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A Great Lakes Century?

Christopher Sands

Michigan sits in the center of the Great Lakes, the center of the U.S. northern border, and the center of the world’s largest trade relationship. Yet Michigan is also in the midst of an economic recession that affects neighbors in Ontario and the American Midwest.

Last week, the Michigan state senate again failed to approve a plan to fund a second bridge across the Detroit River. The proposed New International Trade Crossing would join the existing Ambassador Bridge in carrying people and goods back and forth, providing added capacity and room for growth in the flows that have long made the region prosperous. In tough economic times, Michigan cannot fund its share of the project, and legislators refused to accept a Canadian plan to advance the funds (to be repaid by bridge tolls) in order to get the project underway. Local radio shows and blogs overflowed with suspicions about Canadian motives.

Why would Michigan reject Canadian cooperation?

A 2009 study by the Canadian federal government’s in-house think tank, Policy Horizons Canada, compared the cross border cooperation of different regional segments of the borderlands. They noted the strong cooperation in the Pacific Northwest had led to institutions and structures and policy innovations that benefited citizens of both countries and contributed ideas and best practices that were models for the rest. The Great Plains-Prairies region and the Northeast had done less, with major populations centers in these regions too far apart for spontaneous cooperation, despite good will on both sides.

The Policy Horizons study found the Great Lakes region to be a conundrum: people in Ontario, Michigan and neighboring states viewed one another more as rivals than as partners, competing for auto industry jobs, tourism, agricultural sales, and more. Cooperation occurred, but only with effort; conflicts sprang up and often persisted.

This week, the Mowat Centre for Policy Innovation at the University of Toronto published The Vital Commons: A Policy Agenda for the Great Lakes Century. Based on a conference I attended in Windsor last June that was cosponsored by the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, The Vital Commons contains concrete recommendations for cooperative action to improve the regional economy. The report is also suffused with optimism that regional rivalries can be overcome.

The sour debate in Lansing over the prospect of building the NITC would seem to refute the optimistic vision that the region will overcome its rivalries and resentments and create a “Great Lakes Century.” Yet some Michiganders do appreciate Canada’s role. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder is a proponent of the new bridge, and sees cross-border trade and travel as vital to the revival of the state’s economy.

Snyder’s outlook inspired a group of Michigan’s leading manufacturers and universities, the Michigan Security Network to commission a new Hudson Institute study Northern Gauntlet: Michigan’s Homeland Security Advantages for America. My colleagues Christopher Ford, Tevi Troy, John Walters and I look at the challenges confronting the United States in the areas of biodefense, cybersecurity, and border security. We argue that Michigan’s strategic location, strong private sector capacity for manufacturing and innovation, excellent research universities, and proximity to Canada are advantages that should enable Michigan to develop as an economic hub for job-creating homeland security activities by public and private sector organizations.

But will Michigan overcome fears of Canadian conspiracies to capitalize on its location, and strengthen ties to Canada? And if it doesn’t, will hopes for improving the regional economy suffer? The economically-ailing center of the Great Lakes region should be the center of greater attention by leaders hoping to bring prosperity back to the heart of the U.S.-Canadian partnership.

The prospect for a Great Lakes Century’s dawning depends on Michigan. So too do the prospects for improving the economy, and U.S.-Canadian relations.

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