Richard Longworth on Megacity Cooperation: “I Wish I Could Be More Optimistic”

People in the Chicago Megacity, defined as the 21-county region stretching from the Milwaukee area down through Chicago into Northwest Indiana, need to work together with great urgency so the region can compete in the global economy.  That was the opinion of Richard C. Longworth at the 2012 “Milwaukee’s Future in the Chicago Megacity” conference and in an essay he wrote for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel before the conference.

Three years later, ahead of the July 28 “Public Attitudes in the Chicago Megacity: Who are we, and what are the possibilities?” conference, once again sponsored by the Marquette Law School and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Longworth is still just as concerned about the future of our region.  One of the world’s foremost experts on global cities, he follows the issue closely from Chicago despite having recently retired from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs where in 2012 he was a Senior Fellow on Global Cities. Before joining the council, he was a long-time reporter and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and United Press International. He is the author of three books on globalization, including “Caught in the Middle,” on the impact of globalization on the American Midwest, and of the new eBook, “On Global Cities.”

He talked with former Journal Sentinel editor Marty Kaiser earlier this month.

Q. In 2012 the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a global economic think tank based in Paris, issued a 332-page report that advocated closer ties within the Chicago-Milwaukee economy, and declared the region “is at a tipping point.” The report was not optimistic about the future of the region, but said that if the region worked together it could become more competitive in the global economy.  You supported this view when you wrote about the issue and spoke at the “Milwaukee’s Future in the Chicago Megacity” conference at the Marquette Law School in 2012. Is your concern as strong as it was three years ago?

A. Yes. It definitely is. The need is still there. Nothing has changed since then to indicate that the region, as fragmented as it is, can prosper in a global economy unless it does work together and leverage its many strengths. The region is defined by the OECD as Milwaukee down through Chicago and northern Indiana.  Frankly, I would have taken it around Lake Michigan up to Grand Rapids.  I think it is very necessary for this region to work together because, as one cohesive economic region, it shares one huge natural resource, which is water, and a great deal of history.  It is based on the City of Chicago and expands out from there.   None of these areas exist separate from Chicago, so we are all interconnected anyway. But we don’t work together as a region.  We have this opportunity and we have the assets and we don’t make use of them.

Q. Do you have any reason to be optimistic that the region is making strides in the right direction?

A.  I wish I could be more optimistic. I am an admirer of what Kelly O’Brien has done at the Alliance for Regional Development. I’m pleased that three state governments at least signed off on it. I am happy you are still focused on the issue in Milwaukee. We are three years on now and I would have hoped we had more progress than we do — which is to say more real projects, more real examples.

Q. Do you believe that government leaders and business leaders understand the importance of the Chicago Megacity?

A. It depends on whom you are talking to. Here in Chicago the answer is no. The problem in getting moving lies right here in Chicago. That is a real problem because Chicago is the big apple of the region. It is the center. Not a lot is going to happen unless Chicago gets on board. I find it incredible that Chicago’s political and business leaders have no idea about the water project in Milwaukee and very little knowledge of tri-state cooperation. It is not hostile. It is not paying attention. That is a huge stumbling block.

Q. What areas could the 21-county region find common ground to work together?

A. I remember at the 2012 conference at Marquette, both Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said a one-word answer — water. All the panelists said water. It seems such an obvious area. We share this natural resource. We are doing a better job of conserving it. Conservation comes first obviously. You can’t use what you don’t have or what isn’t any good. We have cleaned up this lake. Most of the Great Lakes are in pretty good shape except some algae and some nutrient run off in Lake Erie. We have to keep working at that.  But how do we use this terrific natural resource for economic development in the same way the Midwest has used its other great natural resource –land — to support vast industries all these years. Can we do the same thing with water?  Well, Milwaukee is working at this, but nobody else is. But nobody seems very interested in getting on the bandwagon, and this strikes me as a great waste of opportunities.  There has been a project –The Great Lakes Initiative — that was undertaken with some help from Chicago architectural firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill that is talking about the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway as our one big ecological area. Well, terrific, that’s true — but there wasn’t one mention of how it could be used for any economic purpose other than tourism.

Michigan is catching on to this. The folks at the University of Michigan, led by John Austin, have just turned out a very fine report on the economic use of the water industry in Michigan. They are very enthusiastic, but again that’s focused on Michigan, relatively parochial.  It received no attention in Chicago. Water is the main area where we can cooperate.

There are other areas such as workforce development, which was mentioned in the OECD report. We could also certainly do a better job in transportation co-ordination. I would love to see a good high-speed commuter rail system between Milwaukee and Chicago.

Tourism is another area. There is a PGA tournament coming to Kohler, Wisconsin, in August.  For three or four days you are going to have a good chunk of the country watching a TV program with Lake Michigan in the background. It strikes me as a wonderful opportunity for our four states to get together to promote tourism in this area around Lake Michigan — if not, all the Great Lakes.

Q. The OCED report condemned the rivalry between the three states and the hostility displayed by state governments. Do you think the situation is better now than it was three years ago?

A. No. I would have hoped that having the governors all from the same party, they would at least tone down the rivalry, and maybe it has. The Wisconsin governor is spending his time in Iowa. The Indiana governor seems somewhat chastened. The Illinois governor in one of his first statements said he wanted to “rip the economic guts out of Indiana,” and that is a direct quote. This is not the way adults — let alone adult neighbors — talk about each other. So the possibility between the three states still has an immense problem — meaning any progress has to be done by our urban areas — by Milwaukee, Chicago and Northwest Indiana  — while not paying a whole lot of attention to Madison, Springfield or Indianapolis.

Q. Do you believe city government leaders are more cooperative than state government leaders?

A. Yes. This has always surprised me. Leaders are elected by people living within a certain geographical area to serve that geographical area. What happens outside that geographical area, being a city or state, wouldn’t seem to be of any interest to the mayors or governors involved. But mayors do see this differently. Mayors realize we are all in this together.

I do remember after the conference at Marquette three years ago, I was talking to Tom Barrett and I said if Chicago gets involved in a lot of water projects, that’s going to take some of the edge off of Milwaukee’s water institute, won’t it? He said, absolutely no. He realized that if Chicago really wanted to move into water initiatives that Milwaukee would be fine. The bigger the project, the better we all will do.  He really saw the point of regional cooperation.

I wish [Chicago Mayor] Rahm Emanuel were more focused on this. Maybe he has too much to think about with all the financial problems we have in Chicago and Illinois. I wish there was more attention from Chicago because Chicago can only benefit by being the center of a regional initiative. If we had the attitude in Chicago of Tom Barrett or [Gary Mayor] Karen Freeman-Wilson, we might be able to get something done because city officials need to be much more willing to work together.

There is a Chicago syndrome. We sit here in this global city feeling very smug about ourselves. We say we don’t need Milwaukee and we don’t need Gary. Well, we do. This is an attitude that seems to permeate City Hall, corporate headquarters, and newsrooms. That’s too bad.

[Ed. note: Marty Kaiser is the former editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is involved in the planning of the July 28 conference. For more information, on the upcoming conference, including how to register to attend, click here. For more information on the 2012 Megacity conference at the Law School and a link to video of the event, click here.]









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