opportunity not only to resuscitate the natural splendor of the Great Lakes, but also to put tens of thousands of people to work and set a bold new course for a region that remains one of the most powerful economic and cultural centers in America.

But, like the Everglades restoration campaign before it, the Great Lakes rehab is still widely perceived strictly as an environmental issue. And that has slowed support for the proposal, even among Great Lakes Basin leaders.

Ignoring a Jobs Bonanza
That was plain to see last month when the Great Lakes Basin's governors delivered their State of the State addresses. Almost all of them, of course, cited the need to modernize their state’s economy and generate jobs as a top priority. Yet not one of the governors seized on the Great Lakes restoration strategy as a critical component of their economic development plan.

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle came the closest, but was still miles away.

"We must live up to our responsibility as protectors of the largest body of fresh water in the world," Governor Doyle said, in what were the most extensive remarks about the importance of the Great Lakes made by any of the region's chief executives.

Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm failed to mention the words “Great Lakes” once in her speech, even as she argued that investment in her state's quality of life is one of the most important factors driving job growth in the knowledge economy.

Meanwhile, the Everglades project provides a glimpse of the immediate and far-reaching economic and social benefits that could result from the proposed $20 billion Great Lakes public works project.

Construction of the Caloosahatchee River Reservoir, scheduled to begin in June, is expected to employ 785 people and improve water quality in Hendry County. Building a $270 million facility to treat polluted storm water and safeguard the St. Lucie Estuary is projected to employ some 695 people in Martin County. Even the modest $15 million project to expand and restore the Biscayne Bay wetlands is expected to generate 85 jobs in Dade County.

One hundred workers already are on site excavating land for the enormous Everglades Agricultural Reservoir, a 22-square mile man-made basin designed to boost water storage capacity, flood protection, and wildlife habitat in the low-lying region south of Lake Okeechobee.

"This construction project will create approximately 400 jobs opportunities for people with a variety of skills," said Bob Ainslie, construction director for Parsons, one of the engineering firms managing the project. "Our goal is to hire and employ as many people as we can from the 'Glades community."

A Nice Problem to Have
In fact, fearing a shortage of skilled local labor, Florida officials have organized a special workforce development initiative around the Everglades restoration work. The South Florida Water Management District, for instance, provided nearly $3 million in funding and partnered with nonprofit groups and educational institutions such as Palm Beach Community College to sponsor a series of workshops to train heavy equipment operators, carpenters, blue print readers, and other skilled workers essential to carry out the Everglades restoration plan.

"When the construction really gets going we won't be able to train people fast enough," said Sonny Hughes, director of the Education Center of Southwest Florida which, since August 2006, has trained 43 heavy equipment operators and 17 construction workers. "There's a ton of work to do, and a shortage of skilled labor locally."

Organizers of the restoration work and the skills training workshops are careful to point out that the Everglades projects provide only short-term job opportunities. More important, they said, is leveraging the opportunity to train up the workforce, open immediate opportunities for the unemployed, and prepare workers to compete for future jobs building a power plant, a housing development, or other major projects planned in South Florida.

"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for many of these communities to have multi-million dollar public works projects," said Alvin Jackson, a private consultant working for the South Florida Water Management District. "This type of thing likely won't come again. We want to make the most of it."

"When the Everglades work is done, the hope is that an entirely new group of people will by uplifted and have the skills they need to find respectable work," Mr. Jackson added, "Then they'll be able to go earn a living in Miami, Jackson, or even Michigan."

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 at Rapid Growth Media and maintains a blog at http://greatlakesguy.blogspot.com/. Reach him at aguy@mlui.org.
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