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Monday, 06 February 2012 12:22

Muskegon’s Blue Economy future?

Written by  Rod Kackley
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MUSKEGON — Muskegon is sitting on a gold mine, and it is colored “blue.”

That is a major part of the message that John C. Austin, director of the Brookings Institution Great Lakes Economic Initiative, delivered to the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 27. Austin joined W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research’s George Erickcek in a joint presentation on Muskegon’s economic outlook.

Austin has been a proponent of developing the Blue Economy for years, something that he describes as all of the activity surrounding efforts to use energy and water more effectively and efficiently.

He told MiBiz that the Blue Economy is a $1.2 billion growing global industry that is an exciting opportunity for Muskegon, a community he believes occupies a “unique piece of real estate” and possesses a core competency in manufacturing that makes profiting from the Blue Economy very possible.

Just as the “Triple Bottom Line” is a three-legged stool including people, planet and profit, Austin said the Blue Economy also has three components: education, entrepreneurism and destination appeal.

He pointed to the Grand Valley State University Annis Water Resources Institute as an example of the education and research portion holding up the three-legged Blue Economy stool.

The AWRI’s mission of being committed to the study of freshwater resources to “integrate research, education and outreach to enhance and preserve freshwater resources” falls right in line with Austin’s belief that research and education make up a part of the Blue Economy.

When he spoke with MiBiz, Austin was in his Ann Arbor office, looking out his window at the University of Michigan campus. “It is no military secret why Ann Arbor is a hot house of economic activity,” he said. “It has one of the biggest, baddest research institutes on the planet.”

The second leg of the Blue Economy stool involves business and entrepreneurial activity. Austin cited companies such as Dow Chemical, Nichols Paper and Cascade Engineering as Michigan-based, private sector leaders in the Blue Economy.

He also said the Medical Mile in Grand Rapids is a model that shows how students and researchers at AWRI could create the next wave of high-tech Blue Economy spin-off businesses. That is happening in the medical technology sector on the Medical Mile, and he sees no reason that it would not happen if the Blue Economy movement takes hold in Muskegon as it has done across Lake Michigan in Milwaukee.

He said the more educated boots on the ground that a community has, the more educational levels will increase and the more the community’s quality of life will improve.

“The Business Leaders for Michigan study … talks about the power of our universities,” said Austin. “I would put Annis in that category. We need to invest in the education infrastructure that will support and grow this kind of economic activity.”

The third leg of the Blue Economy stool involves making Muskegon “a beautiful place to live and work.” That includes generating tourist dollars, but it is also all about making the city a destination for the kind of business people, researchers, scientists and students who will power this Blue Economy.

“The water has to be clean. The beaches have to be open and not closed,” said Austin. “This waterfront real estate can be a good economic engine, but it really has to be ‘Pure’ Michigan.”

While that sounds simple on paper, the fact that Brookings has to study the Blue Economy concept and present it to a community in the thick of it shows that making it work might not be as easy. The Blue Economy requires another three-legged stool, this one a platform of investment. It will take a commitment from the private sector, philanthropy, and government to fire the Blue Economy in Muskegon.

He thinks Lansing really has to take the lead on this, pushed forward by voters who demand “a more robust set of strategic incentives” that will attract more federal money, a growing dynamic that would result in a cleaner waterfront, as well as vital investment and investigation of clean energy and clean water technologies.

At the same time, it should be noted that none of this will come cheap, he said. Austin pointed out that money will have to be spent to clean up the brownfields, to knock down the old factories, to beautify Muskegon’s waterfront – all things that neither the city or the county are going to be able to pay for on their own.

Austin said the cleanup and infrastructure investment is a “pre-condition” of attracting Blue Economy businesses to Muskegon. “It is expensive. It has to be done,” he said.

Austin said clean water and lakeshores need to be seen as assets and not competitors for development and growth. This is part of what will make Muskegon a more attractive community.

He also said polluters should no longer be protected at any cost by government regulators. Instead the state Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder need to view their leadership in the Blue Economy as a real opportunity.

“This is an economic boon, not something to be feared,” said Austin. “We can put people to work (in this sector) if we are leaders and not laggards.”

Read 4591 times Last modified on Sunday, 12 August 2012 21:36

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