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Grand Valley State University is building its new business school on the site of a former factory. Credit: Dustin Dwyer.

The data is in, and the Midwest economy seems to be on the path of recovery. Our long, regional nightmare still isn’t over for many workers, but there are plenty of signs for optimism. Businesses are hiring, productivity has increased.*

All of this got us thinking: What will happen to the transformation of the Midwest economy when we do finally recover from this horrendous recession? Will we go back to our our old ways, or will we continue to change?

It is not hard to find examples of change in the Midwest. You stumble upon it everywhere you go.

So this week, I met with an economist named Paul Isely, at Grand Valley State University. And to see an example of change, we just walked across the street from his current office in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. We went to a huge construction site, where the economics department will move next year.

Isely’s new office will be where a factory used to be. The factory sat empty until GVSU tore it down last year to build the new business school.

In one sense, this kind of change happens all the time in cities: old buildings get torn down or rebuilt. New uses are found.

But it also represents some of the bigger, structural changes in our economy – where once this site was part of our manufacturing economy, now it will do something else. These changes were happening before the last recession. And Isely says they will continue after the recession.

But he says there are limits to the change. For example: the auto industry. Two years ago, politicians in Michigan bemoaned how dependent the state is on the auto industry. But Isely says, it’s an industry that creates a lot of value.

“So it’s very very hard to go away from that to something that creates less value,” he says. “There’s just not a lot of reason to do it. We’ll suffer the ups and downs.”

And since we seem to be headed on the way up again, Isely says there are new risks for all of our manufacturing companies to slip back in the old way of doing business.

“The problem is, as you come out of a recession, you often have all your resources start to be used making the stuff you made before,” he says. “And if you’re busy all the time, you don’t have time to think about, ‘How do I change all this?’”

The risk of falling into complacency, it’s not just for companies, but for everyone involved our economy.

“I remember even in the early 90s, people were saying, ‘Wow, look, our employment is growing, output is growing,’” says economist Ziona Austrian. She heads the Center for Economic Development at Cleveland State University’s College of Urban Affairs. “We forgot to compare ourselves to the rest of the country. They were doing so much better than us.”

Part of the problem, according to another economist, is that when Midwest leaders do make comparisons, it’s the comparison of one Midwest state against another. Our neighbors are seen as our competitors, when, in fact, we’re incredibly connected.

“It’s one of the largest, most integrated markets in the world,” says Geoffrey Hewings, who heads the Regional Economic Applications Laboratory at the University of Illinois.

“I mean, $500 billion worth of goods and services move between Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan,” Hewings says. “And yet most of the governors look upon each state as a balkanized entity.”

And whenever he hears about a governor who’s trying to lure business across the border, or hears someone cheering for another state’s bad news, Hewings cringes a bit. He says anything bad that happens in one Midwest state is bad for all Midwest states.

A lot of things have changed in the Midwest economy over the past decade. But Hewings says the lack of cooperation is one thing that hasn’t.

“I get a little jaundiced about the ability of our politicians and policy-makers to see this bigger picture,” he says.

But it’s not just up to them to work together. We’ve already been through a lot of change as a region. Some changes happen to you. Some changes, you have to make happen.

Let’s face it: Detroit’s reputation as the Motor City is unshakeable. But it’s gaining ground as a city for cyclists.

Racing enthusiasts have revived a velodrome, cycle clubs are growing, it’s easy to find a bike tour and tourism officials took journalists on a ride around Detroit last year. Grown Men on Bikes, a Detroit cycle club, even has its own theme song.

On Sunday, which is Earth Day, the Detroit Tigers want to take all that a step further.

The Tigers' mascot, Paws, with cyclists who rode to Opening Day 2012/ Courtesy Detroit Tigers

The team is hosting its first Ride to the Ballpark event, testing its theory that baseball fans and bicyclists are one and the same.

“Detroit has a very cool, strong cyclist culture,” says Eli Bayless, the Tigers’ director of promotions and in-game operations.

The Tigers are offering a $14 package that includes an upper deck ticket to the game, and a ticket for a bicycle valet. Cyclists will pull up to Columbia Plaza in front of Comerica Park’s Gate A entrance, and check their bikes.

