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One mile south of Detroit Metropolitan Airport, a field of oriental mustard seed plants is part of an aviation-biodiesel experiment.

ROMULUS, Mich. – The runways at Detroit Metropolitan Airport rank as some of the nation’s busiest, handling some 452,000 takeoffs and landings each year along with more than 32 million passengers.
The land adjacent to them, on the other hand, sits mostly unused. Other than creating a buffer for noise-prevention and security reasons, that land has little useful value.
Officials at Detroit Metro and three other Michigan airports are hoping to change that. They’ve partnered with a Michigan State University researcher to grow oriental mustard seed and other plants on that property. Those plants will be harvested and processed into aviation-grade biodiesel that’s then used at the facility.
The project is believed to be the first of its kind in the Midwest, and it’s attracting attention from airlines, government agencies and even a former high-profile Ford Motor Company executive.

In the short term, it’s an experiment to see whether researchers can create an alternate fuel source grown in close proximity to airport users. In the long term, officials believe the biofuel industry in general and aviation-grade biodiesel in particular can make a significant economic impact in Michigan.

“It is going to take a concerted effort by farmers, by industry, by airlines and engineers and developers in order to see this all come to fruition,” said Dennis Pennington, a bioenergy educator from the MSU Extension leading the project, which is funded by a $476,000 state grant.

For now, the three-acre plots at Detroit Metro, Willow Run in Ypsilanti, Grand Rapids and Muskegon airports are primarily for demonstration. But even on a small scale, they have attracted the eyes of groups that could influence where the fledgling aviation biodiesel industry is headed.

Representatives from Delta Air Lines, Detroit’s primary carrier, the Air Transport Association, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative are among the dozen or so groups acting as stakeholders in the project.

Wayne County EDGE, an economic development arm of the county that houses Detroit Metro, is also involved.  It promotes the creation of an “aerotropolis” in the 11-mile stretch between Willow Run Airport and Metro Airport. It envisions a transportation hub that pools the area’s aviation, rail and highway resources. And, the possibility of attracting a fuel refinery or other companion biofuel businesses on or near airport grounds is intriguing.

“We want to become a region known for energy excellence,” said Azzam Elder, deputy CEO of Wayne County.

The Complexities

Getting there with regard to aviation-grade biofuels is complicated, however.

Biofuels is a broad term that includes soybean, corn ethanol, algae or other plants, like Pennington’s oriental mustard seed. Each source brings its own set of challenges in the growing, refining and delivery processes.

Whichever is selected, it must be processed into a standardized biodiesel that arrives at airports compatible with current fuel systems. And it must be used by all airlines — jet fuel is purchased by airports in bulk and shared among users. At Detroit Metro, approximately 300 million gallons of Jet A, essentially kerosene refined from crude oil, are pumped each year.

Investing in the infrastructure to make all that happen is expensive. Even a small refinery costs approximately $20 million. And the market is fragmented. Many entrepreneurs are waiting to see the results of experiments like Pennington’s to see which structure emerges as the most cost-competitive with gasoline before making large-scale investments.

They may now have more incentive. In August, President Obama announced that the Departments of Agriculture, Energy and Navy would invest as much as $510 million over the next three years in public-private partnerships to create drop-in aviation and marine biofuels, funding that stems from Obama’s efforts to diminish the country’s reliance on foreign oil. Ultimately, that’s the sort of investment needed for biofuels to find a niche, Pennington believes.

“Policy drives where this industry is going,” he said.

Focus on marginal land

Biodiesel accounts for approximately 2 percent of the nation’s overall 60-billion gallon annual diesel consumption. Market share is increasing: The government has mandated the production of 800 million biodiesel gallons in 2011 and 1 billion in 2012, through the Renewable Fuel Standards program.

It’s a nice jumpstart for a fledgling industry. Right now, the biggest challenge in taking advantage of it is ensuring the biodiesel cost structure is competitive with the rack price of regular diesel.

An aircraft departs Detroit Metro Airport to the south, flying past a field of plants that could one day provide its fuel.

