Strategies for Maximizing the Potential of Great Lakes Ports for Regional Growth
Last Updated: 07/16/14

Great Lakes maritime ports are catalysts for local and regional economic growth and “laboratories” for research and innovation to sustain the ecological health of the lakes. Typically located at the mouths of tributaries, their locations have historically been strategically important as key links in transportation networks. In recent years, the growing awareness of the importance and fragility of river-mouth ecosystems has required more careful and intentional planning around port development and related policy to minimize environmental impact.

The Seventh Federal Reserve District (Chicago) includes the majority of the geographic areas of the Great Lakes’ coastal states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. With approximately 10,900 miles of Great Lakes shore line, including two dozen deep draft commercial ports in the district, the Chicago Fed has an interest in both the physical health of the Great Lakes and the economic well-being of their port communities. The Bank recently partnered with the state of Illinois, the Great Lakes Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Council of Great Lakes Governors to host a two-day conference in Chicago to explore new approaches to promoting economic development and maximizing local maritime assets while protecting and enhancing the Great Lakes water resource.

The Great Lakes Ports and Regional Growth: Integrating Environmental Health and Economic Prosperity conference involved more than 120 participants, including representatives from port authorities and non-governmental organizations, economic development practitioners and experts in economics, regional finance, logistics and environmental protection.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration (MARAD), waterborne transport is regarded as the most efficient, safest and environmentally friendly form of moving goods. For example, a freighter can move one ton of cargo 576 miles on one gallon of fuel – the equivalent of 413 miles by train and 155 miles by truck.[1] A modal shift to water from the highly congested highway and rail corridors of Chicago, Toledo and Toronto (as well as other major regional hubs) would increase their freight handling capacity and support economic growth, while offering potential fiscal and environmental benefits.

The conference speakers focused largely on strengths and opportunities of Great Lakes ports, while illustrating the need for additional research and policy discussion on the potential impact of maritime commerce on regional economic development. The goal was to encourage dialogue among public officials, private investors, and economic and community development practitioners, and to urge them to think cooperatively about transportation plans, land use strategies and revitalization programs in communities surrounding local ports.

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