I recently read a newspaper article about events occurring in the Great Lakes states. As an Ohioan, I read the article with interest, until I came across the first of four casual references that labeled these states in the heartland of our nation as the “Rust Belt.” Now, I recognize and celebrate the freedom that we all have to choose what we say and, certainly, this is not an isolated incident of a newspaper identifying the area with that term. Even so, there is no other part of this great country that is routinely disparaged by reporters, political and business leaders with such a negative stereotypical label. It is time for it to stop.
We don’t call the South the “Sunstroke Belt” or the West the “Parched Belt.” And I certainly do not think we should. It would not do those areas justice, just as the negative image conjured up with the “Rust Belt” label does not do the Great Lakes states justice.
This area is the heartland of North America. It boasts the magnificent Great Lakes, national parks and recreational destinations and contains one-fifth of the world’s freshwater. It is home to countless world-class educational and health care institutions, arts and culture and is headquarters for one-half of the Fortune 500 industrial companies. This area is blessed with hardworking people who care about one another and are dedicated to our great nation.
Connected to our biggest trading partner, Canada, and to the rest of the world through the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway, the area is our nation’s manufacturing and agricultural powerhouse. Taken as a whole, the economy of the eight Great Lakes states and the two Canadian Great Lakes provinces represents the fourth-largest economy in the world, behind only the United States, China and Japan.
From being the cradle of the auto industry to the birthplace of aviation and numerous medical, scientific and engineering advancements, the area not only has a rich past, but a present characterized by innovation and discovery. In light of all that, this dynamic region contributes to the strength of our nation.
I submit that it is past time to consciously drop the “Rust Belt” label. It contributes nothing necessary to a media story and should be replaced with a more fitting term. Referencing the area as the “Opportunity Belt” would be far more worthy of the area, our people and our future.
There is just so much opportunity here. The Great Lakes and Seaway basin possess economic and natural assets that are the envy of the world. We are uniquely endowed with resources that allow us to reach for new opportunities. Those opportunities are becoming more evident in the world of maritime transportation. Ships are moving essential materials to more than 100 million people in the region, more than one-fifth of the continent’s population.
The Great Lakes Seaway System tends to fly beneath the radar for the general public, but it shouldn’t. It contributes to businesses accounting for more than a third of North America’s gross national product and provides a marine highway from the Midwest to the Atlantic Ocean. The construction, agriculture and steel industries are some of the critical industries that depend daily on the binational waterway to supply materials. The Great Lakes Seaway System makes it possible to move coal that generates heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer for millions of people. It allows for grain from the heartland of the country to move to destinations across the globe. It is the path for windmill parts to be transported in order to provide a new energy source. It is, in short, a pathway to opportunity.
As administrator of the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp., I am determined to support and encourage greater economic opportunities for the people and businesses that depend on the Great Lakes. To that end, I am working to grow the strategic importance of the Great Lakes region, expand and diversify the economy of the Great Lakes Seaway System, serve as a model of intermodal transportation connectivity and maintain a vibrant domestic and international maritime industry.
Anything we can do to help our region realize these opportunities will help it thrive. We can start by replacing “Rust Belt” with “Opportunity Belt.” And we can keep working together to give us all a reason to continue to say with pride that we work within the Great Lakes region.
Betty Sutton is administrator of the St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corp.