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An offshore wind farm in Denmark. Could this be the view in the Great Lakes soon? Credit: Scandia Wind

This morning, the White House Council on Environmental Quality announced that it’s reached an agreement that will speed up the permitting process for offshore wind energy in the Great Lakes. The agreement comes in the form of a memorandum of understanding with five of the eight states that border the Great Lakes.

On a conference call this morning, officials said the total potential for wind energy in the Great Lakes is about equal to building 700 nuclear power plants. They said wind on the Great Lakes could power millions of homes.

The MOU includes nine federal agencies, and the states of Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania. Not included are Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin, though they can sign on later.

But what’s actually in the memorandum of understanding? Very little, but what’s there could still make a difference.

The entire agreement is 12 pages long. It spells out each agency that has a say in regulating offshore wind projects. All the MOU really requires is that these agencies make a reasonable attempt to work together with the states.

The MOU is just as clear about what it doesn’t do, for example, from the agreement:

Nothing in this MOU may be construed to obligate the Participants to any current or
future expenditure of resources.

The MOU also doesn’t create any new agencies or laws:

This MOU is intended only to enhance and strengthen the working relationships of the Participants in connection to offshore wind energy proposals in the Great Lakes region and is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States or any State, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

Nonetheless, the MOU does include certain requirements of the participants, “including attendance at periodic meetings,” though this is only “to the extent resources allow.” So, basically, you don’t really have to show up at the meetings if you’re short on staff, or your travel budget is tight.

The one concrete, and possibly very useful provision of the agreement, is that the agencies and states agree to create a regulatory roadmap.

… a document that describes the regulatory review process and identifies current and anticipated data needed to inform efficient review of proposed offshore wind energy facilities in the Great Lakes.

The roadmap must be completed and published 15 months from now. It might not sound like a lot. But the truth is, offshore wind is incredibly confusing from a regulatory standpoint. Nine federal agencies have jurisdiction, plus each state has its own agencies, and in many areas there are tribal jurisdictions.

Regulatory uncertainty is one of the things that’s held offshore wind back in the Great Lakes. The other, of course, is that many flat out oppose wind farms on the Lakes. Public opposition has already halted at least two proposals for offshore wind energy in the Great Lakes – one in New York and another in Michigan.

On this morning’s conference call, Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman said the new agreement won’t settle any of the public disagreements over offshore windfarms.

“This is not a comment on any particular project or on the substance of what any groups may think, for or against,” Poneman said. “It is indifferent as to what the specific groups are proposing or opposing.”
Poneman said the intent instead is to speed up the regulatory process, and get governments out of the way. How much the MOU will speed things up, he couldn’t say, since the federal government has yet to officially approve any wind turbines for any of the Lakes.
But the hope is, that when and if offshore wind power does come to the Great Lakes, governments won’t be the ones holding it back.

National Journal picked Illinois' 7th as one of the nation's "10 Most Contorted Congressional Districts." Credit: Google Map by National Journal

National Journal has a look at who wins and who loses in the Congressional redistricting process that happens every 10 years. The piece, which only subscribers can see, also comes with a sidebar on “Modern Gerrymanders,” including maps of the 10 most contorted Congressional districts.

The Midwest has three of the 10. Chicago alone has two. But, this is a pretty subjective list, and we think some Midwest Congressional Districts were robbed. What about the Illinois 17th? Or Indiana’s 4th?

What do you think? What’s the most contorted Congressional district in the Midwest?

National Journal picked Illinois' 7th as one of the nation's "10 Most Contorted Congressional Districts." Credit: Google Map by National Journal

National Journal has a look at who wins and who loses in the Congressional redistricting process that happens every 10 years. The piece, which only subscribers can see, also comes with a sidebar on “Modern Gerrymanders,” including maps of the 10 most contorted Congressional districts.

The Midwest has three of the 10. Chicago alone has two. But, this is a pretty subjective list, and we think some Midwest Congressional Districts were robbed. What about the Illinois 17th? Or Indiana’s 4th?

What do you think? What’s the most contorted Congressional district in the Midwest?

We’ve heard a lot in the past few weeks about Chicago and its place among global cities. On Thursday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel set forth his proposal for a “new Chicago” that involves a wide variety of infrastructure improvements, private funding and more debt.

