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Mayors Push Great Lakes Cleanup, Again

They say restoration can rekindle region’s economy

June 27, 2007 | By Andy Guy
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  Dumping toxic wastes into the Great Lakes was once common, but New Economy companies choose regions where natural resources are well protected.

GRAND RAPIDS—George Heartwell, the mortgage banker turned preacher turned mayor of this rebounding city, recently invited 2,500 of his Rust Belt colleagues to come here for their annual convention.

So, as the Midwest wallows in a historic economic and environmental crisis, what will they talk about?

Tax cuts? No. Rescuing manufacturers? No. How about slashing government spending and balancing budgets? Wrong again. In fact, the organizing theme of the event, the annual meeting of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, scheduled for July 11-13, is about spending, not saving tax dollars, by investing in the restoration of the Great Lakes, the largest freshwater ecosystem in the world.

Like a growing number of other mayors, Mr. Heartwell thinks that healthy Great Lakes are a key to the region’s economic resurgence. Sure, the big lakes are beautiful, hold an invaluable reservoir of fresh drinking water, and power multi-billion dollar tourism and recreation industries.

But clean waterways also are increasingly important, he said, in the region-wide effort to lure and retain top talent, generate jobs, and succeed in the global economy. The challenge is to make sure congressional and state leaders recognize that trend—and respond to it.

"We’ve learned that quality of life in a place is real important to attracting the creative class, especially young technology workers," Mayor Heartwell said in an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. "So if you can offer a vibrant city, and a big clean freshwater lake or river, then you’ve got a real advantage in the race to compete in the modern economy."

Mayor Heartwell’s analysis is now the dominant one among local elected officials across the Great Lakes Basin. States like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin amassed great wealth in the 20th century’s industrial era, but they're unprepared to compete in the modern economy. A big reason why, the thinking goes, is their stunning lack of dynamic cities and clean waterways. That is a significant disadvantage in today’s knowledge-driven economy because young, talented workers tend to gather in thriving metropolitan areas, particularly those with ready access to outdoor, water-based recreation.

A Shift in Thinking
So, despite busted budgets, shrinking revenues, and other gloomy fiscal trends, Great Lakes cities like Grand Rapids are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up and protect lakes and rivers and their shorelines, and improve public access to their waterways. Leaders in these cities are changing policies and updating development standards to boost water stewardship. In fact, just about every city on a river or Great Lake—from Buffalo to Cleveland to Detroit to Gary to Milwaukee—has a plan to downsize traditional waterfront industries like steel production, power generation, and shipping and, in their stead, build new condos, retail businesses, and parks.

"There’s been a dramatic transformation in how the Great Lakes are viewed," explained Dave Ullrich, executive director of the Great Lakes and Saint Lawrence Cities Initiative, an organization of more than 80 mayors and other local officials representing communities in the United States and Canada.

"Historically, we’ve focused on the Great Lakes waterfronts for their industrial and shipping value," Mr. Ullrich added. "But now people see value in the land for residential, commercial, and recreational opportunities. Many believe that approach has the potential in many instances to bring much greater value to cities and Great Lakes states than, say, a single industry dominating the shoreline."

For leaders like Mayor Heartwell, the change in thinking is simply the progression of an idea that’s shaped cities and the region since settlement. First people depended on the waterways for fishing and hunting. The end of the fur trade gave rise to the lumber era, when rivers and lakes carried logs to mill and market. The collapse of the logging era made way for the Industrial Revolution, which exploited streams, lakes, and groundwater reserves to power factories and dispose of waste.

Indeed, the availability of clean, fresh water has always been much more than a nice environmental amenity. It’s a critical economic asset that has shaped growth and spurred development in the Great Lakes region throughout American history. Local leaders say the pattern will continue, and likely intensify, as the region transitions to a greener, more technologically advanced, global economy.

Grand Rapids, which is 30 miles inland from Lake Michigan, stands at the forefront of the shift in thinking about the renewed importance of the Great Lakes and their tributary waters. Despite crushing budget deficits and massive spending reductions, the city has made a $350 million sewer modernization project to clean up the Grand River a top priority. Urban officials during the past 15 years have invested more than $4.2 million in riverfront parks and boardwalks. The municipal treatment plant recently installed a high-tech—and expensive—ultraviolet light system to eliminate toxic chemicals during wastewater disinfection processes.

And business leaders embrace the shift as well: Across the city, local developers are constructing rain gardens and green rooftops to improve storm water management.

"We’re still looking at the Great Lakes and water as a commercial asset," Mayor Heartwell said, "but in an entirely different paradigm, one that requires preservation and restoration, not destruction. It’s a more sustainable view."

Kick-Starting a Cleanup
Breakout sessions at the upcoming annual meeting will highlight strategies to clean up beaches, boost water conservation, and curb pollution in lakes and rivers. Dr. Rosina Beirbaum, from the University of Michigan, will deliver a keynote address on the potential effects of climate change on the region’s cities.

But the overarching conference goal is to coordinate and concentrate maximum regional effort on the campaign to pass a sweeping federal Great Lakes restoration proposal in Washington, D.C. The bill is based on a document prepared by the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration, a bipartisan group of mayors, governors, and state and federal lawmakers from the Great Lakes Basin. The group first convened several years ago in response to a call from President George W. Bush to begin planning a cleanup of the big lakes. The group introduced The Strategy to Restore and Protect the Great Lakes in December 2005.

The $20 billion public works project calls for substantial increases in government spending targeted to accelerate the cleanup of toxic pollution, modernize aging sewer infrastructure, combat invasive species, and rehabilitate damaged coastal areas. A select group of lawmakers have introduced legislation to implement the strategy twice in the past two years. But Congress has yet to give the proposal any serious consideration.

The lack of action, local leaders say, is increasingly out of touch with public opinion.

"We’re pretty frustrated," Mayor Heartwell said, noting that even obviously urgent funding requests, such as an appropriation to help build a $9 million barrier to keep the voracious Asian carp from infiltrating the Great Lakes ecosystem, continue to be overlooked.

Most mayors and restoration proponents interviewed for this article said they understand Congress is preoccupied with important political matters such as Iraq and immigration. But many also suggested the lack of response to the economic and environmental decline in the Great Lakes, one of the more important but distressed regions in the U.S., reflects a troubling disinterest in local needs and domestic issues.

More aggressive action to define the proposed restoration strategy as an urgent economic priority could help leverage greater support in Washington, D.C., according to Mayor Heartwell. The pressing environmental need for a comprehensive Great Lakes cleanup is well documented and frequently promoted. But the proposal also has become an urgent economic priority, a growing number of local leaders say, and that needs to be more effectively publicized.

"We’ve got to get business more deeply involved," Mayor Heartwell said. "To this point it’s been primarily environmentalists. And they’ve brought a lot of passion to the debate. But if we can engage the business leaders, I think Congress would pay more attention."

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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