Michigan’s green shoots

Despite widespread poverty and an uncertain future there we found green shoots in Michigan’s economy.

A year from now Americans will be voting in one of the most important presidential elections ever on a backdrop that is likely to be the harshest economic downturn in 80 years.

The mid-western state of Michigan has voted Democrat in the last five presidential cycles and it will be a key state in November 2012.

Mr Obama has spent a lot of money and time on Michigan in the past four years but many wonder if he’s done enough to entice voters to go for him again in a state that has a Republican governor and legislator?

Al Jazeera English sent me to Michigan to find out if I could find any green shoots of economic recovery. I found them, but let’s not kid ourselves.

The city of Detroit will run out of money next March unless deals can be struck with the unions. There’s still grinding poverty in Michigan – especially in Detroit and Grand Rapids.

Half of the population in these inner cities are illiterate and only a quarter of kids graduate high school. It’s a fair question to ask if hi-tech, high paid jobs can do much to help in this case.

Nonetheless, look hard enough and you’ll find those green shoots and that must be hopeful.

For a start the “Big Three” auto makers are leading Michigan’s economic recovery.

A recent Bloomberg survey put Michigan’s economy second behind North Dakota in a list of states leading the US out of recession – and that despite a seven percent contraction in its economy in the past twelve months.

Auto driving economy

Brad Glende, a team leader at General Motors’ massive Orion Assembly plant just outside Detroit, reckons he’s a lucky guy.

A GM man since the mid-nineties, but laid off from a plant in Wisconsin, he transferred his entire family to Detroit. It was a tough decision for all of them but they’ve settled now.

“We have a lot of people who are just happy to be back at work … not being unemployed, they know when there next pay check’s coming so yes … I think everybody’s really happy just to be back at work.”

Green future

But the auto industry isn’t the only engine of growth in Michigan. Listen to Robert Allen whose company LUMA (Latin for light) was mentioned by President Obama during last January’s State of the Union address.

“Green technology is absolutely one of the ways … if not THE way out of the state we’re in.” Robert, who along with his brother, saw a gap in the market for solar energy.

They developed a solar roofing shingle with backing from the state of Michigan which has been courting green technology companies.

Michigan went over the top for us … advising us, putting us in front of the right people.” There are still many run-down buildings in downtown Detroit, a city devastated by the present and previous financial crises. (To say nothing of race riots, white flight and weak local government)

Follow ‘The Blues’

However, cheap real-estate prices plus state and city incentives mean major companies have begun committing to the city centre like mortgage firm Quicken Loans with 2,000 jobs … and the health giant Blue Cross Blue Shield – known as “the Blues” – which is consolidating three thousand staff downtown.

Tricia Keith, at Blue Cross Blue Shield – a firm that’s stuck by Detroit for more than seventy years told me. “Michigan can only be strong when the core cities are strong and so this is really a statement about supporting our region.”

Talk of economic recovery is not confined to Michigan’s major urban centres like Detroit but can be found right across the state. I drove right across Michigan to 48th Street in Holland.

Here I found nothing but corn fields on one side of the road, while behind me was a brand new factory owned by the South Korean company LG to build batteries for electric vehicles.

The hope is that other companies will follow making Holland the battery making centre in the United States.

Tough race

But political watchers say whatever the hopeful signs … next year’s presidential election could still be close. Susan Demas, a political analyst and blogger based in Lansing, Michigan says:

“The Obama administration has spent a lot of time in Michigan and a lot of money in terms of green energy and rail money with the stimulus but on the other hand you have a Republican governor and a Republican legislator and if Mitt Romney is the nominee he has a very big power base here in terms of fund raising since he was born in this state so I think it will be neck and neck.”

At the GM factory I suspect Mr Obama may pick up quite a few votes. I could find no one who wasn’t grateful to him for sticking by the auto workers three years ago when he was under pressure to let the Detroit car makers drive into the sunset.

As they see it here at the Orion plant he gave them more than the chance to reform, slim down, rehire previously laid-off workers and return to profit, he gave them the chance to work full tilt and put Michigan back on the road to recovery again.

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