Photo by Simonds via flickr

All that is supposed to put the city back among the list of the world’s best cities. But there are suggestions that Chicago actually needn’t bother.

Urbanist Richard Florida looks at why some cities lose and others win in a sweeping piece today on The Atlantic Cities. He notes that the world’s biggest cities have been dramatically reordered since 1950, when Chicago was the second biggest in the U.S. and eighth largest in the world.

Now, Chicago ranks third largest among American cities and 25th in the world. Florida suggests it probably doesn’t stand a chance to become more important, because it’s now part of the world’s tier of second and third-level cities. 

As Florida writes,

“Simulations by Robert Axtell of George Mason University show that the biggest, dominant cities can survive and thrive for a very long time. New York has been America’s largest city since its first census in 1790.  London has been the United Kingdom’s largest city for a very long time. Athens and Rome have remained influential long past their prime. 

But the competition and “churning” among smaller second- and third-tier cities is brutal. These cities rise and fall frequently. Early in the 20th century, rising industrial cities in the United States and Europe displaced once dominant mercantile centers. By the end of that century, many of those same industrial cities were being replaced by knowledge-based ones.”

 And, if Chicago is in this kind of quandary, the outlook for our traditional industrial cities, like Detroit, Milwaukee and Cleveland, might be even more dire on a global scale.
That doesn’t mean they have no role to place in the national or international economy. They just won’t be in the top ranks.
Read Florida’s story at The Atlantic Cities and tell us your reaction. Should Chicago give up?

The petition signatures have all been counted, and now it’s up to Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board to schedule recall elections.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker

That is likely to happen on Friday. The board meets at 9 am CT, and you can watch its deliberations live.

The board’s staff released signature tallies on Thursday on recall petitions for Gov. Scott Walker and the state’s lieutenant governor.

There were 931,053 signatures collected for Walker’s recall; 26,114 were discarded by the staff; 4,001 were found to be duplicates and 900,938 were declared valid. That’s far more than required to hold an election. Four state Senators also face recall elections.

If the elections are held, the staff recommended a primary take place on May 8 and the general election, if needed, on June 5.

Read all our coverage of Walker and the Wisconsin elections here.

 

 

in the case of unemployment rates in the Great Lakes states, headlines do not tell the full story. 

This week, we heard that Michigan’s unemployment rate dropped to 8.8 percent, within shouting distance of the national unemployment rate, and way down from the 14 percent territory it reached during the worst of the recession.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s rate held steady at 6.9 percent for the second straight month, and it’s down from 9.2 percent in June 2009.

But behind the Michigan numbers lies a paradox: the state has 409,000 people out of work, but there are 76,000 job openings that can’t be filled. Gov. Rick Snyder talked about this on Wednesday at a town hall in Detroit, urging job seekers to register with the state’s talent bank.

And in Wisconsin, the unemployment rate actually rose in 27 cities whose population was more than 25,000, and in 66 counties.

The highest unemployment rate in Wisconsin is in Beloit, where 12.5 percent of working adults did not have jobs. Unemployment also is high in Door County, a vacation region, where 13.8 percent are out of work.

So, unemployment continues to be an issue in our region. Changing Gears has been looking at retraining and how to measure its success.

Have you gone through a retraining program, or gone back to school so that you can start a new career? Was it what you needed? Take our survey and help us cover the story.

chicagomayorsoffice on livestream.com. Broadcast Live Free

Big news out of Chicago this morning: mayor Rahm Emanuel is announcing a three-year, $7 billion plan to rebuild the city’s infrastructure. The Mayor’s office says the plan will create 30,000 jobs, and it won’t require a tax hike.

The mayor will deliver a speech to announce the plan coming up at 11 a.m. Central time. You can watch the speech live right here.

Watch live streaming video from snyderlive at livestream.com

On Monday, the state appointed financial review team for Detroit held its final meeting, and members got an earful from Detroiters who are worried that their city could face a takeover. Today, governor Rick Snyder is speaking in the city, and he’s expected to take questions. The governor has until April 5th to reach a consent agreement with Detroit leaders. If that doesn’t happen, he’ll likely appoint an emergency manager to run the city.

