Regional Unification Key To Globalization

April 14, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — In order to confront globalization, Richard C. Longworth believes the Midwest should take a regional approach.

Longworth is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, former foreign correspondent for United Press International and the Chicago Tribune, as well as former chief European correspondent for the Tribune. He also has won the Overseas Press Club Award twice, is currently a distinguished visiting scholar at DePaul University, and has authored several books, including his latest, “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism.”

Longworth will appear Thursday in a program sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan. The program will be held at the Donnelly Center on the Aquinas College campus, with a reception at 5:30 p.m. The presentation is from 6:15 to 7:15 p.m.

“The state lines were drawn 200 years ago and they didn’t make much sense even back then,” Longworth said in an interview with the Business Journal. “In the global era, where we’re in competition not with Indiana or Ohio but with other nations 10,000 miles away, states are too small and too parochial to compete.”

He says that heavy industry and farming have been “tossed in the air by globalization,” and communities need to adopt a new method of thinking in order to transition successfully into the global world.

Part of this thinking includes unifying communities through the flow of economic boundaries rather than state lines.

Longworth recognizes that even individual states often are divided industrially, psychologically, demographically and politically: such as eastern and western Michigan. He argues that cities should connect and communicate through economic interests.

“You have to start thinking differently. That means you’ve got to start thinking across state lines,” said Longworth.

Grand Rapids, Kansas City and Cleveland are all engaging in life sciences, health and research in a similar fashion and should exchange ideas more often, said Longworth. He said that Grand Rapids is part of a much larger economic area — “and that area doesn’t have much to do with Michigan or Detroit.” He drew a connection between West Michigan, Northern Indiana, Chicago and Southern Wisconsin. “It’s one of these megalopolises that just runs around the lake,” he said.

Longworth, unfortunately, does not see the cities in this megalopolis reaching out to each other as much as they could.

In many Midwest communities, companies have pulled out, Longworth noted, leaving almost nothing in their wake. This has caused local and state government to be consumed with supporting declining cities and rural areas and “cleaning up the wreckage of the industrial era,” leaving very few resources to focus on the future. Because of this, Longworth believes leadership has to come from within the community — and typically is in the form of wealthy families.

“A lot of people in the Midwest are beginning to realize the good ol’ days of the industrial era just aren’t coming back, and we’ve got to figure out what we’re going to do for an encore,” he said.

To that end, Longworth suggests communities should study what they used to do as a basis for what they could do in the future. He gives the example of Akron, Ohio, which was once known as the “tire capital.” While the city may not make nearly the amount of tires it used to, they do know rubber. With that knowledge, Longworth says the city has created a fairly substantial polymer industry.

He sees education playing a large role, as well. The Big Ten universities, mixed with some private universities such as the University of Chicago, are great assets to the Midwest, said Longworth, but he admits there needs to be more cooperation between them.

“We are dealing with this in isolation and that just doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

Universities, combined with existing companies, he said, will lend to the cultivation of the entrepreneurial spirit that has been missing in the Midwest for decades.

“One hundred years ago, this was the Silicon Valley of the United States,” he said. “All the car companies and automotive and agricultural equipment — all these guys had these bright ideas. We’ve been living on those ideas for 100 years and doing so well at it, we haven’t had to have any new ideas, and we’ve forgotten how.”

Once new ideas are cultivated, Longworth said, the lack of capital in the Midwest will make it difficult to keep those ideas in the area.

“It’s so absolutely appropriate to listen to what he has to say for our area,” said Dixie Anderson, executive director of the World Affairs Council of Western Michigan. “He hones it right in on what does the Midwest have to do, what does West Michigan have to do, what does Grand Rapids have to do.”

Longworth drove across the Midwest for a year and noticed that “in some places, and Grand Rapids is an example, you do get the feeling that people are asking the right questions and possibly turning the city and the region in the right direction.”

Longworth was able to more thoroughly observe the economic state of the Midwest by choosing to drive rather than fly. He noted that even though gas prices are high, “You can stay in every Super 8 in the Midwest, as I did, and not run up much of a hotel bill.”

For further information on Longworth’s appearance, contact the World Affairs Council office at (616) 776-1721 or go to

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