On Friday, Jet A sold for about $3.06 per gallon in the Chicago market, according to the Oil Price Information Service. Biodiesel prices are volatile and can vary greatly based on the plant source. But a generally accepted industry rule of thumb is that biodiesel is a niche product that costs approximately 10 percent more per gallon — and that’s after a federal subsidy.

The significance of Pennington’s project is that it addresses the biggest component of those costs.

Jim Padilla, co-founder of The Power Alternative, a southeast Michigan-based company that focuses on biodiesel plant construction and process innovation, says that 80 percent of overall costs come from the crops and land used to grow them.

In many cases, like the growing of corn for ethanol, that land is also used in food production. Combined demand between fuel and food drives up prices. That’s why Padilla is enamored with Pennington’s experiment. None of the land in the aviation biofuel project is otherwise used for farming.

“With respect to that cost, one of the ways you decouple yourself from the agriculture market is to decouple yourself from food production,” says Padilla, a former executive with Visteon and Ford.

Pennington has focused on farming marginal land, or acreage that’s never been farmed for food. Airport sites make attractive options. Muskegon County Airport has 1,500 acres used for approach protection, according to airport manager Marty Piette. Together, Detroit Metro and Willow Run hold 1,700 acres suitable for use, according to the Wayne County Airport Authority.

In addition to airport property, Pennington has also farmed sites along highways, behind rest areas and vacant urban lots. Padilla is growing crops on a former Superfund site in Detroit.

In Michigan, there are approximately 4.5 million acres of marginal land not being farmed, Padilla said. It would be inconceivable to suggest every available acre could be utilized, but he uses the figure to illustrate the untapped potential of land that does not compete with food crops. What sort of dent could Michigan’s unused land put in meeting fuel demand?

Using mustard seed, Pennington says it would take roughly 200,000 acres to supply enough crops for a processing plant that makes 50 million gallons per year. On 4.5 million acres, that could yield 1.125 billion gallons per year — roughly the same amount of biodiesel that flows through the U.S. each year.

If a burgeoning industry could tap just a fraction of that potential, it would create “infrastructure to handle it, crush it and get it into a plant to refine it into a fuel,” Pennington said. “That’s job creation and economic development.”

Federal government subsidies help biodiesel close the cost gap by approximately $1 per gallon. Their funding levels have been uneven, which hurt production this year and pointed prices upward. But in the long run, Padilla said there would be an economic payoff on that investment.

“Obviously, that provides a little heartburn for people,” Padilla said. “But there’s a couple things around that. One, is the multiplier effect to fuel that’s being produced locally. Two, is that’s effectively 1 billion gallons we’re not importing. It’s domestic content. And domestic content equals domestic jobs.”

Why Detroit works

A chance meeting led to Detroit Metro’s involvement in Pennington’s project.Officials at the Wayne County Airport Authority wanted to explore using some of the acreage surrounding the airport — in what way, they weren’t sure. A consultant recommended biofuels as an option to Michelle Plawecki, who manages DTW’s noise-mitigation program.
She knew nothing about biofuels. So she attended a green-energy conference at Henry Ford Community College, at which Pennington happened to be speaking. Intrigued by his presentation, she approached him afterward.

Officials believe a nascent biodiesel industry could one day provide jobs in the Detroit aerotropolis region.

“Aviation as an industry is interested in developing alternate sources of jet fuel,” Plawecki said. “There’s a lot of land near the airports in urban areas, and if that could be used to create a renewable natural resource, wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

In many ways, Michigan in general and Detroit Metro are ideal places for the experiment.

Agriculture ranks as the second-largest component of the state’s economy. Conventional supply chains already in place. And Michigan’s two-fold winters offer a two-fold benefit: some crops used for biodiesel can be grown in the winter months when farmers and their fields are otherwise idled, and cold weather typically means better performance for biodiesels.

From an entrepreneurial standpoint, southeast Michigan also was intriguing. In December 2010, the Michigan state legislature passed laws that created the aerotropolis as a regional authority that melds jurisdiction from two counties and seven municipalities surrounding Detroit Metro and Willow Run Airport. Tax incentives are available to companies settling within its borders.

When Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder traveled to Asia earlier this month on a trade mission, the aerotropolis and its energy potential was a fixture in his recruitment efforts. Much of that was focused on advanced-battery technology, but biofuels were also part of the conversation, according to Elder.