Tickets must be purchased by midnight tonight: there will be no same-day Ride to the Ballpark sales.

As of Thursday, more than 100 people had already bought their tickets, said Bayless, and the team hopes to attract a total of about 250 cyclists/fans.That’s how many people attended a similar event put on by the Houston Astros last year, which was the inspiration for the Tigers’ cycling promotion.

The idea of a Detroit ride drew enthusiastic support from within the Tigers’ organization, which has a number of cyclists who ride to work.

Mike Smith, the team’s director of baseball operations, cycles over every day from his apartment on Detroit’s riverfront, stashing his bike in his office.

On non-game days, he can be found zipping his way over to Belle Isle park for soccer games, and riding on the city’s bike paths and in the greenway.

Although many Detroit streets and neighborhoods are empty, that’s great for cycling, Smith says. “The trade off is that you won’t get hit by a car.”

Unlike places such as Chicago, which enforce regulations on cyclists, “you get a little spoiled here because you don’t have to obey traffic laws,” he jokes.

Bayless says the Tigers are hoping Sunday’s ride will become an annual event — and that cyclists will come out to games on a regular basis. He says the team is looking at hosting future rides with the city’s bike clubs and is counting on them for feedback.

In turn, cycling fans’ interest could spur the team to do more in the way of bike racks and other accommodations for cyclists.

Detroit cyclists: are you planning to attend Sunday’s game? What are your impressions of cycling in the Motor City?




This week on Changing Gears we’re talking about people who are leaving the Midwestern industrial corridor. Some of the areas hardest hit by out-migration are small rural communities. They are facing a triple whammy – the decline of manufacturing, farming and shipping sectors.

North Country Public Radio’s Brian Mann tracked the journey of one woman who moved from a tiny town to New York City. He brings us this report:

Mark Scarlett and his daughter, Becca Johnson, on their farm in Rossie, NY.

It’s hard to imagine just how small Becca Johnson’s hometown is. Her parents moved to Rossie, in upstate New York, in the 1970s, part of the farming and manufacturing belt that stretched from the Northeast to the Midwest.

Their family homesteaded in an old abandoned barn.

“No running water and no toilet, or anything like that,” says Johnson. She was practically a teenager before her family got indoor plumbing. “It had an interesting influence on my social life,” she says.

While most American kids were waking up to MTV, Becca’s family didn’t have a TV – or even a telephone.

Rossie is tucked away in a fold of rocky hills, surrounded by a chain of beautiful lakes. When her family settled there, the place was already fading. The mines were long gone, factories and farms and cheese plants were closing, and Rossie’s once bustling little downtown has mostly gone dark.

Mark Scarlett is Becca Johnson’s father. He’s in his sixties now and he loves Rossie. “The population of Rossie is about what it was in 1850 or 1860,” he says, laughing.

He talks about the land, the geology, and the local history in the way a city guy might talk about his favorite deli or his favorite baseball team.

Scarlett worked a number of different jobs to make a living, everything from construction to farming. He keeps a team of oxen that he uses for logging and for sugaring maple trees.

You might be thinking that Johnson and her parents are a quaint sort of Little House on the Prairie throwback, but here’s the interesting thing: When the Scarletts moved to Rossie in the 1970s – one third of Americans still lived in rural areas. These days, only one in five families lives in a rural community.

In states like Illinois, the change is even starker, with the urban population swelling to almost 90%. A big part of the reason is the rural to urban migration of young people like Johnson.

“I definitely wanted to go away,” she says. “I mean part of that was I just was like, there’s got to be other places in the world to see.”

Johnson is part of a historic migration, a century-long shift away from small towns. That shift is redefining the nation’s economy and culture.

This transformation is such a powerful part of the American experience that it’s actually inspired a sort of genre of music – pop songs and country and western ballads about leaving small towns and heading to the big city. This is the journey that has reshaped Becca Johnson’s life.

She now lives in the Hudson valley, north of New York City. She commutes o to work in Manhattan, trading her village of 800 people for a city of 9 million.

