At the Front Lines of the Global Transition

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Corvette Museum’s Crushed Cars, Closing Sinkhole As American Metaphor

One of the eight Corvettes wrecked after a sinkhole opened in February beneath a wing of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Photo/Keith Schneider

One of the eight Corvettes wrecked after a sinkhole opened in February beneath a wing of the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Photo/Keith Schneider

BOWLING GREEN, KY. — Seven months after a sinkhole opened in the wee hours in a wing of the National Corvette Museum, collapsing a concrete floor and swallowing eight sports cars, museum executives in September announced they would fill the hole, repair two cars, and move on.

In every way, the Earth’s swift unbuttoning of the ground, the muddy ruin it caused to valuable machines, the attention the injury-free event attracted, and the decision to fill the hole represents a useful metaphor of our time.

First is the sinkhole itself. Unanticipated, unheard, entirely direct and assured in its purpose and mastery of the situation, the 40-foot deep expanse of rock and mud is impressive and ruinous. Bowling Green rests in a region of the country astir with subterranean adventure. The “karst” geology underlying the city and its environs consists of water-soluble limestone set in an underground matrix awash in irrepressible hidden streams. In such regions the rock strata slowly dissolves, which is why Kentucky is so famous for its wondrous big caves.

Though knowledge of the risk is widespread in southwestern Kentucky, engineers apparently discounted the potential that the domed addition they were designing for the museum, founded in 1994, might become unstable. Assured that the danger was close to nonexistent, museum directors carefully laid out a display of rare, valuable, and buff-polished Corvettes from various manufacturing years to be admired by thousands. The message of the display was unmistakable — here in an ample theater lit by natural light rested the 20th century engineering and design transport jewels of a great and wealthy nation.
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Showing Off Circle of Blue Colleagues and Reporting in Traverse City

Circle of Blue's Choke Point: China project showed how China's massive energy-consuming urban construction program, like this development in Xian, is producing an urgent confrontation over water in the dry north, where much of China's energy is produced. Photo/Keith Schneider

Circle of Blue’s Choke Point: China project showed how China’s massive energy-consuming urban construction program, like this development in Xian, is producing an urgent a confrontation over water in the dry north, where much of China’s energy is produced. Photo/Keith Schneider

TRAVERSE CITY, MI — On Wednesday evening October 8, 2014 Circle of Blue, the Traverse City-based global news organization, is inviting colleagues and friends to meet our talented staff and learn about the state-of-the-art multimedia work we are doing that is changing the world.

This is no exaggeration. And while Circle of Blue has developed expertise and new digital tools to report on the consequences of the fierce global contest for natural resources, the successes we’ve enjoyed really aren’t that unusual in our home region.

Traverse City, you see, is a civic boil. With its rich diversity of community-shaping groups — environmental, progressive business, new media, local foods, transport, and clean energy — the small coastal city of 15,000 near the top of Lake Michigan is a crucible for new approaches to succeeding in a century of ecological and economic transformation.

Circle of Blue is privileged to be a member of this committed community of change. No other news organization in the world is doing more to inform citizens and global leaders about water security, and what the 21st century holds for national economies and communities, including our own Great Lakes region.

On Wednesday evening join me at the Inside Out Gallery in Traverse City to meet the members of the Circle of Blue staff.  Our team will present exclusive stories and stunning imagery from the world’s tightening water-food-energy choke points. This is an evening to introduce our circle of northern Michigan friends to the critically important work this Traverse City organization is doing here at home and around the world.

We are so privileged to be part of a Traverse region community of such talent and commitment to making a difference. Join us for what promises to be an evening immersed in exploration and good cheer.

Where:
Inside Out Gallery
229 Garland Street
Traverse City, MI

When:
Wednesday, October 8
7 p.m.
with music by Blair Miller beginning at 6:15 p.m.

Your tour guides:

J. Carl Ganter, Circle of Blue director and co-founder
Keith Schneider, senior editor and chief correspondent
Brett Walton, reporter
Codi Yeager Kozacek, reporter
Kaye LaFond, reporter & data visualizer
Aubrey Ann Parker & Jordan Bates, social media
Matthew Welch, change manager
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In Heart of Rand Paul Territory, Public Investment For Public Purposes

Bowling Green, Kentucky applied taxpayer funds to redevelop its downtown despite objections from its most famous resident -- Senator Rand Paul.

