Lakes region a sleeping powerhouse, scholar says


John C. Austin sounds like an explorer from the 16th or 17th century who has discovered a new continent.

Only the continent he has sighted is populated and widely viewed as in decline.

The region on whose shores Mr. Austin, a Brookings Institution scholar, has set foot is none other than the Great Lakes region, an area he said is unrivaled for its natural resources, educational assets, and industrial know-how.

As Europe has the European Union, this region would have the Great Lakes Economic Region.

Anything other than rust belt, Mr. Austin said.

Last Monday, Mr. Austin of Ann Arbor was the keynote speaker, following Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, at an economic development summit sponsored by the Lucas County commissioners.

The event drew about 45 local government officials from the Lake Erie counties stretching from Monroe County, Michigan, to Ashtabula County east of Cleveland.

Tina Skeldon Wozniak, the president of the Lucas County commissioners, said Mr. Austin provided insight and detail.

What he gave us was an affirmation that we can make this transition, and as we work through it we have everything going for us, Ms. Wozniak said. I think he gave us more data to believe and focus and stay on track.

Mr. Austin said the Great Lakes region has or can get the things that attract residential and business development built infrastructure, historic buildings, waterfronts, civic and cultural institutions, and public transportation.

He said if the Great Lakes Economic Region were a nation, its gross domestic product would rank as the world s second largest.

Our trade between the U.S. and Canada is the biggest on earth, Mr. Austin said. This region is the agricultural-industrial center of the universe.

And while the population of the Great Lakes states is undereducated compared to America in general because of a legacy of a wealth of factory jobs that didn t require postsecondary education, its universities educate a disproportionate share of the national population.

Our network of research universities is larger and produces more ideas than any place on earth, Mr. Austin said.

Analogy to the South

He cites the South as an analogy to the Great Lakes.

The South was behind. The New South governors got together and said what s our plan? They have a very similar economic story, Mr. Austin said.

Unlike the South, which has self-identified as a stressed region for about two centuries now, self-awareness is a new feeling for the Great Lakes states.

We have had the luxury of not viewing ourselves as a region. You look around and say why are we losing the manufacturing jobs? he said. Why are our young people leaving? So under crisis it begins to hit us in the face.

This business of Ohio versus Michigan or Michigan versus Indiana for the next plant is nonsense. It s counterproductive. We ve got to get beyond that, he said.

Last year, Mr. Austin even backed a joint economic development zone between Lucas County and southeast Michigan.

Mr. Austin urges his listeners to use their dwindling time in the presidential election to pressure the three candidates to commit to a $26 billion cleanup of the Great Lakes. The money would be spent to upgrade sewer treatment plants, clean up brownfields, and rid the Great Lakes of invasive species.

The Brookings study calculated the future benefits from such an investment at $90 billion in increased property values and the values of the jobs created. This [endorsing the $26 billion Great Lakes cleanup initiative] should be like taking the no-tax pledge in New Hampshire, he said.

You re the deciders in another presidential election. And if you don t use this opportunity then shame on you, shame on everybody, Mr. Austin said.

A native of Cleveland, where his family ran a successful commercial and industrial construction company, Mr. Austin, 45, graduated from Swarthmore College and Harvard University and worked for the state of Massachusetts before making his way back to the Midwest. He lived in the Flint area, where he served on the Genesee County Road Commission 1997-2001 and now lives in Michigan with his wife of 18 years and three children.

Since 2000 Mr. Austin, a Democrat, has been an elected member of the Michigan State Board of Education. His full-time job now is as a fellow of the Brookings Institution and it has taken him to every major city in the Great Lakes region. Those include Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Duluth, Toronto, Louisville, and St. Louis.

I m a politician first, a public policy wonk a close second, Mr. Austin said.

Patrick Clark, a neighborhood development consultant in Pittsburgh who has worked with Mr. Austin for several projects, said he connects with young people.

Many of these Chambers of Commerce are clueless in getting paths to these young leaders. John got in front of a group of young leaders and threw some stuff out there and kind of challenged them to take a leadership role and some of them stepped up, Mr. Clark said.

Two of the young people he offered a hand to are Abby Wilson, 28, of metro Pittsburgh, and Sarah Szurpicki, 27, of metro Detroit, co-founders of the Great Lakes Urban Exchange (GLUE). GLUE has a Website that serves as a video and audio forum about the Great Lakes region,

Meeting set

A GLUE meeting is set for 7 p.m. Thursday at Manhattan s Restaurant downtown and is open to the public.

Mr. Austin helped the young women obtain an operating grant from Brookings. He s extraordinary. He has infectious enthusiasm and if I do say so myself, sees the value in good ideas in young people, Ms. Wilson said. As far as I know I don t think anybody else is making this argument that we should really view ourselves as collaborators rather than competitors.

But Mr. Austin is no Pollyanna. He said a point made in the updated report is that the Great Lakes region is up against international competition to be the center of alternative energy development, and already may be losing the battle.

He said the lakes are the logical place for wind energy to be researched and the products developed and made. But Germany started 10 years ago to have an energy portfolio standard policies requiring a certain percentage of energy to be produced from alternative fuels.

We re just getting around to it now. I hope it s not too late, he said.

Contact Tom Troy at: or 419-724-6058.