Citing the two interstates and two airports within the aerotropolis borders, he said, “we are definitely in a great position to encourage the businesses of biofuels and refineries, that’s the easy part for us. If you can move cars, you should be able to move fuel.”

Twenty-five years from now, the aerotropolis region could employ 64,000 more workers and add more than $10 billion of economic activity, according to a study completed by Jones Lang LaSalle, one that the authority officials like to tout.

Whether that growth actually happens or remains a pie-in-the-sky prediction like so many other reclamation projects around Detroit remains in question. But the fact that a biofuel contribution has the potential to touch multiple industries — from farming to engineering to aviation research and development — makes it an intriguing proposition.

“The question then becomes, ‘Can we get a critical volume?,’” Pennington said. “We burn an awful lot of fossil fuels in the U.S. every year. I don’t have a silver bullet or magic answer. But I certainly believe we have got to come up with some kind of alternative.”

Four weeks ago, a small group of demonstrators began protesting the grim state of the U.S. economy in New York City with little fanfare.

Now, a growing movement based on the Occupy Wall Street protests has spread throughout the country, including demonstrations in several Midwest cities.

Separate groups protesting the role of big banks in the U.S. foreclosure crisis marched Monday and Tuesday through Chicago, meeting at the Art Institute of Chicago, where the Mortgage Bankers Association was holding its annual conference.

“People are mad as hell at these financial organizations that wrecked the economy, that caused this whole mess,” Catherine Murrell, a spokeswoman for Stand Up Chicago, a coalition of approximately 20 Chicago community organizations, told the Chicago Sun-Times. “They broke the economy. They played with it like it was a toy.”

Protestors held training sessions on how to deal with the police, distributed press releases and chanted throughout the day Tuesday, according to our partner station WBEZ. On Monday, approximately 7,000 people participated in the protests, disrupting traffic across the city.

Elsewhere in the Midwest, protests were smaller, but sustained. In Columbus, Ohio, about 100 protestors marched in front of the Statehouse on Tuesday morning, railing against corporate greed, student-loan debt and the media. The group intended to show solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

In Madison, Wisc. protests occurred over the weekend. A crowd estimated in the dozens marched throughout downtown, settling in Reynolds Park until Sunday evening. In Milwaukee, religious leaders gave the movement traction in their Sunday sermons.

“I’m not against capitalism, but a capitalist society run amok takes care of the people at the top, and the people at the bottom are crushed,” Rev. Willie Brisco told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Protests were in the planning stages in Detroit on Sunday. The South End, the student newspaper at Wayne State University, reported that hundreds of people met at the Spirit of Hope Church on Monday night to plan protests slated to begin on Friday. Event organizers said that approximately 1,000 people attended the meeting.

Over the past decade, the Great Recession has perhaps punched Michigan workers the hardest.

Michigan was the only state in the country to lose population in that time span. More than 300,000 residents fled the state. Its peak unemployment rate of 14.1 percent ranks as one of the highest in the U.S. More than 1 in 5 residents in Detroit, its largest city, remain in search of work.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder

So it’s inexplicable to many in Michigan that one of the lynchpins in Gov. Rick Snyder’s plan to put people back to work is encouraging an influx of immigrants. Snyder touted those plans in an exclusive Dan Rather Reports segment that aired earlier this week.

“I think it’s important for our future,” Snyder told Rather. “We’ve been in a recession for a decade. How do we really reinvent ourselves? One of the keys to how we build ourselves is immigration.”

It’s been a relevant issue in the state’s past. One century ago, immigrants comprised 33 percent of Detroit’s population during its nascent boom years. For a more contemporary example, Snyder gazes beyond Michigan’s borders toward Silicon Valley, and notes 47 percent of its residents are foreign born.

“I am focused on finding more and better jobs for Michiganders,” he tells Rather. “Encouraging legal immigration for advanced-degree people is consistent with that. They’re job creators.”

A study from the Small Business Administration shows immigrants in Michigan are three times as likely as native-born residents to start businesses, and six times as likely to start high-tech businesses. Snyder, a Republican, would like to tap that entrepreneurial spirit.

