Dream Big — Why Ohio River Valley Resurgence is Nationally and Globally Significant

After GE closed its factories, and put 6,000 people out of work in the late 20th century, Owensboro was forced to develop new economic ideas. The city is now the center of bluegrass music in the world. The 23 String Band performs at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in September 2014. Photo\Keith Schneider

After GE closed its factories, and put 6,000 people out of work in the late 20th century, Owensboro was forced to develop new economic ideas. The city is now the center of bluegrass music in the world. The 23 String Band performs at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in September 2014. Photo\Keith Schneider

OWENSBORO, KY — More than three years ago, while writing a study that suggested several new 21st century development ideas for this old river city, I discovered the mysteries of the Ohio River Valley.

The region’s natural beauty is immediately striking. The recovering economies of cities and counties, once described as the Rust Belt, impress me. The unexpected governing approaches — cities passing new taxes as a development tool, and seeking consolidation with their surrounding counties — is out of step with what I knew about a region that wholly embraces the no-new-taxes, era of austerity, big government-hating rhetoric of conservative dogma.

My thinking has evolved over the last several years and is now influenced by what I see during the global reporting I’m undertaking for Circle of Blue. What’s plain to me is that the six states of the Ohio River Valley are providing powerful lessons for the country — in local and state governance, energy use, demography, tax investments, business technology, and government\industry collaboration.

My research needs to be deeper on these points, and I’m gathering string for my first book. But my instinct is that a persuasive case can be made that the region that produced the 50-year (1940-1990) American era of industrial innovation and working man prosperity is again forming the foundations of a new and purely American era of economic well-being and ecological recovery.

The Ohio River in Newburgh, Indiana. Photo\KeithSchneider

The Ohio River in Newburgh, Indiana. Photo\KeithSchneider


Big, Big Transition in Progress
The Ohio River Valley’s cities are thriving. They are clean, uncrowded, well managed, and enjoy much lower costs for housing and property taxes.

— The Ohio River Valley environment is much cleaner than it was in 1950; much of the land and water is now secured by regulation and covenants that enjoy strong popular support.

— The Ohio River Valley’s core industries — agriculture, transport, logistics, energy, education, manufacturing — are very healthy.

— The valley’s new industries — health care, online marketing, communications, biotech, banking — are providing most of the job growth.

There are weaknesses and bummer trends in all this, of course. The allegiance to coal is an impediment in every way. If coal is such a good thing why are five of the ten poorest counties in the U.S. in Kentucky’s Appalachian coal belt? The Ohio River itself, cleaner than it was, is not nearly clean enough. That’s a function of civic indifference and the cost of expanding wastewater treatment capacity. There’s also a lingering regional ennui, the cynicism that arises from a populace that is far from convinced that the new well-being will last, or is a good thing.

The largest inland navigation project ever built in the U.S., the Olmsted Locks and Dam, is under construction near where the Ohio River empties into the Mississippi River. Photo\Keith Schneider

The largest inland navigation project ever built in the U.S., the Olmsted Locks and Dam, is under construction near where the Ohio River empties into the Mississippi River. Photo\Keith Schneider

A Departure From Development Trends Overseas
The big point is this: The nations that I report from — Arabian Gulf, China, India, Mongolia, Peru — are earnest in pursuing development strategies to strengthen their economies and produce jobs. But in every case those strategies — big power plants, big dams, big farm chemical use, mega cities, mega highways, big factories, mega mines — are absolutely wrecking their air, their water, their land, and filling cities with impoverished migrants who live without running water.

The high-energy, high-resource, high-cost way of life they seek is producing a geography of public health danger and ecological ruin.

The Ohio River Valley, though, also is pursuing a new development strategy. The clear consequence, a very sharp departure from much of the rest of the world, is that conditions are improving. That is a huge and very hopeful trend.

Overseas, nations of the developing world are headstrong about executing the U.S. development path, invented in the 20th century to fit the conditions of the 20th century — ample land, ample water resources, low energy costs, moderate population growth, rising personal wealth, rising government wealth, competitiveness in core industries.

Five new steel plants opened in Ohio over the last three years, the first new Ohio steel plants since the early 1980s. One of them is the Timken plant near Canton. Photo\Keith Schneider

Five new steel plants opened in Ohio over the last three years, the first new Ohio steel plants since the early 1980s. One of them is the Timken plant near Canton. Photo\Keith Schneider

In the 21st century all of those conditions flipped over. Moreover, the planet has become much more truculent. Floods are more powerful. Droughts are longer and deeper. Tsunamis and earthquakes and hurricanes and typhoons are more numerous. Disease outbreaks and insect infestations are more threatening.

Somehow, the Ohio River Valley cities and states anticipated the rapid transition in economic and ecological conditions. The new path of Ohio River Valley development appears to fits its time better than any region of North America, and better than any region of the world that I’ve visited except Scandinavia. The facts I want to gather explain 1) what is happening in this little noticed but crucially important region, 2) how it happened, and 3) why it matters to America and the world.

— Keith Schneider

A new riverwalk in Henderson, Kentucky makes sunsets easier to approach on the Ohio River. Photo\KeithSchneider

A new riverwalk in Henderson, Kentucky makes sunsets easier to approach on the Ohio River. Photo\KeithSchneider

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