Johnson has made a great career for herself, working as a researcher and consultant for medical and insurance companies, but these days, people who study small towns are finding that a lot of young people are choosing an urban life not just because of better jobs and careers – but because this is the life experience they want: cosmopolitan, fast-paced.

I remember one of the first days on the job, you were just hearing different languages. Tons of languages going on in the office, which is cool – I love it,” Johnson says.

One big transition that Johnson and a lot of rural people navigate is the move from a mostly white community to an America that is far more multi-racial and multi-cultural. This is especially true in the Midwest and Northeast, where small towns have seen almost none of the racial diversity that is transforming the larger culture.

While at college, Johnson met and married a black man. Her husband, Mark Johnson, was leery at first about traveling north to Becca’s tiny town to meet her parents.

“He insisted that I tell my parents that he was black. And I was like this is going to be really awkward,” she says.

The two families met and meshed really well – though Becca says the lack of diversity in her home town is one of the reasons she thinks it would be hard to move back there with Mark and their two kids.

Mark and Becca Johnson

Becca Johnson is ambivalent about parts of her rural-urban journey. When we go for a walk with her kids, Ezzie and Maya, she admits that she feels that she’s betrayed something – or lost something – by choosing a more urban life. Some of the small-town values she grew up with have slipped away.

“I always think, we could have a garden, or I’d love to have a garden – instead I spend a whole lot of money shopping organically,” she says.

But Becca’s kids, Ezzie and Maya, don’t feel any of that regret. To them, even this bedroom town where they live feels isolated, and Rossie? They can’t even imagine that life.

People who study rural America say there are some hopeful signs for places like Rossie. The small farm movement is drawing some young people back. More rural workers are telecommuting and in some parts of the Midwest, Hispanic immigrants are reviving farms and businesses.

But the reinvention of America as a country where the culture and the economy are mostly rooted in cities – that’s probably irreversible.

These days, when Becca Johnson goes home to visit, she says she worries that important things are being lost as rural America fades – connectedness, self-reliance, a less frantic way of life.

Johnson’s mom, Louise says, “Unless they found some kind of really meaningful work here, I didn’t expect them to stay here.”

Both of her kids and all of their friends from school have moved away. She says she’s proud of them and their careers, but as her generation hits retirement age, she worries about Rossie and the community she and her husband tried to revitalize.

“I don’t know who the younger people who will carry it on. So yeah, it’s definitely not a good thing for the community,” she says.

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


Over the past few months, you’ve been reading and listening to Changing Gears’ special reports on Midwest Migration — the people who moved away.

Beginning this weekend, tune in for Changing Gears’ hour-long documentary, “Where Did Everybody Go?”

Hosted by Richard Steele of WBEZ Chicago, “Where Did Everybody Go” tells the stories of people who left the Midwest, and some who came home.

We’ll visit Portland, Austin, New York City, upstate New York and Los Angeles. We’ll talk with Jim Russell, a geographer who writes the Burgh Diaspora blog, and Dan Moilanen, a Flint, Mich., native who went to Austin to work for Apple, and came back to help his hometown.

Changing Gears senior editor Micki Maynard will also be part of the special, which was produced by award-winning journalist Kate Concannon. The special is informed by the Public Insight Network.

“Where Did Everybody Go” airs at these dates and times:

Or you can come back here to listen to the show. Be sure to join us, for “Where Did Everybody Go?”

For many of us in journalism, Edward R. Murrow is an icon.

Edward R. Murrow

He was a ground breaking foreign correspondent, investigative reporter and program host who had an enormous influence on our profession from the 1940s through the 1960s. You might also know him as the central character in the movie, “Good Night and Good Luck.”

So, it’s with great pride that we let you know that Changing Gears has won a regional Murrow Award from the Radio Television Digital News Association, for our series on manufacturing. (This is the same series that was awarded a National Headliner Award.)

We were the winner in the audio news series category in RTDNA’s Region 7, which includes entries from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.

Winners from each region go on to compete in the national Murrow Awards, which will be announced this summer.

Thanks to members of the Changing Gears team — Dan Bobkoff, Kate Davidson, Niala Boodhoo,  our former colleague Pete Bigelow, and our colleagues Sarah Alvarez, Meg Cramer and Dustin Dwyer.