Bowling Green, Kentucky applied taxpayer funds to redevelop its downtown despite objections from its most famous resident — Senator Rand Paul.

BOWLING GREEN, KY. – When Gary Ransdell, the president of Western Kentucky University, invites alumni to view this city’s redeveloping downtown from his hilltop campus, the response is almost always exclamations of surprise.

Just below domed Cherry Hall, one of the 108-year-old university’s grandest buildings, are nearly 200,000 square feet of new student housing, built at a cost of $24 million. There’s also a 30,000 square foot, $10 million alumni center, and a 72,500 square-foot $14.5 million Hyatt Place hotel due to open in 2015.

Next door to the Hyatt site is a $28 million mixed use development that is under construction and will house 240 more students on one side of College Street, and a separate building on the other for small businesses, restaurants, and a rooftop pool.

There’s also four new fraternity houses built at a cost of $3 million, and a 450-space parking deck flanked by 30,000 square feet of retail businesses and restaurants that are expected to open next year.

Mr. Ransdell described the projects closest to the 108-year-old university as the latest additions to the $262 million in downtown construction since 2008 that is rehabilitating Bowling Green’s central business district. All of the new structures replace deteriorated homes and ragged retail businesses that for decades formed a barrier between the university and city center.

Bowling Green's new SKyPac theater is a new downtown institution.

Bowling Green’s new SKyPac theater is a new downtown institution.

“There’s been a shift in student density at the north end of our campus. With each new project that density increases,” said Mr. Ransdell, Western Kentucky’s president since 1997. “We’re all a bunch of bulldogs in this community. We haven’t seen a deal that we didn’t like. We want to close them all.”

Judging from the scope and progress made over the last six years, it clearly appears that deal making has evolved into a choice skill in this city of 61,000 residents, Kentucky’s third largest. Arguably the most important was the pact that the city and Warren County reached with the state to establish a 383-acre, 52-block, special development and tax district in 2007.

The district pays local governments 80 percent of the increases in payroll, property, sales and other tax revenue generated by new development within the district boundaries. Revenue is devoted to retiring construction bonds, building infrastructure, and assisting developers, including the university.

In August, while on assignment for The New York Times, I reported on Bowling Green’s successful downtown development project, which was made possible its allegiance to the time-honored American principle of devoting public funds for public purposes. It’s that principle of economic development which is under attack from the Tea Party and its adherents in municipal, state, and the federal government. One of the leaders of that anti-tax, anti-spend sentiment is Rand Paul, the Republican junior senator from Kentucky, who has lived in Bowling Green since 1993, where he opened a medical practice in opthamology.

I asked Doug Gorman, a downtown business owner and chairman of the Warren County Downtown Economic Development Authority, what Senator Paul thought about Bowling Green’s progress and how it was achieved. Mr. Gorman told me he was a close friend of the Senator and one evening, at a party the two attended, Mr. Paul pulled him aside to voice his objections to how taxpayer funds were applied to downtown development. “He wasn’t happy about it,” said Mr. Gorman. “I asked him whether he had a better way to do what we were doing? Because this is the best way we know.”

And for good reason. As I reported in The New York Times in August, this year the city’s development district, formally called the WKU Gateway to Downtown Bowling Green, will return to the city and county over $2 million in revenue. Over its 30-year life, ending in 2037, the tax district will deliver $200 million to the two governments, said Doug Gorman, a downtown business owner and chairman of the Warren County Downtown Economic Development Authority, which oversees the gateway project. “The whole point of what we’re trying to do is to get more people to enjoy our downtown, to live here and work here,” said Mr. Gorman. “If you look around now, it’s pretty clear that people get the point.”

Until the Gateway project began to unfold, Bowling Green was largely known for its university, the third largest in Kentucky, and for the General Motors assembly plant not far away, where Corvettes have been built since 1981. Earlier this year a sinkhole opened in a wing of the privately-managed National Corvette Museum near the plant, swallowing eight sports cars that were on display, and prompting significant increases in attendance.
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Olmsted Locks and Dam, Despite $Billions in Overruns, Keeps Rolling Along

The Olmsted Locks and Dam, 17 miles from where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi, is the largest inland navigation project in U.S. history. Photo/Keith Schneider

The Olmsted Locks and Dam, 17 miles from where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi, is the largest inland navigation project in U.S. history. Photo/Keith Schneider

OLMSTED, Ill. –- Engineers constructing the mammoth Olmsted Locks and Dam spent the summer of 2014 lowering colossal concrete blocks in place on the bottom of the Ohio River.

