A Notice From Changing Gears

The economic transformation of the industrial Midwest will continue to be a principal reality in the communities served by our stations, WBEZ, Michigan Radio, and WCPN ideastream, and the coverage of that change will continue to be our priority.

But change, as our project name implies, is inescapable, and we are not immune. This blog will continue to be a repository for coverage about this topic, However it will not continue to be updated with the frequency it has for the past two years.

The Midwest Economy Is Getting Better. Will The Transformation Continue?

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.

Blame The Tsunami For This Warm Midwest Spring

Last fall, Accuweather forecasters predicted a weather so bad in the Midwest that people in Chicago would want to move. As we all know, that didn’t happen. Not by a long shot.

Instead of snow, we're getting this/photo by Micki Maynard

Now, according to the Chicago Tribune, the weather prediction company has come up with a reason it was so off base: the Japanese tsunami.

“We’re wrong sometimes, we can admit it,” meteorologist and AccuWeather.com news director Henry Margusity said Wednesday. “It was not exactly the best forecast.”

He theorizes on his blog that drifting debris from the tsunami last March seems to be sending warm weather aloft over the Pacific, which in turn is wafting warmer breezes here. Because the Pacific is the world’s largest ocean, it has a great deal of impact on global weather.

“If you match up where that debris field is right now with where the warmer than normal water temperatures are, they match up perfectly,” he said.

That also means we’re in for a warmer than normal summer, which could affect Midwest agriculture, businesses and our lifestyles.

Are you buying it?


All About Paczki: The Polish Jelly Donut That Ate The Midwest

The day before Ash Wednesday has many names — Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras. Shrove Tuesday. But all over the Midwest, it’s become known as Paczki Day.

Happy Paczki Day! photo via About.com

From Green Bay, Wis., to Lorain, Ohio, from Calumet City, Ind., to Hamtramck, Mich., people are snapping up the jelly donuts that have their roots in Polish cuisine.

One Chicago bakery alone expects to sell 80,000 paczkis, so we’re going to go out on a limb and predict there may be millions sold in the Midwest on Tuesday. (On a slightly smaller scale, we stopped into Zingerman’s Next Door in Ann Arbor this noon. They had pre-orders for 600. All were gone before dawn.)

Changing Gears has been taking a look at immigrant traditions and culture across the Midwest, but the paczki seems to have transcended its beginnings and become a pre-Lenten staple.

Originally, the paczki (pronounced poohnch-KEY) was meant to use up the last of a Roman Catholic household’s fat and sugar before the Lenten fast began the next day.

Small ethnic bakeries used to be the only place that carried them. (When I was growing up in Michigan, you had to know somebody who could bring them over from Hamtramck, the Polish enclave that borders Detroit.) Continue reading “All About Paczki: The Polish Jelly Donut That Ate The Midwest”

How Much of Midwestern Culture Comes From Somewhere Else?

Changing Gears just wrapped up our Midwest Migration series. The project documented the stories of people who left the Midwest in search of economic opportunity.

Now, we’re exploring stories of people who came into the region from other places. We’re looking for stories of how these traditions change and shape the identity of families, communities and cities. You can send in your recipes, traditions, family trees, usic and stories and become a part of the project.

Brigitte Kirchgatterer from Forest View, Illinois shared some of her traditions, and the photo at left. Her mother immigrated from Fulda, Germany and her Father from Volklamarkt, Austria. They met in Chicago. Kirchgatterer says that one of her favorite traditions is celebrating with Krampus around Christmastime. But, she says the tradition hasn’t always translated to America.

“It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to explain to a non-Austrian in my entire life.” said Kichgatterer. “In fact, my kindergarten teacher in 1981 was so concerned about the “tall tales” I was telling after Christmas break she called my Mom about it saying,’Your daughter said the Devil comes to your house for Christmas?’ Only to learn it was all true!”
Share your traditions with the Your Family Story project here.