Steven Tobocman, author of Global Detroit, a recent report that formed the foundation of  Snyder’s immigration policy, writes that 32.8 percent of the state’s high-tech firms over the past 10 years have been founded by immigrants, in a state where 6 percent overall are foreign born.

He’s an unlikely ally for Snyder. Tobocman served three terms in the Michigan House of Representatives, a Democrat representing Detroit’s southwest side.

“Nothing is more powerful for remaking Detroit as a center of innovation, entrepreneurship and population growth than embracing and increasing immigrant populations and the entrepreneurial culture and global connections that they bring and deliver,” he writes.

Many of the immigrants Snyder and Tobocman seek are already within the state’s borders. Approximately 23,000 foreign-born students currently attend the state’s colleges and universities, and the state spends “millions” educating them, according to Dan Rather Reports.

Visa restrictions and more lucrative opportunities elsewhere lure them away after graduation.

“It’s a great opportunity to keep our kids in a wonderful position,” Snyder said. “We already educate so many wonderful students from outside the country. Is there a way to help keep them here? … The other piece I want to do is talk to the communities that we have here that are already ethnic communities, and do they have outreach back in their countries to bring and attract people to Michigan. I think we can all win.”

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Report: Indiana sets sights on luring CME headquarters. Indiana is aiming to land another Illinois company with a tax-incentive package. This time, a big one. Crain’s Chicago Business reports today that Indiana has offered CME Group Inc. $150 million per year to move its headquarters to the Hoosier State. CME CEO Terry Duffy did not comment on the report, but earlier this week, said he expects the headquarters issue “to be resolved by year end.” Indiana’s top economic development official, Dan Hasler, neither confirmed nor denied the report when reached.

2. Kasich begins official SB5 defense. On Thursday night, Ohio Gov. John Kasich made his first official campaign appearance to support Issue 2, a state ballot measure that could repeal Senate Bill 5, a controversial law that limits collective-bargaining rights of public employees. Appearing in Toledo with Mayor Mike Bell, Kasich outlined his defense of SB5 – that it helps local governments control spiraling costs. “I believe in unions, I believe they have a place,” Kasich told The Columbus Dispatch. “I am not out, in any way shape or form, to go after and target anybody.”

3. Michigan airport authority announces cuts. The Wayne County Airport Authority said Thursday it would cut costs and raise fees as part of a plan to reduce its expenses by $20 million over the next 12 to 15 months. The Authority, which runs operations at Detroit Metro and Willow Run airports, approved a budget of $292 million for fiscal 2012 that includes wage and benefit changes for employees. Airport World reports at least 100 employees will lose their jobs. “It’s imperative that we re-engineer Detroit Metro and Willow Run Airports so that they become the most competitive in North America,” said Turkia Awada Mullin, the WCAA’s new chief executive officer, who has drawn attention this week for taking a $200,000 buyout from her previous job as Wayne County’s chief development officer to accept the head position at the airport authority.

courtesy of Nathan Oostendorp

Nathan Oostendorp believes manufacturers have to collaborate and learn from each other to stay competitive.

Nathan Oostendorp is a successful open-source entrepreneur living in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is the founder of Ingenuitas, a company that uses Open Source software to improve quality control in manufacturing.

He shares his thoughts on why he thinks the future of manufacturing depends on factories working together to improve their industry.

As we soul-search for what manufacturing needs to reinvent itself, there is a light in the darkness. We can look to a sector that has drastically impacted the way we live and communicate.

Mobile devices, online social networks, and the Internet have changed the way we interact — but they also show us a new, more open, way to innovate in manufacturing.

Companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook created immense value for their shareholders and users. But one thing they have in common, is they have all used open innovation, often in the form of Open Source software, to bring products to market quickly and cheaply.

Open Source is software and code that’s freely distributed over the Internet.  This lets people use it in their own way.

There would be a lot fewer web companies if it still cost $10,000 for a server and the software to run it, like it did in the early 90’s. Today it costs a few bucks, if you pay anything at all.

Walk in a factory today, there’s a lot of computers being used on the floor.  But they’re usually expensive and you can’t upgrade them yourself. With an Open Source system, anyone could make improvements as they adapt them to their needs for safety, quality control and data management. The result would be something that’s low-cost and creates a lot of value.