Submerging each piece, which form the base of a half-mile long dam that is largely underwater, is an exacting convergence of digital measurements, floating cranes, groaning towboats, and divers working in murky waters that takes over two weeks to complete.

Like everything else about the two locks and the dam that reaches from Illinois to Kentucky at one of the Ohio’s widest points, the 120-foot-long, 2,562-ton blocks are outsized. Completing Olmsted has involved solving wicked structural and assembly challenges prompted by its experimental design. It’s meant fabricating one-of-a-kind heavy lift cranes that crawl on land and float on a barge.

It’s also caused engineers and skilled craftsmen to candidly accept the criticism that comes with a steadily rising price tag that appears to have stabilized at $US 3.1 billion, and to endure a nearly 30-year construction schedule that no one anticipated.

Still, those are not the only distinguishing features of the Olmsted project, the largest and most expensive inland water navigation installation ever built in the United States. What sets the Olmsted project apart is its uncanny ability to attract consistent funding in an era when most of the other water infrastructure projects in the United States are so desperate for money they generally are not built or are years behind schedule. For example:

– The Army Corps of Engineers, which constructs and manages inland water transport infrastructure, including the Olmsted Project, has a $US 66 billion backlog of projects.

– The American Water Works Association, a trade organization, released a study in 2012 that found that due to deferred maintenance, replacing and modernizing the more than one million miles of water supply pipes in the United States will require an investment of $US 1 trillion over the next generation.

– The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, charged by federal law to safeguard the nation’s water quality, reports that “every year across the country, there are approximately 240,000 water main breaks. As many as 75,000 yearly sanitary sewer overflows discharge three to ten billion gallons of untreated wastewater, leading to some 5,500 illnesses due to exposures to contaminated recreational waters.”

My articles on the Olmsted Locks and Dam were published in August in the New York Times, and in September by Circle of Blue.
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World Water Week Beckons For Answers To Scarcity, Pollution, Security

The 24th annual World Water Week attracted 3,000 participants from 130 countries to discuss the ties between energy and water. Photo/Keith Schneider

The 24th annual World Water Week attracted 3,000 participants from 130 countries to discuss the ties between energy and water. Photo/Keith Schneider

STOCKHOLM — Of all the world’s developed nations, none faces a more urgent confrontation between rising energy demand and scarce water supplies than South Africa. Just as in other desert African nations, parched South Africa is desperate to generate more energy while somehow bypassing ecological limits on its water supply.

One in every ten of South Africa’s 51 million residents do not have ready access to clean supplies of drinking water, according Christine Colvin, a freshwater program specialist for the World Wide Fund for Nature in South Africa. More than one in ten South Africans does not have access to electricity in a nation that has built just 46,000 megawatts of electrical generating capacity, said Martin Ginster, a land, water, and environmental manager at Sasol, the big South African coal and fuel producing company.

That’s the same level of generating capacity as Illinois, a big American industrial state with about one-fifth of South Africa’s population. Ninety percent of South Africa’s electricity is fueled by water-gulping coal.

During two programs convened by the World Resources Institute, and held here on the third and fourth days of World Water Week, Colvin and Ginster described the conflicting paths that South African authorities are considering to respond to their nation’s thirst for water and energy. In one scenario, which the nation is pursuing with modest resolve, is to tap the country’s deep shale reserves for new supplies of natural gas. That involves fracturing the reserves with millions of gallons of water, though it is not certain that the fluid needed to frack those wells needs to be fresh water.

The other new pathway is to build more than 18,000 megawatts (18 gigawatts) of new generating capacity from wind and solar photovoltaic plants, both of which require far lower amounts of fresh water. South Africa has set 2030 as the year it wants to reach that goal.

Stockholm, Sweden' 800-year-old capital, is a city of 900,000 residents and a gracious host of World Water Week. Photo/Keith Schneider

Stockholm, Sweden’s 800-year-old capital, is a city of 900,000 residents and a gracious host of World Water Week. Photo/Keith Schneider

Neither Colvin nor Ginster knew what it might cost to build 18 gigawatts of renewable generating capacity, though it’s not a terrifically large amount of power. Yet what was striking about their comments to an ample audience of executives, scientists, activists and government officials from around the world was the agreement both shared about the need to actively pursue the clean energy program and be exceedingly cautious about fracking South Africa’s desert.
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