Local leaders offer mixed feelings on blue economy

By Shoham Geva, Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 8, 2014

Over the past several years, following in the footsteps of a decade-long push for environmental restoration, the idea of using the Great Lakes a driver of Michigan’s economy has culminated in a significant amount of political action at state and federal levels.

Under the direction of a 2007 Act of Congress, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently conducting a long-term study of invasive species in the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River Basin. U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (D–Bloomfield Township) has made the economic impact of the Great Lakes a focal point of his senatorial campaign through his Great Lakes Jobs Tour.

“From a political perspective, it’s a good issue to pick up,” said Jennifer Read, director of the University’s Water Center and a former member of the Great Lakes Commission. “It’s not just the environment, but it’s closely tied to our economy in the region. A strong and healthy ecosystem, we’ve demonstrated, is reflected in a strong economy.”

Recently released survey results from CLOSUP, the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy within the Ford School of Public Policy, found that at the local level the concept of a “blue economy” has been well received — but to a limited extent, and with varying impact depending on location.

The findings come from data collected in the fall 2013 edition of the Michigan Public Policy Survey, a biannually administered study that asks local government officials across the state about a variety of topics.

According to the survey, 99 percent of local leaders — which the study classified as a mix of city managers, mayors, township officials and county administrators and board chairs — agree that the Great Lakes overall are an important economic resource for Michigan.

Regarding the lakes’ status as a local economic resource, this sentiment was most strongly rooted in coastal jurisdictions, with 71 percent of leaders saying they felt strongly that the lakes are an important economic resource for their local community. However, this number dropped sharply 10 miles inland, with only 21 percent of local leaders feeling strongly that the lakes are an important economic resource locally. Among local leaders more than 40 miles inland, the 58 percent of local officials disagree that there are valuable local economic benefits from the Lakes to be had on a local level.

Tom Ivacko, CLOSUP’s program manager and administrator, said the differing assessments of the lakes’ importance by location, especially with such wide variation, was surprising.

“We expected to see much stronger connections between local governments and the Great Lakes,” Ivacko said. “When you think about Michigan, you think about the Great Lakes. They’re such an important part of our history, our self-identity, that to see this relationship weaken so quickly in such a short distance, we were pretty surprised by that.”

When asked who should be responsible for protecting the Great Lakes, local leaders listed state government first, followed by the U.S and Canadian federal governments, the private sector, individuals, and then local government last.

Ivacko said while this finding was surprising, it was tempered by several other factors, namely the fact that even though local government is listed last, 67 percent of respondents still said it should have some responsibility.

“That’s still a pretty strong majority; it’s just much lower than state governments or the U.S and Canadian federal governments and so on,” he said. “But still, more than two-thirds think their own local governments should have some role.”

Survey respondents also answered questions about proposed regulatory actions to promote the restoration of the Great Lakes, several of which would result in direct or indirect costs to local communities.

Here, the result was more positive, with the majority of local leaders supporting 10 of the proposed policy actions.

Ivacko said the report demonstrated that overall, many local leaders understand the benefits of a “blue economy for the entire state,” but not necessarily for their own communities.

“For any stakeholders who are trying to establish more of a blue economy within the state, I think these survey results are not necessarily a wakeup call, but they highlight that there’s a lot of work to do,” he said. “If other folks that are pushing for these kinds of economic ties had the same assumptions that we did going into this, I think this may raise some eyebrows about how much work they may have to do to strengthen those bonds between local governments who are not on the coast.”