Boosting the Great Lakes International Economy

by John Austin | July 18, 2011

The regions on both sides of the Great Lakes international border need to team up to strengthen their highly integrated economies.

That was the conclusion of over 250 public and private leaders from both the United States and Canada recently brought together by Brookings and the University of Toronto Mowat Centre in Detroit-Windsor.

The tone was set by Bruce Katz’s keynote--where he pressed for international metro action to expand exports and encouraged the industrial Great Lakes to seize and lead the low-carbon, clean-tech economy.

Overall, two topics dominated discussion by delegates as ripe for international teamwork. 

One was building the 21st century transportation infrastructure the region needs as a platform for enhanced exports--and in particular building a state-of-the-art span connecting Detroit and Windsor, the world’s highest dollar international trade crossing point. Michigan Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, and Canada’s Consul General Roy Norton were pitching hard for the Michigan Legislature to follow Governor Rick Snyder’s call, and vote final approval for the new bridge.

The New International Trade Crossing has been 10 years in the planning, and is strongly backed by business leaders and governments on both sides of the border. It seemed a done-deal when Gov. Snyder announced that Ontario would pay cash-strapped Michigan’s share of the project, and in turn the U.S. Department of Transportation would let the Canadian dollars stand-in as Michigan’s match for federally-funded highway projects across Michigan.

The project keeps being sabotaged by the aging billionaire Mattie Maroun (born 1927), owner of the equally aging Ambassador Bridge (built 1929), fighting hard to keep a monopoly on toll traffic.

Maroun has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Michigan State legislators, and bankrolled groups that are behind dirty tricks that would make Donald Segretti blush, including fake eviction notices at the doors of homeowners near the proposed bridge and patently false TV spots claiming Michigan taxpayers will foot the bill.

Meanwhile the whole $250 billion economic relationship with Canada is at risk, as the tightly wound manufacturing, agricultural, and commerce supply chains are bottlenecked--just at a moment they are poised to grow.

Another area for Great Lakes international teamwork is converting the region’s prodigious innovation, technology-base, and manufacturing talent to support new jobs and leadership in the clean-technology market. Recent Brookings research shows Michigan already 12th in the nation in share of clean-tech jobs and confirmed the jobs potential of clean-tech growth.

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell made the point, “I can think of nothing more important than a more robust, and better harmonized Great Lakes renewable energy portfolio standard to drive job creation in the clean energy sector.”

Heartwell was articulating the market opportunities seen by business leaders in West Michigan, who feel well positioned to grow product lines and new jobs developing and manufacturing clean-energy and clean water solutions. When Gov. Snyder showed up in West Michigan to give his first “Reinvent Michigan Award” to Energetx, a wind turbine and electric vehicle parts supplier, the former venture capitalist was also petitioned by a 40-member delegation of clean energy business buddies, asking him to better support these emerging markets with more aggressive public policy. 

As the Brookings study shows, clean-tech is one emerging arena in which to repurpose the engineering and manufacturing competencies of the Great Lakes to replace jobs lost in auto and other sectors--if state and metro leaders provide the supportive policy platform.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/the-avenue/92140/boosting-the-great-lakes-international-economy