Expert: Investment in lake a first step to growth
By John Myers
Duluth News Tribune
Published November 1, 2007
A national investment to finish cleaning up the Great Lakes will pay for itself four-fold and help speed the transition of the nation’s Rust Belt into the Freshwater Coast.
That was the prediction Wednesday by John Austin, Brookings Institute fellow and vice president of the Michigan State Board of Education, in the keynote address to the Making a Great Lake Superior Conference in Duluth.
Austin said restoring the Great Lakes will attract young, educated workers to the region — lured by ample clean water, exciting outdoor recreation and urban features such as universities and research facilities.
“People are discovering [the region] and want to be here. They will come because of the special features you have,’’ said Austin, comparing the Great Lakes, potential to that of Colorado in the 1980s or Maine in recent years.
Public access to unspoiled woods and waters in rural and urban settings will be key, Austin said. And cleaning up the region’s brownfield legacy is critical for growth to occur.
Austin said the lifestyle reputation of the Lake Superior area will attract young people who want to live here. It’s that educated, 25-to-39-year-old demographic who will become entrepreneurs who drive the region’s post-industrial, knowledge-based economy, he said.
“It’s already started,’’ he said.
Austin said Northland residents must pressure national political figures during the 2008 campaign to support the proposed $26 billion Great Lakes Restoration Plan. With Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio and others key swing states in the presidential election, the region is in position to force the issue, he said.
According to a Brookings report, which Austin helped write and was first reported in the News Tribune in September, a national investment of $26 billion would bring up to $100 billion in direct benefits to the region’s economy — from increased real-estate values to more jobs — not including indirect benefits such as better fishing and healthier residents.
The Great Lakes Restoration Plan, unveiled in Duluth in July 2005, was proposed by President Bush and included the input of more than 1,500 scientific, environmental and economic experts. The plan has not been funded in Bush’s budget proposals, however, and has languished in Congress.
The $26 billion cleanup plan calls for refurbishing leaky sewage systems to end sewage overflows and beach closings; halting the invasion of exotic species in ballast water; paying to restore and protect wetlands and other habitat; cutting mercury air pollution to make fish safe to eat; and cleaning up contaminated hotspots in harbors and rivers.
The plan was supposed to be accomplished within 15 years and was modeled after federal cleanup efforts for the Florida Everglades and Chesapeake Bay.
Austin said rebuilding the Great Lakes economy is far from a ground-up task.
The region’s eight states and Ontario already comprise the world’s second-largest economy, behind only the rest of the U.S. but ahead of China and Japan. The region accounts for 41 percent of all college and higher degrees in the U.S., Austin said.
But except for the Twin Cities and Chicago, most areas of all eight Great Lakes states are losing young, educated people to other regions, Austin said.