Opinion | Freshwater coast is key to Michigan and ‘Rust Belt’ revival

john austin

John Austin directs the Michigan Economic Center, and is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Brookings Institution.

There’s growing evidence of rapidly spreading income and opportunity divides between the dynamic, growing metropolitan areas of America’s East and West coasts and the Heartland in between.  

Yet there is a third U.S. coast, a “freshwater coast” along the more than 10,000 miles of Great Lakes shoreline—more than one-third of which is Michigan-- that is an increasingly important fulcrum for economic renewal in formerly industrial communities. Continued federal efforts are especially critical for securing the future of many smaller communities that line that coast.

Heavy industry along our Great Lakes shores and rivers of the region powered Michigan and the Midwest’s economic growth, while using and abusing our waters. In Muskegon, paper mills, chemical and auto parts plants turned spectacular Muskegon Bay into a toxic hotspot. In Traverse City, cherry canneries once lined Grand Traverse Bay. Marquette was an industrial port, where iron ore was transferred to railcars after crossing Lake Superior. In Bay City and Port Huron, lumber mills and ship-building operations dotted the waterfronts.  The Detroit River was lined with factories, loading docks, and slag heaps virtually end-to-end.

The use and abuse of these waters to power the region’s steel, car, chemical, and paper industries reached a zenith in 1969 when four Great Lakes tributaries were so fouled they caught fire (the Buffalo, Chicago, and our own  Rouge river, along with the more infamous Cuyahoga River in Cleveland). At the time Lake Erie was famously pronounced “dead” in national publications. The vivid abuse of Great Lakes waters spurred the nation’s environmental movement and the passage of the Clean Water Act.

Since then, both the economy and condition of the Great Lakes has changed. An urbanizing, technology-driven services economy has replaced the belching factories of yesteryear. Many factories, plants and port facilities on the water became redundant, leaving behind a riot of detritus from the industrial era, including a large share of the nation’s brownfields, and 31 toxic national areas of concern in the water - 10 of which were in Michigan.

Facing this cycle of change, many communities in the Great Lakes initiated public-private partnerships to clean up the mess from the industrial era, reconnect downtowns to formerly industrial riverfronts and lakefronts, and create new amenity options. In Detroit the Riverfront Conservancy has redeveloped miles of former industrial waterfront for strolling, biking, and festival events, with old factories remade as lofts and offices. In Traverse City, the waterfront cherry canneries are long gone, and Lake Michigan’s beautiful Grand Traverse Bay is attracting year-round professionals in residence as well as tourists. Muskegon’s polluted bay has been cleaned, and new public access, marinas, parks, hotels and restaurants line the shores. Marquette city bought up land holding redundant oil storage facilities, rail switching sites, and slag heaps; cleaned and converted them to parks, marinas and new residential development. Bay City reclaimed and spruced up the Saginaw Riverfront as it reaches Saginaw Bay. Port Huron’s Blue Meets Green Initiative has cleaned and reconnected its downtown to its spectacular Blue Water coast.

This work has been aided by Great Lakes cleanup funding. Bolstered in part by a 2007 Brookings study predicting a 3:1 economic impact for every dollar invested in Great Lakes cleanup, Congress and President Obama approved funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) beginning in 2009. Since then, the federal government has spent over $2.3 billion on more than 3,500 projects along the 10,000 miles of Great Lakes freshwater coastline. Michigan, the Great Lakes state, has gotten the lion’s share – 760 projects worth more than $700 million.  Projects (documented in an interactive EPA map) have cleaned toxic hot spots, redeveloped wastewater systems, restored harbors and waterfronts, protected and reconstituted vital wetlands and fish habitats, reduced invasive species, curbed nutrient runoffs, and improved overall water quality. This $700 million cleanup in Michigan has leveraged over $2 billion in new economic activity along our coasts.

For many Rust Belt communities that aren’t home to a major metro area or anchored by one of the region’s world-class universities, Great Lakes restoration bolsters their economic standing. Only 67 counties out of 504 total—one in eight - in Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania today have higher per-capita incomes than their statewide average. By comparison, one in five (15 of 70) counties in these same states that touch a Great Lake boast above-average incomes – including four of the nine high-income counties in Michigan (Emmet, Charlevoix, Grand Traverse, and Leelanau). We could arguably claim Kent County as a fifth where Grand Rapids proximity to Lake Michigan is one the major draws for people and business.

Michigan’ s other high-income counties (Oakland, Washtenaw and Kalamazoo) are either part of a major metro area or home to a major university—as is true for most high income counties throughout the  Great Lakes – But the remaining Great Lakes high-income coastal communities are smaller historical places sitting on some special real estate, where the ability to enjoy the water for strolling, boating, and birding, or just to watch a sunset or sunrise from an office, home, or restaurant pays an economic dividend. And while our high-income Lake Michigan coastal counties are top tourist destinations and  home to better-off cottage owners from elsewhere—increasingly our coastal communities are the location of choice for year round working professionals and retirees, given the special quality of life and place made real by clean water and ‘Pure Michigan’.

