Charting A Future For Michigan Through Maine

If you read the growing number of economic development proposals about how to solve what we in Michigan call the “one state recession,” it’s readily plain that they all say pretty much the same thing. Promote the idea that educational attainment is a priority, and make it possible for more students to attend and graduate from college. Improve Michigan’s cities so that they are magnets for talented entrepreneurial young people. Develop strategies that leverage Michigan’s treasure trove of natural resources in new ways. For instance, a state surrounded by more clean fresh water than any place on earth should be the planet’s leader in developing new companies and technology to promote its sustainable use. Michigan, in other words, has to figure out what it wants to be.

That, friends, is a new idea. And as anyone who’s paid attention to the 35-year decline of the American auto industry knows, new ideas aren’t a virtue in Michigan. The hierarchical way of doing business, learned in the auto industry and which worked so well in Michigan for much of the 20th century, is not only obsolete it’s completely unfit for the innovative, collaborative, accelerated, and competitive 21st.

Now, we aren’t the only old economy state challenged by its own outmoded rules of the game. Another is Maine, where fishing and woolen mills and paper factories are all going the same way as the American auto assembly line. But Maine, which has just over 1 million residents, one-tenth as many as Michigan, is on the verge of figuring out what to do about it. 

Last October, GrowSmart Maine, the state’s non–profit smart growth organization based in Yarmouth, held a conference that attracted 800 participants, all of whom gathered to hear what the Brookings Institution recommended for building the state’s new economy and ensuring the quality of life. Brookings spent a year studying Maine and its final report, “Charting Maine’s Future,” is a great piece of economic and cultural analysis and can be secured on the GrowSmart Maine Web site.

The report’s most important contribution was not in identifying what was wrong with Maine, but in focusing on what was right, especially Maine’s fabled high quality of life based on its maritime and North Woods culture, and all of its innovative people, many of them educated in New England’s elite colleges and universities. What was missing, said Mark Muro, the report’s principal author and a policy specialist at Brookings’s Metropolitan Policy Program, was discipline. The courage to decide to act. 

The Brookings researchers, financially supported by a ton of money raised by GrowSmart Maine, suggested three steps to prosperity. The first two would establish a $190 million fund to revitalize cities, protect forests and farms, and make it easier for people to hunt and fish, and a $200 million fund to promote innovation and entrepreneurism.

Now right here is where Maine can help Michigan. Brookings suggested paying for the two investment funds by eliminating waste, duplication, and inefficiencies in state and local government. “A top-to-bottom overhaul of bureaucracies would not only improve service and finance needed  investments, but could also make a down payment on tax reform,” said the report.croppedalan1.jpg

As Alan Caron, GrowSmart Maine’s founder and executive director (in pix left), told me earlier this month, Brookings helped his organization fashion the perfect message of the moment. Conservatives like the limited government piece, while liberals hanker for the government activism portion. Maine knows its paramount challenge is defining its place in the global economy. The state now has a message — the money saved here can be invested there — that makes such sense that the political community, including both parties and every level of government, from the town halls to the Legislature to the governor’s office, is  essentially on the same page. Bills to enact the full scope of the Brookings recommendations have been introduced. Serious debate is under way. Alan told me he expects many to be approved. A poll of 500 registered voters that GrowSmart Maine released on February 1, 2007, showed that 91 percent of those polled agreed that the  Legislature should “streamline government al all levels to free up resources for investment in the new economy and lowering taxes.”

Governor Jennifer Granholm. Legislative leaders. Michigan mayors, business executives, non-profit administrators, and citizens. Maine has pointed the way to achieving a new economic strategy in our great state.

Flip: GE’s Interactive Project to Explore Quality of Place

Flip is Mode Shift’s new feature exploring the breakthrough examples of how interactive and social media connect with commerce, land use, resource conservation, and place. Take a look at General Electric’s Geoterra Ecoimagination site, which deploys interactive motion graphics and audio to explore virtual geography. True, this is an exceptional device for marketing the company’s products. But it’s also a very strong move to prove G.E.’s  sustainable bona fides, a trend noted in last spring’s Vanity Fair green issue.

Developing high-end graphics, and inviting participation and feedback, is a keen way to explore the space  where green business and smart growth values merge. Improving the economy and quality of life. Interactive media and smart growth. Cool stuff.

Net Root Attack: Another View

How important is the Internet? We learned the answer in the old farmhouse at the top of the hill in Benzonia, where the Michigan Land Use Institute was founded. There were eight of us with the organization then, doing our research and writing at old desks topped by new computers and monitors, all woven together on an internal server that also provided access to the Internet.

It was 1998 and we thought we were pretty hip. After all, for a small non-profit we’d done well. Six months before, the Institute launched the first version of its Web site. One sweaty July afternoon, though, the site went down, and with it our internal server and email. I”ll never forget the next thing that happened. One by one closed office doors opened. privatedisplay.jpgYoung staffers, eyebrows raised, joined the middle age people in the building’s central hall. No question. Work came to a standstill and wouldn’t resume until service was restored. We looked at each other, shrugged, and creeped back to our desks to see if we were back online. We weren’t, so we took the afternoon off and rolled down the hill to the beach at Crystal Lake.

I was reminded of that afternoon when NPR and other news desks took note this week of the hacker attack on several of the important server installations that keep the World Wide Web operating. The frame for the national newsies was “what if.” The frame for techies in the blogosphere was either “we told you so,” or a surprisingly flip and almost cynical “who cares.” 

“It didn’t really do anything,” said Gizmodo, one of the most popular blogs covering technology, “at least not anything that normal users noticed.”

