Leaders urged to unite for growth; 12-state blueprint targets economy


Ohio, Michigan, and 10 other states can become a powerhouse in the global economy only if they come together with a shared vision for the Great Lakes and market themselves as a region, according to a paper being presented in Chicago today by a leading think tank.

The Washington-based Brookings Institution, through its metropolitan policy program, is calling upon Great Lakes governors to "forge a compact with the federal government around a series of policy innovations that will put the region on sure ground in the new economy."

While most of the growth and public attention in the past decade has focused on the east and west coasts, this "north coast" has the potential to be a major source of growth and innovation, according to the report.

The region, the birthplace of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, needs to start pinning down 2008 presidential hopefuls for commitments to Great Lakes funding - especially with the race apparently wide open and potential swing states up for grabs, the report said.

The Brookings paper said the region cannot simply manufacture its way back to prosperity, although it noted that the region is poised to become dominant in some newer industries, such as those involved in the production of wind, solar, and other alternative energy devices.

"With one foot planted in a waning industrial era, the other in the emerging global economy, the region is teetering between a future marked by growth and innovation, and one that conforms to the 'Rust Belt' label applied to the region due to the decline of its factory-based economy," according to the paper, a copy of which was provided in advance to The Blade.

The report cost Brookings $200,000 and took a year to produce. Funders included some of the region's largest business, academic, and philanthropic groups, including DTE Energy, Michigan State University, the University of Michigan Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, the Ford Motor Co. Fund, and the Joyce Foundation.

The report's chief author is John Austin, vice president of the Michigan State Board of Education and a Brookings non-resident senior fellow.

The regionalism theme, he said, is modeled after one embraced by southern governors in 1971, when they formed the Southern Growth Policies Board in Research Triangle Park, N.C., to promote economic development in the South. It now represents 13 southern states and the commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

The Great Lakes need to be promoted through such a vehicle, although the report argues that an economic-development region should not be limited to the eight states that touch the lakes. It said it should be expanded to include parts of West Virginia, Kentucky, Iowa, and Missouri, because of similarities in how those areas evolved.

The report cited the Great Lakes as the region's common denominator and greatest selling point.

Mr. Austin said that's another reason to pressure Congress - and presidential hopefuls - for the proposed $20 billion Great Lakes cleanup package, which resulted from a yearlong initiative that involved 1,500 business, government, tribal, and environmental leaders.

It's simple: Cleaner lakes mean greater assets for luring businesses that offer low-impact, high-tech jobs. The lakes need to shed their image as manufacturing hubs. With more public access for canoeists and kayakers, for example, the region could use the lakes more as a recruitment tool, much like Boulder, Colo., uses the Rocky Mountains, he said.

The report said the Great Lakes watershed remains largely undiscovered by outsiders. The region has the potential of enhancing its tourism and recreation industries by becoming more appealing to "outdoor enthusiasts, history buffs, and those seeking health lifestyles," it said.

Key recommendations include a higher education system that would replace the more affordable "in-state" tuition rate with a comparable "in-region" rate, so that area college students would not be penalized if they move out of their home state but elect to stay within the region.

The report also proposes a Great Lakes "common marketplace" for education and employment, enabled by portable credit, credentialing, and pension systems.

It proposes better access to financial resources for college and skills training, as well as enhanced research and development, job programs, health-care, savings plans, pension plans, transportation policies, water and sewer improvements, and other needs, all administered on a regional basis to maximize clout.

Gov. Bob Taft, who recently served 4 1/2 years as the Council of Great Lakes Governors chairman, was not familiar enough with the report to comment. But he recognized the region's "similar challenges and resources" when he was the council's chairman, said Mark Rickel, a spokesman for Mr. Taft.

David Naftzger, the gubernatorial council's executive director, said he understood the concept but not all of the mechanics of how it would be carried out.

George Kuper, president and chief executive officer of the Ann Arbor-based Council of Great Lakes Industries, said that some elements of the report he saw in advance "are enlightening, to say the least." He questioned, though, if there is a need to formalize an agreement between the states. "If we are just trying to market the region, we don't need a compact for that," he said.

Ed Wolking, a founding member of the Great Lakes Manufacturing Council and executive vice president of the Detroit Regional Chamber, said it is "absolutely essential" for the region to band together on practical issues.

"I think we have to get out of this Ohio State-Michigan football mentality," he said, referring to how states also compete against each other on the business playing field.

Tim Eder, executive director of the Great Lakes Commission, a body funded in part by each of the states to promote consistent environmental policies, said he agreed with the general theme.

"We can do a great job of achieving our goals if we speak with one voice," he said.

U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo) said the concepts are worth pursuing. But she said the recent attempt to unify governors on a Great Lakes regional water compact has left her wondering if something this far-reaching would work.

The report will be discussed later this week in Detroit, Lansing, Cleveland, Columbus, Buffalo, and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

The two Michigan meetings will both be on Wednesday, one at 11 a.m. at the Federal Reserve Bank's branch in Detroit, the other at 3 p.m. at the state Capitol in Lansing. The Ohio meetings will be Thursday, at 10 a.m. at the Cleveland Foundation and at 3 p.m. at the Columbus Foundation. Reservations are required.

Brookings plans to issue a follow-up report in the spring that will attempt to quantify the Great Lakes' worth to the region in dollars and cents. That study will be used as a cost-benefit analysis to help bolster the cleanup campaign. It is to examine anything from enhanced property values to the lakes' potential as a recreational amenity, Mr. Austin said.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.