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.