Today I had a conversation with an old friend who edits in New York . She asked me what I thought the attack meant, and where “it all,” i.e. the Internet, was going. I’m no soothsayer, but let’s consider a few views about the Internet that are unassailable at this point. For one, if television went down for a week, does it really make much of a difference in the course of our lives over those seven days? Perhaps for advertisers, jocks, actors, newscasters, and the few million of us who can’t live without the tube. Hardly a moment to panic. Same for radio or newspapers. If they disappeared for a week, what would it really matter?  

But if the Internet went down for a week, there would be a global economic crisis. Companies would collapse. Entire economic sectors would retreat. Business and industry would come to a standstill at the precise moment that the servers failed. The Internet is so tightly meshed into human commerce that it is impossible to exist without it. What’s more, the evolution of the Internet as the dominant invention of its age started in 1994, just 13 years ago, when AOL provided the first dial-up service.

I like to compare these first years of the  Internet to the early decades of the auto industry. At one time, around 1917, 23 automobile companies in Detroit, many of them located along Woodward Avenue, assembled more than 1 million vehicles a year. Building cars in Detroit changed the world. It prompted new wealth, union organizing, and land and resource-hungry development patterns. Cars also produced a culture of ease, convenience, and physical lassitude based on cheap oil, cheap land, and massive spending on roads and highways. 

The auto age is ending. The Internet is close to surpassing the auto economy and culture, if it hasn’t already done so. The digital backbone of the Web supports a global economic, cultural, communications, trade, entertainment, and governing infrastructure that has never been more interconnected, and can’t be replaced.

No More $125 An Acre Stuff

bill-bobier.jpgBill Bobier, who’s a progressive Republican from Oceana County on Michigan’s west side, once represented four Lake Michigan counties in the state Legislature. At the time, in the mid-1990s, he was one of the rare good guys in a Legislature swinging so hard right that even Michigan Republicans didn’t recognize their own kind. What made Bobier especially distinctive was his farm, where he and his wife raised vegetables and beef. I once spent the day out there watching Bill fix his fences. We then sat for a few hours in his farm country kitchen talking about the agriculture economy. I remember him explain that every time the Michigan Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environmental Quality issued a new regulation to manage big growers, the first folks hurt were the small guys.

Bill brought the same message to the Seeds of Prosperity conference today. Oceana County has emerged as one of the centers of agricultural innovation in the Midwest. Apple growers over there, for instance, developed the quick fresh-freeze and packaging process that became McDonald’s popular Apple Dippers. The county’s asparagus growers figured out how to market their fresh frozen products to Wal-Mart and other food retailers. 

Since leaving the Legislature, Bill spends most of his professional time in Lansing, where he has an office across the street from the Capitol, and lobbies on farmland conservation and agriculture. The small farm, one of Michigan’s important employers, is as critical to the state’s economy as any small manufacturer, he argues. Maybe more so at this point as Michigan sheds manufacturing jobs by the tens of thousands a year. Still, the Department of Labor and Economic Growth, the business recruitment agency, keeps falling over itself to recruit small manufacturers. DLEG does very little to promote agriculture or small growers.

It’s another example of 20th century thinking that needs updating. In fact, there are few small manufacturers moving to Michigan or getting started here. There are many more small farmers, though, getting into business, especially in the Consumer Supported Agriculture sector which has grown up around the state’s big cities. 

Everybody eats, Bobier argues. There ought to be a way for the state to leverage the abundance of fresh food produced by small growers to build the regional processing, marketing, and distribution systems that make it possible for residents to eat fresh food, for farmers to gain prices worthy of their labor and skill, and for a much larger farm sector to employ thousands of people who earn living wages. We did it with widgets, said Bobier, and we ought do it with home-grown products that people really need. Fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and meat. 

Michigan’s Great Farm Statesman

Every now and again you cross paths with someone who just vibrates differently than the ordinary Joe. It’s more than superior intelligence, or charisma, wisdom, energy, and experience. It’s how rare people draw those gifts together in a way that is so graceful and encompassing and fearless. A statesman, if you will. Michigan is in desperate need of more of these kind of people.

Michigan’s farm sector, fortunately, is graced by an authentic leader, a Nigerian-born agriculture economist named Soji Adelaja, who leads the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University.  Early in his career Soji spent time on Wall Street, where he applied the  very same economic models used for attaining crop production efficiency to investment forecasting. He made his name at Rutgers, where he was a senior executive in the agricultural extension program, and among other things, developed New Jersey’s $1 billion farmland and open space investment fund.

soji.jpgMSU convinced Soji to move himself and his family to Michigan nearly four years ago, when the governor and Legislature seemed poised to enact pieces of a new smart growth development strategy that included conserving farmland and open space, strengthening cities, and slowing down energy- and money-wasting sprawl. Though Soji’s a nationally renown economist, at heart he’s really an accomplished public policy advocate who was convinced that Michigan was poised on the threshold of a new economic era based on better uses of land.

Not long after Soji arrived, unfortunately, the bottom dropped out of Michigan’s economy and instead of talking about how to rein in sprawl and smart growth the state conversation shifted to how to prevent decline. Like other advocates Soji retooled the message and suggested that Michigan’s competitiveness could be tied to how we treated cities and land, how we thought about food and farming, how reliance on a multitude of interlocking ideas instead of just one idea — auto manufacturing — could make the state’s transition much easier. Soji, in short, began to talk about prosperity. He was among the first to frame that big idea around leveraging Michigan’s agriculture sector in new ways. He spoke here today in his lovely Nigerian accent to some 300 food and farming specialists and advocates, arguing that good food grown and consumed in Michigan is as important to the 21st century as auto manufacturing was in the 20th. There was a time not terribly long ago when such a notion would have been considered so far from the mainstream as to be almost laughable. Not any more. In food, land, and good health lies the foundation of a durable economy that Michigan is desperate to develop.