Last fall, Changing Gears devoted a month of reports to exploring how manufacturing has changed. We’re happy to let you know that we won a National Headliner Award for that series. 

Changing Gears took home the third place award for Broadcast Radio Networks and Syndicators. We had good company: the other winners in our category were Bloomberg Radio and CBS Radio. (See the entire list of winners, including our partner WBEZ Chicago.)

Congratulations to all the members of the Changing Gears team: Chicago reporter Niala Boodhoo, Cleveland reporter Dan Bobkoff, Ann Arbor reporter Kate Davidson, and Sarah Avarez, our Public Insight Network Analyst. (Pete Bigelow, who was Changing Gears’ Web editor when the series ran, is now with AOL Autos.) Thanks also to teammates Dustin Dwyer and Meg Cramer.

You can listen to our series here. The stories included: 

TEMPS: Think there are no jobs in manufacturing? Davidson found there are plenty — for temporary workers. Staffing agencies that provide workers to manufacturing plants are finding that they can’t keep up with the demand.

ADVANCED MANUFACTURING: Here in the Midwest, you often hear the term “advanced manufacturing. But what it is? And why do we need to remain leaders in this field? Bobkoff explained in this story.

RON BLOOM: One of the most controversial men in manufacturing during the past few years was Ron Bloom, the Obama administration official who helped oversee the $82 billion bailout to Detroit’s automakers. Bloom recently moved back to Pittsburgh, and he has plenty to say about the role of manufacturing in our national economy. Bobkoff talked to him for Changing Gears.

BATTELLE: Steve Jobs’ death last fall reminded us that everyone has ideas, and very few become actual products. That’s because ideas need a push – and in some cases, a big one, from from science, to become reality. That’s especially true for manufacturers. Boodhoo told the little-known story of Ohio’s Battelle Memorial Institute.

Ohio-based Export Now will help sell MIchigan-made products on China's Credit: screenshot from

China, as you’ve often heard, is the world’s fastest growing economy, and not just for its low-cost manufacturing. It’s also home to a rapidly growing consumer market. Big American companies like GM, Harley Davidson and Amway have made big bucks selling to Chinese consumers.

But for smaller American companies, breaking into the Chinese market can be difficult, confusing and expensive.

This week, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation announced a new program to help small businesses make that leap. It’s the first program of its kind in the country.

“The program will offer Michigan companies the opportunity to test their products in the China consumer market with limited risk,” MEDC President and CEO Michael A. Finney said in a release.

As part of the program, the MEDC is partnering with Export Now, a private company that specializes in helping businesses export their products to China. A hundred small Michigan companies will get a chance to take part. For them, the program could be a transformative opportunity.

But it’s also a sweet deal for Export Now, which is based in Ohio. And the owner of a Michigan-based export services company hopes he won’t be left behind.

Export Now, which is based in Akron, started in 2010. Its CEO is Frank Lavin, a former ambassador to Singapore and Undersecretary of Commerce for U.S. Trade.

Export Now typically charges clients $3,000 to send over a pallet of products to China. Export Now handles all the logistics, taxes and customs issues. The products are stored in a warehouse and sold on The site is basically the Chinese version of Amazon. But way bigger.

“E-commerce in China … is about twice as big as a share of the retail market as it is in the U.S.,” Lavin says. “This platform we’re in in China is the largest e-commerce platform in the world.”

Under the agreement with the MEDC, Export Now will cut $1,000 off the cost of its service for selected Michigan businesses. The MEDC will also pay $1,000. So the total cost to Michigan businesses will be $1,000 – a discount of two-thirds off the usual price.

But perhaps the biggest winner in the deal is Export Now. It’s a startup company that only began shipping products to China within the past few months. With its new deal, the MEDC will help recruit up to 100 new clients for Export Now. Right now, Export Now has just 11 clients. The MEDC will also directly pay Export Now up to $100,000. The new clients will bring in another $100,000.

Frank Lavin negotiated this deal that could increase his company’s size almost tenfold, all in exchange for a 33 percent discount on Export Now’s services.

