The Great Lakes 'region'


THE Midwest is blessed with the world's largest fresh water system, yet the states surrounding it don't seem to know how to sufficiently market it to benefit their struggling economies.

As another presidential election season looms, the Great Lakes states must begin to collaborate to take advantage of their greatest natural asset and speak with one regional voice, making them a force to be reckoned with in 2008 and beyond.

The Brookings Institution, a research and policy institution, is urging the Great Lakes states to develop a plan to market their most valuable resource. That couldn't be more timely.

It is true, as Brookings observes in a new report, that the region has important assets to spur significant economic development. Most of all, the rest of the country, indeed the world, covets our fresh water supply.

This report redirects the focus from the east and west coast states to the "north coast." That's how Brookings labels the border on Lakes Erie, Michigan, Superior, Huron, and Ontario. The states are struggling to shed their dying rust-belt images anyway and are trying to develop innovative and technological economies to foster growth and development.

Brookings is touting environmentally friendly new industries that produce alternative energy: wind, solar, and water. They are not futuristic, but are being developed now, and there's no better place for them than in this region. And with the lakes as the common denominator, this is a terrific tourist and recreational attraction and a perfect tool to draw water and other sports and health enthusiasts.

But regional thinking is key. Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and New York, must work together with West Virginia, Kentucky, Iowa, and Missouri, the other states Brookings lists.

An example of the regionalism approach exists in the Southern Growth Policies Board in Research Triangle Park, N.C. It represents 13 states and the commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The groundwork for it was laid in 1971.

It will be tough, but diehard Buckeye and Wolverine fans must set aside their sports loyalty in favor of regional cooperation. The concept is exciting, far-reaching, and loaded with challenges. If the Great Lakes states can lay the groundwork to cooperate to clean up the lakes and lure businesses, imagine the power they could wield.

Presidential candidates might feel they can ignore a state or two. But no one serious about winning can ignore a region with a dozen water-rich states.