Join Us TODAY 3 PM ET/2 PM CT For “Hidden Assets,” A Call-In Show And Live Chat On Immigration

Throughout the past two years, Changing Gears has looked at the role that newcomers play in the Midwest. This afternoon, we’ll be talking about them — and talking with you. 

Join us at 3 pm ET/2 pm CT for “Hidden Assets,” a call-in show airing on WBEZ Chicago, Michigan Radio and ideastream Cleveland. We’ll also be holding a live chat here at

WBEZ’s Steve Edwards will host with a variety of scheduled guests, including Michigan’s governor, Rick Snyder, and Changing Gears reporter Niala Boodhoo. The Changing Gears team will chat with you here during the show.

Agriculture Drives The Midwest Economy – And Farming Is Just The Start of It

Part-time farmer Howard Haselhuhn at his West Michigan hops farm. Credit: Lindsey Smith

This month, we’re looking into some of the hidden assets of the Midwest – the parts of our economy that don’t often get noticed when we talk about our strengths (the first part of the series is here). Agriculture is one of the biggest drivers of local economies in the Midwest – it accounts for billions of dollars worth of exports and thousands of jobs. There’s been a lot of concern about whether enough young people are going into farming these days. But the ag industry goes well beyond being just farming – and plenty of young people are interested in that.


At Navy Pier, a special meeting of the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences’s FFA chapter is being called to order. Ringed around the room, one by one, chapter officers check in during the traditional opening ceremony. It ends when President and Senior Jennifer Nelson asks her fellow FFA members: “Why are we here?”

The students stand and chant in unison: “To practice brotherhood, honor agriculture opportunities and responsibilities, and develop those qualities of leadership that an FFA member should possess.”

These students are part of the 17,000 FFA members in Illinois alone. Membership in the organization overall has increased 20 percent since 2000, to more than half a million members across the country. But there’s a reason why FFA no longer calls itself Future Farmers of America.

Continue reading “Agriculture Drives The Midwest Economy – And Farming Is Just The Start of It”

Midwest Memo: Workers In Wisconsin, Privatization Problems In Michigan And A Novel Class For Chicago Police

Wisconsin woes Changing Gears’ Niala Boodhoo has the second in a two-part report on how life has changed for public workers in Wisconsin, a year after the labor battle began. In today’s story, she reports that police officers and firefighters, who were originally meant to be exempt from the state’s cuts, are still feeling the pain.

Another deal, another vote The United Steelworkers has another tentative contract with the Timken Co. for workers at a plant near Canton, Ohio. Workers turned down the last agreement. If they approve this one, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports the company says it will make a $225 million investment to upgrade the plant.

State of the speech Partner station WCPN Ideastream reports Ohio Governor John Kasich focused on the economy during his State of the State speech last night.

Privatization problems An effort to privatize Michigan’s prisons and save $93 million in this year’s budget is stalled. The problem is that private contractors would have to pay prison workers the minimum wage $7.40 an hour. The Detroit News reports the state currently pays the workers a tenth of that amount.

Tax and switch Gas could get a lot cheaper in Michigan soon. But don’t worry, you’ll still lose that extra money another way. Lawmakers in Michigan are looking at a plan to replace the state’s 19 cents/gallon gas tax with a 1 percent increase in the overall sales tax. Partner station Michigan Radio says the idea is meant to increase funding for road repairs.

A novel class Chicago Police officers are getting a chance to try out a different profession: novelist. According to The New York Times, the police department has started offering voluntary writing classes for officers.

A Year After The Uproar, Labor Protests Continue in Wisconsin

The nation was riveted on Madison, Wisconsin last year when tens of thousands of people protested Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to dismantle most union rights for state and local workers. Walker was successful. Now, a year later, how have those changes made life different in Wisconsin? Changing Gears has been taking a look at the impact state governments have on everyday life, and I take a look at Wisconsin in the first of two reports.


The Solidarity Sing Along outside the Capitol building in Madison, Wisc. (Niala Boodhoo)

It’s noon, and on the steps of the Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, about 100 people are gathered in a circle, singing labor songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “Solidarity Forever”. They have a conductor, drummer, someone passing out songbooks and even a cymbals player. It’s been dubbed the Solidarity Sing-A-Long.

People wave signs protesting Gov. Scott Walker as they walk. Some signs call for his recall.

Last Valentine’s Day, when the sing-a-long began, thousands of workers were protesting at the Capitol. They were trying to get legislators to stop Walker’s proposal to take away collective bargaining rights for state workers.

Wisconsin was one of the first states in the country to allow its public workers to unionize. Dues were taken right out of their paychecks, and they were represented by unions that bargained over wages, pensions and health care contributions. Continue reading “A Year After The Uproar, Labor Protests Continue in Wisconsin”

Aon to Move Its Global HQ From Chicago To London

Aon is the world’s biggest insurance broker — and a is a big name in Chicago, where it raised eyebrows Friday morning by announcing it is moving its global headquarters to London.