A rigorous study to gauge the impact of GLRI spending on our Michigan Blue Economy (www.Michiganblueeconomy.org)  is now underway coordinated by the Council of Great Lakes Industries and the Great Lakes Commission. But the connection of the people of the region and Michigan to the Great Lakes, and their enjoyment of its newly clean and accessible waters, may explain the strong and successful bipartisan pushback to date against the Trump Administration efforts to zero out the GLRI. And while the Trump Administration keeps working to find ways to walk back environmental protections put in place by the Obama Administration in the name of supporting economic growth, most recently rescinding an Executive order designed to protect oceans and Great Lakes after the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico - Great Lakes region business and political leaders understand clean Great Lakes are central to a thriving economy.

In that sense, the pull and magic of the Great Lakes and freshwater coast may be one of the few things more powerful than today’s polarized politics.

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Wed, 08/15/2018 - 8:35am

The issue of funding for the GLRI shouldn't be seen as whether it's beneficial or not, it's mainly about who should pay for it. All the wealthy cottage owners and other direct beneficiaries of the Great lakes? Passed on to tax payers living across the country each with other concerns of their own? Or stuck on our grand kids future tab through our ballooning national debt? This is the more interesting question that ultimately will not be avoided.

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 10:23am

Our grandchildren will have no future without fresh water, and the rest of the country will soon be depending upon the Great Lakes for fresh water as well. We need leadership capable of creating a vision for the future for all Americans. The focus on "who is going to pay for it" is not the issue. It is much bigger than that, and will not be solved until we have leadership that is not about "special interests" and corruption.

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 1:02pm

So Bernadette, we agree of the importance of the Great Lakes. Do you assume leadership and funding for the care of anything can only come from the federal government rather than state and regional bodies that actually live with the resource they claim to care for? The federal authorities can do no wrong? This thinking is the problem. Most people who want to rely on the federal government for everything usually do so because they don't want to be anywhere near the financial costs for the benefits they want to receive.

Andrew McFarlane
Wed, 08/15/2018 - 5:01pm

The Great Lakes are important for far more than wealthy cottage owners. This is from 2011 but still very relevant.

More than 1.5 million U.S. jobs are directly connected to the Great Lakes, generating $62 billion in wages annually, according to a new analysis by Michigan Sea Grant at the University of Michigan.

The analysis, released today, is based on 2009 employment data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and represents a conservative estimate of direct employment related to the Great Lakes in several industries, according to the authors, Michigan Sea Grant’s assistant director, Jennifer Read, and research specialist Lynn Vaccaro.

“Many people don’t realize how large an impact the Great Lakes have across many large sectors of this region’s economy,” Read said. “The total number of jobs and the percentage of jobs by industry illustrate just how critical the Great Lakes are to the region. For example, there are more than 525,000 Great Lakes-related jobs in Michigan alone.”

A collaborative effort of U-M and Michigan State University, Michigan Sea Grant is part of the NOAA-National Sea Grant network of more than 30 university-based programs. ... The new report looks at the number of jobs connected to the Great Lakes by state and by industry. According to the report, Michigan has the highest number of jobs that depend on the lakes (525,886), followed by Illinois (380,786), Ohio (178,621), Wisconsin (173,969), New York (157,547), Indiana (54,397), Pennsylvania (25,479) and Minnesota (11,877).

Manufacturing was responsible for 66 percent of the Great Lakes-linked jobs, followed by tourism and recreation (14 percent), shipping (8 percent), agriculture (8 percent), science and engineering (2 percent), utilities (1 percent) and mining (1 percent). Great Lakes vessels transport an average of 163 million tons of cargo each year. Lake vessels can ship goods three times more efficiently than rail and 10 times more efficiently than trucks. This transportation system sustains manufacturing and steel production, while the clean, abundant Great Lakes waters attract chemical and pharmaceutical companies to the region.

Michigan Observer
Wed, 08/15/2018 - 5:28pm

Matt is absolutely correct. Far too many people lack the civic virtue to accept the responsibility of paying for the benefits they desire. They wish to externalize their costs to someone else, anyone else. If the Great Lakes region is going to be the overwhelming beneficiary of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, why shouldn't the Great Lakes region pick up the overwhelming share of the cost?

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 9:22am

Why would a writer for the Bridge use the slanderous term "Rust Belt". The south doesn't call themselves the Sweat Belt, or any other derogatory term. The west does not call themselves the Parched Belt . We have 20% of the freshwater in the world. If you feel the need to use a descriptive term why not "Fresh Water Belt"

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 1:04pm

Good point! Elitism is the only prejudice that is still allowable.

Wed, 08/15/2018 - 12:01pm

Reminds me of the debate about catalytic converters and how it would kill the American auto industry and how pushing for LED bulbs was 'stupid'. I'm old enough to remember the awful air pollution we had (you could smell the ozone before they warned us about it).
Have we learned nothing? It appears so.

Sun, 08/19/2018 - 2:57pm

Hopefully the powers that be can ascribe to a LONG range vision for the great lakes. All of us are but temporary occupants and stewards of this region for our progeny. Hopefully the GLRI will continue this stewardship with each generation leaving the area in better stead than we have found it. {There are MANY challenges yet to face-PFAS, factory and farm runoffetc...} There was a time when Michigan led the nation in regulation of water resources, pollution regulation and environmental forethought. Sadly we have backtracked on this leadership roll.