“It sounds like a pretty good deal he has,” says Tim Parker, who’s trying to launch an export service business of his own.

Parker says perhaps the best part of the deal is that the MEDC has sent out press releases, and plans to hold four informational meetings across Michigan.

“Any publicity like that is good,” Parker says. “It’s directly building your business for you, and you’re leveraging others’ resources, so of course it’s a good thing.”

Parker started his export-to-China business last year. Unlike Lavin, he’s actually a Michigan resident. But he says his company might be a few months behind Export Now in the race to get U.S.-made products to China. There’s even been talk of partnering with Export Now.

“I guess in some ways, you could think of it as a competitor,” Parker says. But he says his business will market Michigan-made products directly to retail stores. Export Now only sells on the web.

But still, Parker hopes when the time comes the Michigan Economic Development Corporation will help his company, TS Parker Products, just like it helped Export Now.

MEDC spokesman Michael Shore says he hasn’t heard of Parker products, but he says the agency is open to arrangements with other companies that can help market Michigan-made products abroad.

“Export Now came to us,” Shore says. “I can’t speak to any other companies that exist out there, but given similar capabilities, and qualifications and pricing, I don’t why we wouldn’t consider them as well.”

Taking a chance A group in Michigan wants to change the state’s constitution to allow more casino gambling. According to the Detroit Free Press, the group is proposing new casinos in eight locations, including downtown Detroit and Grand Rapids.

Two politicians, two views of the economy Wisconsin primary voters head to the polls tomorrow. The Boston Herald has a look at one campaign event over the weekend that featured both Mitt Romney and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Though they shared a stage, they both offered different views on the state of our economy.

Still on strike It’s the eighth week of a strike for about 250 Red Cross Workers in Northern Ohio. The workers help run mobile blood collection units for the charity. Partner station WCPN Ideastream reports there’s still no sign of a deal in the strike that started in February.

Engineers in demand The Detroit Free Press reports on better job prospects for engineers. At a recent engineering conference in Metro Detroit, the paper reports open jobs outnumbered attendees nearly six to one.

Drill now, drill where? Some state-owned land in Michigan could be opened up for oil and gas drilling, according to partner station Michigan Radio.

Hello, tax revenue Bloomberg News reports cities in Michigan that collect income tax are seeing a windfall this year.

Wah Wah Shell has chosen Pittsburg for a new $2 billion plant to process natural gas. The Wall Street Journal says the plant is expected to create thousands of jobs. Ohio leaders were hoping the plant would be built in their state.

Whoopsie Two weeks ago, a state press release in Indiana promoted the MBC Group as an example how the state’s new Right to Work law is creating jobs. One problem: the president of the MBC Group says Right to Work played no role in his company’s decision to expand.

Big money The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports on the “staggering” amount of money being spent on the Scott Walker recall campaign. The amount is more than double the amount previously spent on any statewide campaign in Wisconsin.

Calling all angels The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that angel investing in Wisconsin reached over $61 million last year.

Immigrant entrepreneurs Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a series of workshops to help immigrants launch small businesses.

Primed for the primary Partner station WBEZ reports that Newt Gingrich was in Illinois yesterday. Other candidates will be in the state today, as the Illinois primary race gets going.

Damage done It’s only property A tornado ripped through the small Southeast Michigan village of Dexter yesterday. No one was hurt.

Decision time in Detroit Today, MIchigan Governor Rick Snyder is expected to announce the details of a new consent agreement with the city of Detroit. Partner station Michigan Radio says the agreement would give broad, budget-cutting powers to the city’s elected officials, without appointing an emergency manager. Without drastic cuts, leaders are worried Detroit could run out of cash by this summer.

A deal gone sour The executive of Cuyahoga County is looking into a possible lawsuit over a land deal that cost the county $45 million. Some of the people involved in the deal have been convicted of corruption.

We’re number 9! A new ranking puts Chicago ninth among the world’s most competitive cities. Chicago ranked behind cities including New York, London, Singapore, Paris and Hong Kong. It ranked just ahead of Boston, according to the Chicago Tribune.