Sep 9, 2013
Bill McMeekin
Bill McMeekin
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Nations Within A Nation: Why the Great Lakes Could Get Greater

The skyline of Chicago on Lake Michigan

The always interesting Joel Kotkin writes this week about nations within the nation – the collection of geographic regions and city-states with their own economic engines, assets, identities and challenges, from the burgeoning energy-charged metros of the Great Plains to the new manufacturing centers of the Southeast to the innovation capital of the “Left Coast” and the emerging shale belt in the Great Lakes.

As Kotkin points out, the concept is not new, but it does reflect the unique attributes and drivers that are shaping the nation. The demographer and author is projecting solid job and population growth in most of these nations within a nation over the next 10 years.

“The author Joel Garreau first proposed a North America of  ‘nine nations’ 32 years ago – but it’s never been more relevant than it is today, as America’s semi-autonomous economic states continue to compete, cooperate … and thrive.”

Indeed, the latest economic ranking from shows how robust a couple of Kotkin’s “nations” are. Of the 10  metros with the best economies in August (based on factors that include short- and long-term job growth and increases in average weekly earnings), four (Salt Lake City, Provo UT, Ogden UT and Denver) are in the rapidly growing energy and technology corridor that Kotkin calls the Inland West and three (Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth and Oklahoma City)  are in the energy rich Great Plains.

One of the other top m10 metros, Houston, is the capital city of the Third Coast, a region that stretches along the Gulf of Mexico from Central Florida to the Texas-Mexico border. Houston is at the heart of the energy industry and a key export location thanks to its mammoth port facilities.

Great Lakes: Energy, Autos and Logistics

Kotkin is less sanguine about the prospects for the Great Lakes, a region of 58 million residents and a legacy of manufacturing decline and population loss. Kotkin projects job and population growth there will lag the rest of the “nations” over the next decade, and it will see a decline in the number of residents under age 30 and a major increase in the over-65 population.

Still, it would be premature to write off the prospects for the Great Lakes .With its $2.6 trillion economy (about equal to France),  it is still an industrial powerhouse, but it is much more than that.

Yes, it includes Detroit, but it also includes Chicago, a global business capital, major center of financial services and a leader in a number of emerging industries from information and communications technology to renewable energy to life sciences.

The Great Lakes region also includes the enormous potential of Western Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, which already has contributed $11.2 billion in the regional equivalent of gross domestic product. helps support nearly 140,000 jobs and has helped rejuvenate the manufacturing sector.

The industrial legacy of the region gives it a pool of skilled workers for today’s sophisticated, technologically advanced manufacturing processes. And yes, cars still count. Michigan is still a major hub of automotive innovation, but auto manufacturing strength can be found beyond Detroit throughout the Great Lakes region. Sure, the Big Three have assembly and components operations there, but so do foreign automakers. Honda has production facilities in Ohio and Indiana, and Mitsubishi makes cars in Illinois.

It is the resurgent manufacturing sector that is making the Great Lakes an important logistics location. A Colliers Colliers International white paper notes the Great Lakes region’s importance in the moving materials central to everything from auto manufacturing to construction materials to energy to food production. The 85 active freight ports on the Great Lakes handle 240 million tons of cargo each year and account for 28 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product.

As Kotkin notes, the Great Lakes “nation” has other attributes, too, including “the largest number of engineers in the nation, ample supplies of fresh water and some of the nation’s best public universities.”

It may not crackle with the same economic dynamism of the emerging technology or energy centers, but the Great Lakes “nation” still has enough firepower on a number of fronts to remain relevant for a long time and enough innovation capability to shed its Rust Belt image.

How does your “nation” stack up? Do you agree with Kotkin’s projections of growth in population and jobs and his assessments of what will drive that growth? Share your thoughts.


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  • September 10, 2013

    […] The always interesting Joel Kotkin writes this week about nations within the nation – the collection of geographic regions and city-states with their own economic engines, assets, identities and challenges, from the burgeoning energy-charged metros…  […]

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