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Determining the Economic Impact of Protecting and Restoring the Great Lakes

In 2007, a report published by the Brookings Institution estimated the potential economic impact of implementing a comprehensive Great Lakes protection and restoration strategy – direct economic benefits for the region totaling at least $50 billion and a 2-to-1 return on a $26 billion investment. Ten years later, more than $2.2 billion has been invested in the lakes through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) and more than 3,500 projects have been completed or are in progress. However, there is no data currently available to answer the basic question of how these investments have impacted the Great Lakes regional economy and quality of life.

In summer 2017, a core project team led by CGLI and the Great Lakes Commission began a project designed to assess the economic impact of the GLRI. The objective of the project was to generate a comprehensive estimate of the economic impact that GLRI investments during the period 2010 through 2016 have had and will have in the region. In addition to economic modeling and analysis, the study included eight case studies that document GLRI’s economic impact in specific Great Lakes communities and provide context, narrative, and “relatability” to the economic modeling results.

On September 27, 2018, the core project team released the results of the study. In a nutshell, the study found:

  • The GLRI was designed to be an environmental restoration program, not an economic development program, but it nonetheless has produced substantial economic benefits for the Great Lakes region.
  • Every dollar of federal spending on GLRI projects between 2010 and 2016 will produce $3.35 in additional economic activity in the Great Lakes region through 2036.
  • In some communities, the economic benefits will be even more pronounced: older industrial cities, such as Buffalo and Detroit, may see more than $4 in additional economic activity through 2036 for every GLRI project dollar spent between 2010 and 2016.
  • The GLRI also has greatly improved the tourism economy in the Great Lakes region, which is particularly important for coastal communities. Every case study community reported a resurgence in traditional recreational activities such as recreational boating, sailing, fishing, and canoeing and the emergence of a new type of tourism focused on kayaking, kitesurfing, and paddle-boarding due to the environmental improvements accomplished under the GLRI. Across the region, existing businesses have prospered and new businesses have emerged to serve growing numbers of residents and tourists visiting revitalized waterfront areas.
  • Increased tourism will continue to grow the regional economy in the decades to come. Every dollar of GLRI spending from 2010 through 2016 will generate $1.62 in economic value in tourism industries through 2036. This is nearly half of the $3.35 total anticipated increase in economic activity generated by GLRI spending during this period.
  • The GLRI also has improved the quality of life of people living in the Great Lakes region. The value of homes in coastal communities increased due to GLRI investments, which means that people place a higher value on living in those communities because of GLRI projects. As measured in housing values, every dollar of GLRI spending between 2010 and 2016 produced improvements in quality of life in Great Lakes communities worth $1.08 to local residents.

The project summary report is available here. The report of the economic modeling and analysis and the case studies are available on the project website. In addition to CGLI and the Great Lakes Commission (GLC), the core project team included a diverse coalition of regional organizations, including the Alliance for the Great Lakes, the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center, the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition, and the University of Michigan’s Water Center. The project was funded by the C.S. Mott Foundation, Joyce Foundation, Fred A. and Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation, Wege Foundation, Fund for Lake Michigan, Michigan Office of the Great Lakes, and Pennsylvania Office of the Great Lakes.