Speaker: Great Lakes region needs help
By Martin Zabell
Northwest Indiana Times
Published June 2, 2007
MERRILLVILLE | The Great Lakes region is so important that its states and the federal government should make a massive effort to renew it.
That's the essence of a report prepared by The Brookings Institution and presented to the Quality of Life Council on Friday.
The report included 13 recommendations. All were very broad and sweeping and did not include cost estimates or specific plans for action.
In instant voting at the meeting, the crowd of about 175 leaders of Northwest Indiana's civic and business communities chose three of the 13 as priorities -- improving people's access to college, cleaning the Great Lakes and developing better public transportation.
The voting came after a one-hour speech by John Austin, a senior fellow at Brookings, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, and one of two authors of "The Vital Center: A Federal-State Compact to Renew the Great Lakes Region."
In his speech, Austin talked about the Great Lakes region's strengths and weaknesses and argued that a robust investment in the area also would benefit the entire nation because it's a "huge economic engine."
"If we were a country, we'd be the third-largest country in the world in economic output," said Austin. "We are a hothouse of innovation."
Austin said the Great Lakes region includes all of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin and parts of Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. To illustrate his point that this home to 97 million people has enormous potential but needs help, he said that one-third of the nation’s patents but only 12 percent of its venture capital comes from the area.
The area's culture, he said, has become averse to risk-taking because of the lack of security in jobs that often didn't require a higher education. Now that millions of these jobs are gone, he said, the states and federal government need to formulate policies that encourage residents to become more educated, provide them with better health insurance and substantially increase funding for research and development.
Austin was most specific when talking about cleaning up the Great Lakes. He said the region's governors and the Bush administration have agreed to fully fund a $20 billion effort to dramatically reduce pollution in the lakes, but the federal government has not followed up on its pledge.
Referring to the fact that several Great Lakes states had very close presidential elections in 2000 and 2004, Austin urged area leaders to pressure 2008 presidential candidates on the pollution issue.
"They should take a pledge to follow through on the restoration of the Great Lakes Compact," said Austin.
Recommendations for Great Lakes region
The Brookings report presented Friday to Northwest Indiana’s civic and business leaders included 13 recommendations for the area’s 12 states and the federal government. They include:
* Improve the science and math curriculums in schools.
* Facilitate educational and employment mobility within the region.
* Improve people’s access to college.
* Increase funding for research and development.
* Achieve energy independence.
* Create a Great Lakes venture fund.
* Clean the Great Lakes.
* Make pension systems more portable.
* Use unemployment benefits to retrain workers.
* Create area-wide portable health insurance plans.
* Develop high-speed rails and other transportation systems.
* Rebuild water and sewer infrastructures.
* Reinvest in cities and older areas.