The Two Most Important Lines You’ll See Today

Line graphs are usually nothing to get excited about. But this particular graph released today by the Chicago Fed tells the story of manufacturing over the last decade. Represented in that one bold line are the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in the Midwest. The bold line shows the jobs that were lost, the factories that were shut down and the products we no longer make. We can learn a lot from where that line has been, and where it seems to be headed. Continue reading “The Two Most Important Lines You’ll See Today”

Commentary: Wrong Time For Right to Work?

Many experts thought the Midwest states would never see Right to Work laws. After all, the modern union movement has deep roots here, and unions remain in force even as membership has dropped elsewhere.

Right to Work States/Source: Drscoundels.com

But Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is pushing hard for a Right to Work law, which would eliminate the requirement that people pay dues if a union is formed where they work. And, some lawmakers in Michigan want to push for it there, even though Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder says it is not a priority.

Jack Lessenberry, the political commentator for our partner station Michigan Radio, tackled the subject today. You can hear his commentary on their Web site, and read it here.

Jack writes,

Governor Rick Snyder has no interest in attempting to make Michigan a “right-to-work” state, which means one where it is illegal for employers to sign labor contracts requiring their workers to pay union dues. But some Republicans in the legislature disagree, and may try to get a right-to-work bill passed this year. Continue reading “Commentary: Wrong Time For Right to Work?”

Midwest Grows At Slower Pace Than Slow-Growing United States

The Midwest is growing at a slower pace than any region in the United States, according to new population estimates released by the Census Bureau.

The region’s population measured 67,517,954 according to numbers from the 2010 U.S. Census. Fifteen months later, estimates put the region’s population at 67,669,140.

The increase for the nine-state region of 151,186 was smaller than individual increases for California, Texas and Florida, and only slightly higher than individual increases for Georgia (128,000) and North Carolina (121,000). No Midwestern states ranked among the Top 10 fastest-growing ones.

Michigan was one of three states across the country to lose population.

Continue reading “Midwest Grows At Slower Pace Than Slow-Growing United States”

Indiana’s Governor Backs Right to Work Effort; Will Other Midwest States Follow?

For years, Indiana’s Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, has resisted efforts by fellow Republican lawmakers to implement Right to Work legislation. But now, Daniels is making a Right to Work law one of his legislative priorities for 2012.

Right to Work laws mean employees do not have to join a union, if it is formed in their workplace, nor do they have to pay union dues. (To see Right to Work states, click here.)

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels

Under “closed shop” laws in effect in Michigan, and other northern states, employees must either join a union when one is certified, or pay dues. Some people say that forces them to become union members against their will, since they must pay dues anyway.

Daniels, in a presentation Thursday laying out his goals for the new year, said Indiana needs the law because he believes it will lead to increased job opportunities. Daniels said the nation’s 22 Right to Work states enjoy faster job and income growth, and have lower unemployment rates.

“After a year of study and reflection, I have come to agree that it is time for Indiana to join the 22 states which have enacted right to work laws,” Daniels said in a statement Thursday. Continue reading “Indiana’s Governor Backs Right to Work Effort; Will Other Midwest States Follow?”

Governors Provide Weak Regional Leadership Across Midwest, Says Environmental Advocate

The Midwest lacks leadership. That’s a blunt assessment delivered from Gary Wilson at the Great Lakes Echo, a website that covers news related to the Great Lakes environment.

When it comes to issues surrounding the region, he says governors are more interested in stealing companies from each other in a zero-sum jobs battle than confronting – and collaborating on – the region’s economic and environmental challenges.

“They’ve been the antithesis of collaboration and now are singularly focused on creating jobs, many times by trying to pirate them away from neighboring states,” Wilson writes. “That’s when they’re not weakening environmental regulations to create a more business friendly climate.”

Continue reading “Governors Provide Weak Regional Leadership Across Midwest, Says Environmental Advocate”