If you want to see at what the future of manufacturing with open source could look like, go no further than the Maker Faire Detroit at the Henry Ford Museum.

The exhibitors, or “Makers”, figure out ways to manufacture their own designs, in a way that is very similar to Open Source: They publish designs for their prototypes. They use Open Source software and off-the-shelf hardware. They blog, and tweet every dead end and every small victory.

Sure, at the Maker Faire there’s dragon trucks, life-size games of mousetrap, and souped-up micro race cars – but they’ve also produced some pretty impressive machines – Open Source Computer Controlled Routers, Laser Cutters, and 3D Printers were all on display. All things used in manufacturing today.

Some are sold by as kits by profitable businesses, some are works in progress and many are merely extensively documented weekend projects. But these developers of “Open Hardware” and doing just what the Open Source Software hackers did, only with electronics and machines.

It may seem like a big leap from a few Open Source machines to a massive change in how things are made, but if you look automation’s history, big things can happen when entire industries decide to collaborate.

For 30 years Henry Ford’s automobile manufacturers association required automakers to share their patented innovations with each other, and the result was the golden age of Detroit.

Today, with our means of communication and the pace of global innovation, Open Source collaboration on automation technology represents a way for an entire sector to create much more value to their customers.

In the US, the era of manufacturing turning massive amounts of unskilled labor into a production system is over. Technology can move manufacturing towards an industry where the best innovators, not the cheapest workers, will reap the rewards.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network.



Cities in the Great Lakes region are recovering from the Great Recession at a faster pace than their national counterparts, according to a recent report released from the Brookings Institution.

Akron, Grand Rapids, Toledo and Youngstown all ranked among the top-20 performing metropolitan areas in the country.

All but one of the Great Lakes’ 21 metro areas has gained jobs since reaching its unemployment trough. Grand Rapids has seen its unemployment rate decline by 4.3 percent since reaching its high in the third quarter of 2009.

Youngstown showed a 19 percent growth rate in manufacturing jobs from the second quarter of 2010 to second quarter 2011. The metropolitan area has regained 30 percent of the overall number of manufacturing jobs lost. The report noted Detroit’s recovery has been stronger than most other U.S. metropolitan areas.

While auto-producing metro areas in the Great Lakes are generally enjoying a recovery since the throes of the recession, they stumbled in the second quarter of 2011. Cleveland, Columbus, Detroit, Dayton and Toledo all saw output and employment drop in the quarter.

The Atlantic’s Nate Berg says the report’s up-and-down conclusions emphasize the need to avoid painting a potential economic recovery with a general brush.

“In some senses, the metropolitan areas of the Great Lakes appear to be persevering through the recession,” he writes, adding, “this mixed bag of increases and declines is an indication of the complexities of recovery. The process is clearly not over yet, but at least some gains in employment offer hope.”

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Too much health-care? One sector has outperformed all others in bucking the trend of job loss throughout the country: Health care added 800,000 jobs throughout the recession. Oakland County, Michigan, located in suburban Detroit, has been among the municipalities looking at heath care as a potential economic savior, and hopes to add a $600 million hospital that could bring 3,000 jobs. But Marketplace asks, is it overkill? Dennis McCafferty, a union and business representative, says there are six hospitals within a 30-minute drive of the proposed Oakland County site that have an average occupancy of 55 percent.

2. Indiana eyes Chicago casino. Throughout his push for approval of a Chicago casino, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has lamented the potential $20 to $25 million in monthly revenue that has instead gone to places like Hammond, Ind. But if a casino is built in Chicago, it’s no certainty that money would automatically be diverted to the Windy City’s coffers. Our partner station WBEZ spoke with gamblers in the area, and reports it’s no shoo-in that Chicago will come out ahead in the gambling turf fight.

3. Ohio steel industry surges. Calling it a rebirth may be a stretch, but the steel industry in northeast Ohio has seen a resurgence in activity in the past two years. “Youngstown looks less like a graveyard,” reports our partner station Ideastream. A $650 million plant for steel-pipe producer V & M Star is leading the way. U.S. Steel is investing in a $100 million project near Lorain. A Cleveland State University professor says a change in Ohio’s business tax structure that lowers the burden on manufacturers is the reason for the uptick.