But the announcement so far doesn’t mean job losses for Chicago, which will remain the U.S. headquarters for the insurance/reinsurance company.

“Chicago is the foundation of one of our most important markets, and as the headquarters of the Americas will continue to be central to the success of the firm,” CEO Greg Case said, stressing that it will not cause job losses in either Chicago or the U.S. In fact, Aon said it plans to add more than 1,000 positions across its U.S. operations this year.

Aon has about 6,000 workers in Chicago, and plans to add an additional 750 jobs at the Aon Center in downtown Chicago, where it recently signed a letter of intent for a 15-year lease, the company said in a statement announcing the move.

Aon said the move to the U.K. provides “better access to emerging markets”, as well as strategic proximity to London, “one of the key international hubs of insurance and risk brokerage”. Continue reading “Aon to Move Its Global HQ From Chicago To London”

What Lies Ahead For Midwestern Manufacturing

Chicago White Metal Casting's Factory Floor (Niala Boodhoo)

CHICAGO – The Midwest may have just 13 percent of the country’s population, but we still produces more than a third of the nation’s cars, steel and the lion’s share of heavy machinery. And, the rise in manufacturing meant good news for the Midwest economy last year. Here, a perspective on why things went so well for manufacturers last year – and what challenges lie ahead.


Continue reading “What Lies Ahead For Midwestern Manufacturing”

…Shall We Play An Incentives Game? (Midwest States Are)

The incentives war between the Midwestern states has heated up over the past few months, especially between Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, which, are fighting over Sears and the CME Group. Here is a look at how states use incentives to keep or steal companies, and how that effects overall economic development.


Think back to Political Science 101 and what you learned about game theory. If you need some help, think about the premise of one of my favorite 1980s movies: War Games.

Remember the ending? (No? Keep reading.) The movie’s  star, Matthew Broderick, wants to show Joshua, the computer, that there’s no way to win a zero-sum game. He gets the computer to play itself, first Tic Tac Toe, then a simulation of a nuclear war between the then-Soviet Union and the United States. In the end, Joshua realizes no one can win.

Keep game theory in mind, because we’ll come back to it later. But that’s kind of what’s happening between Illinois, Ohio and Indiana. These states have spent the past few months waging an economic incentives war worth millions of dollars and thousands of jobs.

Continue reading “…Shall We Play An Incentives Game? (Midwest States Are)”

When Companies Cut R&D Spending, Where Do They Go?

The U.S. is the world leader is research and development spending, in terms of both government and private sector spending. In 2009, the United States spent about $338 billion on research and development – China was the next closest, at about $124 billion.

What’s interesting is how that spending gets broken down: The federal government spends much more on the research side. Private industry focuses on development, creating products that can make more money.

That’s what makes Battelle Memorial Institute such an interesting place. I reported earlier this summer on Battelle, a nonprofit research and development organization in Columbus, Ohio, that brought us the technology behind bar codes, cruise control, tamper-proof bottles, and more.

That story focused on how to Battelle takes things from ideas to economic reality. Our friends at National Public Radio’s Morning Edition were interested in that story, so I’ve branched beyond our initial report and taken a second look at the company, and this time focused on how it prioritizes research-and-development spending. You can check out the new report here.


Reporter’s Notebook: Vacant Industrial Buildings – How Many Are Out There?

Outside the former Harris Marcus furniture factory in Chicago (Ken Fager via Flickr Creative Commons)

Given the thousands of old industrial properties in the United States, especially across the Midwest, you might think city governments know the number of vacant commercial properties within their municipalities.

Think again.

In reporting my story about one man’s quest to convert a former meatpacking plant on Chicago’s South Side into an urban farm, I tried to figure out how many other empty industrial buildings there are in the city.

But Chicago city officials don’t keep track of vacant commercial properties.

Continue reading “Reporter’s Notebook: Vacant Industrial Buildings – How Many Are Out There?”

Converting Empty Buildings: A Template on Chicago’s South Side?

Vacant industrial buildings dot the Midwest and swallow up chunks of some neighborhoods. But instead of blight, one Chicago man sees opportunity. All this month, Changing Gears has been reporting on Empty Places. The series reminded me of a man I first met last year, when I reported on brownfield industrial sites. I thought I would check back in with him a year later to find out how his experiment to cultivate new life on Chicago’s South Side was turning out.


Baby tilapia growing in the basement of The Plant, an urban farm inside a former meatpacking plant on Chicago's South Side. (Niala Boodhoo)

Deep inside the basement of a former meatpacking plant on the edge of Chicago’s Stockyards, rows of giant plastic barrels are neatly lined up. Inside, hundreds of dark grey and pink speckled fish are quietly swimming around.

“We breed all of our own tilapia,” said urban farmer John Edel, as he gestures to a series of tanks full of guppies in one corner of the basement.

Edel calls this building “The Plant”.

Continue reading “Converting Empty Buildings: A Template on Chicago’s South Side?”