The event will stream live at 11 a.m.

Sarah Alvarez contributed to this story.

Unemployment numbers in the Midwest are bad. Not as bad as when the recession was at its worst, but there are still a lot of people looking for jobs. Even so, we keep hearing that some employers can’t find enough skilled workers. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder says in his state alone, there are more than 77,000 job openings that can’t be filled.

Wendy Whitmore. Credit: Preeti Upadhyaya

There is really only one way to bridge that gap. People need training. And the way people are getting that training is changing.

Wendy Whitmore is the CEO of EMR Approved, a company in Chicago that works with doctors and hospitals that are making the switch to electronic medical records.

Four years ago, EMR Approved didn’t exist. Back then, Wendy Whitmore was running SSG Consulting, an IT consulting firm that wasn’t doing so well.

So she decided to try something new, and she took 12 of her employees with her.

Whitmore still runs SSG Consulting, and some of her employees straddle both businesses, but what they’re doing now is totally new.

According to Whitmore, they didn’t have many other options. “At that point, what are you going to do? Do you want to continue to have a job and do something a little different or do we need to work toward shutting it down?”

That transition wasn’t easy. It took about two years for EMR Approved to get on track, and those years were filled with a lot of uncertainty.

Penny Smith had been working for Whitmore since 2002, and she decided to stay when Whitmore turned her old IT company into the new IT company it is today.

“Was I taking a risk? Yeah, but I knew it was somewhat calculated as well,” says Smith.

Penny Smith. Credit: Preeti Upadhyaya

Now Smith works in business development at EMR Approved, but she had to go through six months of training and certification to get there. Training like that is a lot of work, and it’s not cheap. Whitmore spent more than $100,000 to retrain her 12 employees.

But she accomplished something that a lot of people are trying to do: Break in to growing industries, like health care, by learning new things, like how to work with electronic medical records.

In 2009, the US government spent $18 billion on retraining programs. That money is distributed by state agencies.

They are trying to do the same thing that Whitmore did, which is basically like trying to predict the future.

Retraining takes time, and those agencies want to make sure that there are jobs waiting at the other end of those programs, six months or even a year from now.

Whitmore explains that there is an element of guesswork involved, “But we do know that the baby boomer generation is aging, and we do know that health care is getting a lot of attention,” she says. “We’ve got to stick our pin in the map somewhere.”

Jeff Smith is an economist at the University of Michigan. He says it’s a lot harder for government agencies to make strategic decisions like that on a big scale. That’s because it’s not easy to make predictions.

It comes down to this: How can you use information about labor market demand to plan a retraining strategy?

Smith says, “It’s a hard task, I think harder than you might think at first blush to try to figure out what there is actually demand for, in some sort of quantitative way, and then apply that information to your training program or community college course offerings.”

So to help figure out where that demand is, Michigan is trying something new, a business driven model. That model is being used by Michigan Works, the state agency that hands out federal funding for retraining programs.

Tyne Lucas is the Career Transition Coordinator at the Michigan Works drop-in center in Washtenaw County.

“Our new customer is the business,” says Lucas, “and that doesn’t change what we do for job seekers, because if we’re making sure that we’re providing the businesses and the employers what they’re looking for, we’re doing a good job for the job seekers as well.”

Michigan Works is trying to build the workforce that employers need by asking them exactly what they want.

“We try to make a perfect match. We’re a match making agency for employers and job seekers,” says Lucas.

And when you can match job seeker skills to employer needs, everybody wins.

This story was informed by the Public Insight Network. If you want to learn how to be a part of our network, click here.

Changing Gears is taking a look at job retraining, one of the hottest topics in our region.

Tomorrow, Meg Cramer reports on a new business-focused approach that calls for companies to to oversee training, so that workers get the skills they need. Later on, we’ll also be looking at how to measure whether retraining is effective.

You can help us figure this out. Employees, have you gotten training to acquire new skills, or to start a new career? Companies, is your business training workers to meet its needs, rather than counting on them to have them?

Take our survey and let us know what works and what doesn’t. We’re also hoping you’ll chat with us about retraining. Tell us how we can get in touch with you.