What makes a city powerful?

According to The Atlantic, cities bring together talented, ambitious people, whose ideas and

Chicago's lakefront

innovations make it a place of economic growth. And, one of the world’s most powerful is right here in the Midwest.

Chicago ranks No. 4 on The Atlantic’s list of the world’s 25 most economically powerful cities, second only to New York in the United States (it also ranks behind Tokyo and London). The list is part of The Atlantic’s new Cities page, which debuted today. It looks at issues facing urban areas around the world.

The Global Economic Power Index, developed by the Martin Prosperity Institute, reflects three key  dimensions of economic power—economic, financial, and innovative.

Economic Power is measured as economic output or gross regional product. Financial Power is based on the Global Financial Centers Index, which ranks the banking and financial power of cities across the world. Innovation is based on patent activity.

The Atlantic says Chicago’s annual economic output is $460 billion, while its global economic power score is .915, a batting average that anyone in baseball would dream of having. Its financial center ranking is 678, while its innovation score is 7.

Other American cities on the list include Boston, at No. 6 and Washington, D.C., which ranked 10th. Our neighbors in Toronto ranked No. 12.

There’s a wealth of other statistics on the new Atlantic Cities page. Did you know the median income for Chicago is nearly $60,000? But it’s under $50,000 in Detroit, while Cleveland’s median income is about $45,000.

What do you think of The Atlantic ranking? Would you put other cities on the power list?

What makes a city powerful?

According to The Atlantic, cities bring together talented, ambitious people, whose ideas and

Chicago's lakefront

innovations make it a place of economic growth. And, one of the world’s most powerful is right here in the Midwest.

Chicago ranks No. 4 on The Atlantic’s list of the world’s 25 most economically powerful cities, second only to New York in the United States (it also ranks behind Tokyo and London). The list is part of The Atlantic’s new Cities page, which debuted today. It looks at issues facing urban areas around the world.

The Global Economic Power Index, developed by the Martin Prosperity Institute, reflects three key  dimensions of economic power—economic, financial, and innovative.

Economic Power is measured as economic output or gross regional product. Financial Power is based on the Global Financial Centers Index, which ranks the banking and financial power of cities across the world. Innovation is based on patent activity.

The Atlantic says Chicago’s annual economic output is $460 billion, while its global economic power score is .915, a batting average that anyone in baseball would dream of having. Its financial center ranking is 678, while its innovation score is 7.

Other American cities on the list include Boston, at No. 6 and Washington, D.C., which ranked 10th. Our neighbors in Toronto ranked No. 12.

There’s a wealth of other statistics on the new Atlantic Cities page. Did you know the median income for Chicago is nearly $60,000? But it’s under $50,000 in Detroit, while Cleveland’s median income is about $45,000.

What do you think of The Atlantic ranking? Would you put other cities on the power list?

Three stories making news across the Midwest today:

1. Bridge gains political spotlight. Some experts estimate that billions of dollars in goods, perhaps as much as 4 percent of the nation’s GDP, at some point cross the Brent Spence Bridge, which spans the Ohio River between Cincinnati and northern Kentucky. On Thursday, President Obama highlighted the bridge as one that could be repaired as part of his jobs recovery plan. The prominent mention was perhaps a bit of political gamesmanship – House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky could be in the cross-hairs of their constituents if they voted against the $2 billion overhaul, which currently lacks federal funding.

2. Middle-class crunch. The Columbus Dispatch spent five days last week exploring what it means to be middle class in Ohio. The definition varies widely, but the newspaper concludes the key measures show that Ohio’s middle class is much smaller than people realize, and “the group is shrinking.” As one employee at a barber shop in suburban Dayton said, “The middle class? I’m not sure it exists anymore.”

3. Detroit earns dubious title. In July, The New York Times profiled the youth movement under way in Detroit. This week, Good Magazine followed up and declared the Motor City as one of the best places to be “young and broke.” It cited the fact the city’s vibrant community activism scene is led by young people, and that Detroit has earned a reputation for hustle, art and low cost of living. And also, of course, there’s lots of young people who are doing quite well for themselves.