2020 hopefuls should be watching the Rust Belt's rebirth closely

Look past the perception of the industrial Midwest as a monolith of hollowed-out cities and hulking, empty factories, and you will find economic assets that can power a Midwest economic renaissance.

The region possesses the world’s greatest number and concentration of top-tier research and teaching universities that disproportionately contribute to overall U.S. talent generation and innovation.  

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There are also global companies and agricultural producers that lead U.S. trade and engagement with the world and an abundance of woods and waters, including a 10,000-plus mile freshwater coastline that affords a rich quality of life and sustainable lifestyle in an era of climate change-induced economic havoc elsewhere.

Yet, today even the iconic “shells” of its mighty industries are an asset, being repurposed to house a new generation of artists and entrepreneurs working in technology, entertainment and service businesses.

Look west to a thriving downtown Minneapolis, once the “flour milling capital of the world.” There, the aging "husks" of mills overlooking the Mississippi River have been filled in with museums, restaurants and performing  emporiums.

The riverfront is lined with office suites and high-rise condominiums — stitched  together by walking trails and heritage sites, including the Minnesota Historical Society’s eight-story Flour Tower, home to milling exhibits and baking demonstrations.  

Across the Great Lakes in Buffalo, N.Y., industrial ruins house a waterfront playground. The massive riverworks complex, which were former storage facilities and grain silos, host brew pubs and restaurants, outdoor concerts, riverfront docks with rentable kayaks and rock-climbing walls.

In Milwaukee, a once fouled Milwaukee River flows through the historic buildings of the Third Ward on route to Lake Michigan.

Once flanked by the backs of warehouses, old mills and commercial buildings, the river is cleaned up and fronted by pedestrian walkways, shops, restaurants, loft spaces and offices in the historic structures. It is Milwaukee's showcase mixed-use district, housing artists and galleries, theatre groups and photographers.

As birthplace of the auto industry and assembly-line manufacturing, Detroit was the center of the U.S. industrial economy. Here, artists and creatives are recolonizing the ravaged post-industrial landscape and reveling in the freedom to start anew. They yearn to be part of a “Phoenix from the Ashes” moment (Detroit’s city motto by the way). 

Detroit’s rebirth is seen along the riverfront, once littered with abandoned factories, slag heaps and the detritus from the industrial era. It is now remade for strolling, biking, festivals and new living and working spaces.

Iconic buildings like the former Stroh Brewery have been converted to condominiums, offices for foundations, consultants, financial-service firms and relocated local icons like the Rattlesnake Club restaurant, where diners enjoy unobstructed views of the Detroit River.      

Detroit’s recolonization of historic structures includes the most infamous subject of the nation’s “ruin porn” fascination; the hulking Michigan Central Station.

Abandoned for over 30 years, now newly taken over by Ford Motor Company as the center of its "New Mobility" campus and hub of operations, it is a vessel for new talent wanting to work in an urban community and in turn help resuscitate Corktown, one of the many hollowed-out neighborhoods of Detroit.

Smaller Midwest manufacturing communities are also looking to repurpose defunct facilities as centerpieces of denser, multi-use urban communities. In Fort Wayne, Ind., a century-old, abandoned General Electric complex that once employed 40 percent of the city’s workforce is being converted into apartments, shops and offices.

This movement to repurpose historic industrial sites began in Lowell, Mass. The massive brick textile mill complexes along the Merrimack River were the first landings of the Industrial Revolution in America in the early 1800’s.

Former Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) first saw the promise of rehabilitating these facilities and celebrating their place in history as anchors for urban revival, creating the nation’s first national and state “heritage parks” in the 1970s. 

As the Boston Route 128 tech boomlet grew, the entrepreneurs and the private sector moved in, taking advantage of the big spaces, high-ceilings and beautiful brick walls to create attractive (and historically resonant) work spaces.

As knowledge-based work displaced “blue-collar” production jobs, former industrial spaces have been colonized by law firms, design and architecture studios, consulting, real estate, creative and tech firms from Patterson, N.J. to Los Angeles.

But the repurposing of the industrial Midwest’s relics into vital creative and economic spaces has a particular power and importance given the outsize role these communities play in shaping U.S. politics. 

As hulking factory complexes, abandoned mills and foundries are repopulated by today’s workers, they become new nests for innovation and creative activity, contributing to the revival and economic renewal of still-evolving older communities.

Getting a federal infrastructure bill and more aggressive environmental cleanup agenda done that enables and supports these developments should be high on the agenda for federal policymakers (and 2020 presidential hopefuls).

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Many abandoned industrial sites are on brownfields and along polluted waterways, which must be cleaned up (at an expense no community can bear alone) to be repurposed as platforms for new economic activity and growth.

Home to just over a quarter of the U.S. population, nine states around the Great Lakes contain 41.3 percent of all Brownfield Sites. In these states, there are 6.12 brownfield sites per 100,000 people (and as high as 13 per 100,000 in a state like Michigan).

Aiding Midwest communities to repurpose their industrial relics for a new economy would enable one of the most tangible symbols of a vital, forward-looking economic life.

John Austin is director of the Michigan Economic Center and a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, Chicago Council on Global Affairs and W.E. Upjohn Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @John_C_Austin. University of Michigan’s Jack Farrell contributed to this post.